'Brothers down here... are in darkness'

June 17, 1996|By GREGORY KANE

NYAMLELL, Sudan -- You have come home," Aleu Akechak Jok says to me as we stand near the dirt airstrip here. Indeed I have come home and there is a record that needs setting straight here.

I, an African-American, have come to Sudan to tell the story of this country's southern blacks to the world. Jok tells me to come to his tukul at 1 p.m.

Jok is a county commissioner in Bahr el Ghazal, a province in southern Sudan. Some half a million people live in the province, which includes 13 villages controlled by southern blacks who rebelled against the Muslim rule of the north. Five towns are controlled by the Islamic fundamentalist government. Sitting in Jok's hut, I soon find out why a tukul is the appropriate name for these circular houses with conical roofs. English speakers will be tempted to make the inevitable pun "too cool," and that's exactly what these huts are: the perfect beat-the-heat structure.

Jok is sitting behind his desk when I walk in. He rises to shake my hand and offers me a chair - one of those Dinka models with a wooden frame and a seat of intertwined goatskin strips. A lizard scampers along the far wall while a frog hops nonchalantly behind the commissioner.

Jok's physique is not typical Dinka. He is short - no more than 5 feet 8 inches - as opposed to the tall, reed-thin Dinka men we've grown accustomed to seeing. He is not fat but has a solid build and the beginnings of a pot belly. His face is hairless except for a barely discernible mustache.

I find Jok and I have a few things in common. Our age, for one. We're both 44. We're both Catholic. We both have lost a sister. I lost mine this year when she died of natural causes. But Jok lost his younger sister in 1988. She was the victim of the north's war against the south, a war that began in 1983 with the provocative and gratuitous imposition of Islamic law, known as sharia, on the entire land.

"She died on her way to the north when she was looking for food for my mother," Jok recalls, the pain still evident in his eyes. "It was a time of great famine in this area, when 280,000 people died."

His sister, seven months pregnant and anemic, caught an unknown disease and died.

His home village, Chelkou, was raided during our stay and his cousin was wounded.

Before the current war Chelkou was a virtual breadbasket for all of Aweil West County in northern Bahr el Ghazal. Fishing was bountiful, and plenty of cattle grazed. Chelkou remained such until 1995, when the fundamentalist regime in Khartoum "decided to follow a policy of wiping out people of this area for being SPLA [Sudanese People's Liberation Army] supporters," Jok says.

Chelkou suffered a similar fate in the first Sudanese civil war, which began in 1955 when southern black army officers mutinied after learning that Britain, the withdrawing colonial power, was lumping the southern provinces of Bahr el Ghazal, Equatoria and Upper Nile with the northern Arab provinces. The village was destroyed twice.

"It was the same oppression," Jok says of the first war. "Just

prior to independence, they [the British] didn't know what to do. Southern Sudan was different religiously and culturally and very much backward socially and economically." Southerners felt cheated because they were not given the choice of independence.

The first war continued until 1973, when Gaafer el Numairy, the Sudanese leader of the time, made a deal with rebels that gave the southern provinces regional autonomy. But in 1983 came the sharia. The south continued its backward economic drift, its educational system overhauled with Arabic as the prevailing language.

"It was the idea of Islamicizing and Arabizing the south," Jok says of the changes. Soon the second war for independence was on.

The history of black-Arab conflict in the Sudan extends back to at least 643 A.D., when Arab Muslim armies invaded the black Christian kingdom of Makuria. The superb archery of the black Christian armies put the Arabs to rout, but the invaders tried again 10 years later. Unable to defeat the blacks, the Arabs signed a peace treaty in which they were paid an annual tribute of slaves.

Jok says the current war isn't exactly racial or religious.

"It is a war on those who have been deliberately made backward and are oppressed," Jok claims.

Jok is fluent in Dinka, Arabic and English. He got a law degree from the University of Khartoum, where he was required to take a course in sharia as a condition of acceptance.

For the northern Sudanese, Jok asserts, "religion and the state and its laws are inseparable I under the umbrella of Arab culture."

Accepting that means southern blacks will forfeit their identity as Africans, Jok feels. He knows good things are taught in the Koran, the holy book of Islam. But he can't abide the harsher sharia penalties: stoning adulterers or lashing alcohol drinkers. Sharia also posed a dilemma for him professionally, since he used his law experience to become a judge in the south.

"Me, as a Christian judge, how do I become a sharia judge?"

When I tell him Louis Farrakhan has expressed skepticism about slavery existing in the Sudan, he looks incredulous. The look quickly changes to a smile.

"Farrakhan is promoting his Islamic ideology," Jok responds. "One of the rules of Islam is a Muslim never condemns a Muslim."

For African-Americans, he had a succinct message.

"You have brothers down here who are in darkness, who are stuck in very sticky mud. We need your moral support, material support and, if necessary, physical support to pull us out of this mess. These are people forgotten by the Christian world and by the world community. By the world which cries if one Palestinian or Bosnian civilian is killed but not one word if 100 civilians are killed in southern Sudan."

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