Ben Lynfield in Jerusalem – As a nine year old slave in Sudan, human rights activist Simon Deng’s masters beat him if he did not answer loudly when they called him.
”They would beat me for not saying yes loudly enough.” he recalled.”So yes became the only word I knew.” He spoke late last week during a break in his last ditch efforts to persuade the Israeli government to cancel, or at least postpone, plans to forcibly return 700 South Sudanese refugees as of Sunday April 1.
Mr. Deng, who lives in New York, has been a leading voice in the US on behalf of the newly independent country of South Sudan and against the abuses of the northern Sudanese regime. He took up the cause of the 700 after receiving appeals from South Sudanese in Israel worried about their family’s safety, livelihood and future if they are forced now to return to a country wracked by inter-tribal warfare, lack of schools, jobs and housing and a worsening food crisis. According to the World Food Program, it is estimated that nearly five million out of nine million South Sudanese ”will struggle to provide food for themselves this year,” of which more than a million are estimated to be ”extremely food insecure.”
Valerie Amos, a UN emergency relief coordinator concluded last month after a visit to South Sudan that ”the situation in the country is extremely precarious and the risk of a dangerous decline is very real.”
Deng, on his fifth visit to Israel, said:”As a friend I am saying to the government of Israel, give these people a chance, give them a year or fifteen months, so that they can work on the transition and prepare themselves to move” to South Sudan.
In October, citing ”ongoing armed conflict and extraordinary and temporary conditions” in South Sudan, the American government extended its temporary protected status for nationals of the new country through May, 2013. But the efforts of Israeli human rights groups to persuade Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government to do likewise have thus far been ignored and South Sudanese in Israel, who include four hundred children, report recently being refused visa extensions and consequently losing their jobs and health insurance.
Asked about assertions by critics, including leading writers Amoz Oz and David Grossman, that deportation would endanger the 700, Mr. Netanyahu’s spokesman, Mark Regev, responded: ”All the issues will be looked at but Israel is a small country of less than eight million and it is too small to be the solution for Sudan and South Sudan’s problems.”Citing government figures that 17,000 African asylum seekers crossed illegally into Israel last year through Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, he added: ”We are a first world economy in walking distance from some of the poorest countries in the world and we have to be able to control our borders.”
Israel announced in January that South Sudanese would no longer be allowed to stay now that they have their own country and offered to pay one thousand Euros for each person willing to leave voluntarily by March 31. To Mr. Deng, 53, that move was surprising in light of South Sudan’s having demonstrated its friendship for Israel, including by announcing it would establish an embassy in Jerusalem.
Mr. Deng,a Christian, now 53, was helped to escape from slavery at age 12 by a fellow member of his Shilluk tribe. However, the experience has stayed with him. He channels the trauma into his activism, giving, he says ”a voice to the voiceless”.
Even seeing the word slavery in print traumatises him, he said.
”I was kidnapped from my family by my neighbors, Moslem Arabs, and given by them to a friend as a gift,”he recalled. ”The gift was a human being.”
He said one of his main tasks was to carry water drawn from the Nile river, something normally performed by donkeys.”I was threatened after being beaten and tortured that if I think of trying to run away I won’t have a place to go and they will capture me and cut my legs off.” he said.
”For three and a half years I ate the leftovers of the family. You chew any bone you can get.” he added.
Mr. Deng was granted political asylum by the US in 1990 and thought he had left his past behind him when in 1998 he saw a newspaper headline describing how human beings were sold into slavery in Sudan for ten dollars. This impelled him into becoming an activist against slavery and the Khartoum regime. In 2006 he staged a Freedom Walk from UN headquarters in New York to Capitol Hill in Washington, DC to shed light on Sudanese human rights violations and raise awareness of the Darfur genocide. In 2010, he again walked the 250 miles from New York to Washington, DC, this time to lobby the Obama administration to ensure that the referendum on South Sudan’s independence, which was later overwhelmingly approved, would be held in a fair and free manner.
Of the 700 South Sudanese slated for deportation, Mr. Deng says: ”It looks like time is running out but I’m always optimistic. I believe it’s not too late till it’s too late.” But Haaretz newspaper reported Tuesday that Israel’s ambassador to South Sudan met in recent days with top government leaders there to coordinate the deportations.
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