Massacres teach early lessons to Sudanese child

September 01, 1996|By Gregory Kane

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. - Rafael Abiem hails from Abyei, the northernmost village in the southern Sudan. But these days he makes Watertown, a quiet, picturesque section of Cambridge, his home.

He greets me with a wave and a smile outside his house on a mild, mid-August Saturday afternoon. He invites me in and, in the tradition of Sudanese hospitality, offers me a beverage: hot tea.

I decline, marveling, as I did in Bahr el-Ghazal, at how the Sudanese could drink hot tea even in hot weather. I take a seat on his living room couch and listen to his story of growing up in Arab-dominated Sudan - a tale that gets grislier the more I learn about it. Abiem's yarn starts mildly enough.

"As a child I was forced into Islam," he says. "My older brother was also forced into Islam and was later assassinated by the Arabs." The forced conversions were of a subtle nature. In each southern village a three-man committee - the village chief, the headmaster of the elementary school and a Catholic priest - would sit waiting for fathers to bring their children to decide which school they would attend.

The headmaster in such cases is usually a Muslim from the north. The chief asks each father which school he would like his children to attend. If the father chooses the Muslim school, the student leaves the tent on the right (which symbolizes righteousness), where dates and a change of clothes awaited them, signifying their entrance into Islam. If the father chooses the Catholic school, the student leaves on the left and gets nothing. The Muslim schools are open on Sundays, when Christian children attend church. Christian students who have chosen Islamic schools are often late for school on Sundays and given five lashes for their infraction.

Not much of a tale, so far, I think to myself. This doesn't sound exactly like "forced" Islamization to me, merely a form of mild coercion. But forced conversion was the least worry that Abiem had as a child.

He remembers October of 1964, when a spate of mob violence killed dozens of southern Sudanese in Khartoum. The incidents at the towns of El Muglad and Baba Nousa are also etched deeply in his memory.

"Hundreds of Dinkas [in those two towns] were assembled in government buildings for protection. They were burned alive by police and a northern mob," Abiem, himself a Dinka, charges. The three incidents drove him, still a boy, into the ranks of the first southern Sudanese rebel movement.

"I did effectively participate in the war at the age of 9," Abiem recalls. "It was a conscious political choice that I leave my mother and father and family behind and join the movement." He remembers strapping a bag filled with 2,000 Sudanese pounds on his back and walking from Abyei across the border with Zaire, where rebel Sudanese had their base.

"I was the banker for the movement," Abiem says. The 1,000-mile journey took some two to three months. Two members of the 20-soldier contingent that accompanied him were killed.

His sojourn with the rebel movement ended when an uncle hog-tied him and forced him to return to school. He finished high school and then attended the University of Khartoum, where he studied law. His studies in the north taught him a graphic lesson in how northerners view southerners.

"You're walking along, proud of yourself, and a northern woman would open the door and ask, 'Would you come clean my bathroom, slave?' Because they thought that's all southerners can do." Northerners routinely call southerners slaves, Abiem charges.

Such racism led to his brother Mark's death on May 15, 1977. The elder Abiem, a history professor, had returned to the Sudan from London to investigate reports of slavery. He was riding in a truck with a police escort from Abyei to El Muglad. Walking along were some 80 Dinkas, making a seasonal trek south. At one point the escort gave a signal, and "the carnage started," Abiem charges. A waiting mob of northerners set on the Dinkas. It was Mark's elementary school teacher - a Muslim from the north - who fired the shot that killed him.

The police involvement was a replay of the 1964 massacres in El JTC Muglad and Baba Nousa.

"In all cases," Abiem says, "the police were instrumental in making it easy" for the mobs. He took his brother's death not with bitterness, but with a philosophical reflection about the fate of his people.

"I took it in the larger perspective: My brother is dying for something which is going to kill us all if we don't fight ferociously," says Abiem, who has just completed his studies for a master of divinity degree from Harvard.

Minister Rodney of the Boston Nation of Islam mosque calling him a handkerchief head bothered him not one bit.

"People choose masters, especially if they are born to accept slavery," Abiem muses. "The people of Louis Farrakhan, having disowned their traditional master - the white man - have chosen a master they do not know. What makes the conflict between [us] inevitable is that I know their masters."

Pub Date: 9/01/96

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