Southern Sudan famine demands action

May 17, 1998|By GREGORY KANE

READ 'EM and weep, the saying among poker players goes. In poker, the weeping is fake and comic.

Read it and weep. In this case, the weeping should be literal. But read Gil Lewthwaite's story in today's paper on the impending famine in Sudan and, if you can't weep, at least feel some empathy for the people of southern Sudan.

Lewthwaite and I were in Sudan two years ago, buying the freedom of two slaves and doing an article on how slavery still exists in that country. In addition to buying the freedom of Garang Deng Kuot and his brother, Akok Deng Kuot, and reuniting both boys with their father, we talked to several other people who said they had been kidnapped and forced into slavery but escaped. We met with the commissioner of West Aweil County, Aleu Akechak Jok. He was short, solid, had a slight potbelly and an automatic pistol strapped to his waist. Our interpreter was a slender Dinka named Joseph Akok.

Lewthwaite returned to southern Sudan several weeks ago to do the article on the famine. His plane landed in a place called Akon. There, sitting under a tree, were an emaciated Jok and our interpreter. They had fled West Aweil County along with thousands of other refugees. Sudanese government troops and members of the Popular Defense Force -- the Arab militia responsible, our witnesses said, for kidnapping so many into slavery -- invaded and overran the county. But facing starvation and an enemy capable of endless resupply from Arab allies throughout the Middle East, the Dinkas of Bahr al-Ghazal fight on.

The news hit me like the death of a loved one. Jok and the interpreter had escaped, but what about the others? What about Garang and Akok? Were they still alive? Had they escaped or been captured and returned to the bondage they had known for six years of their young lives? What of their father, Deng Kuot Mayen, who was so happy to get his sons back, he said, because he was the first in many generations to lose children in a slave raid?

"Overran the county," Lewthwaite said of government and PDF forces. I thought of the words of John Mangok, a 6-foot-5-inch Dinka who was a mere shrimp compared with his famous cousin, former National Basketball Association player Manute Bol. Standing in the Nuba Mountains toward the end of our journey, Mangok told me exactly what he felt was the agenda of the Arab Muslim north toward the people of Bahr al-Ghazal.

"They want our land and the extermination of the Dinka people," Mangok said. Between war and famine, the Arab north just might achieve that goal as the world sits idly by and does nothing.

"What can we do?" concerned callers asked soon after the Sun series, "Witness to Slavery," appeared in June 1996. Pitifully little, I'm afraid. I urged people to send what southern Sudanese had begged for most. Not food, although even then they were starving. Not guns, although even then they were outgunned.

Books, magazines, pens, notebooks -- any kind of educational material. That's what they craved most. But they're at war. And the recent battle for West Aweil County proved the military adage that greater firepower tends to defeat lesser firepower. Nothing short of a United Nations military intervention will save the Dinkas now.

That won't happen. The scores of concerned folks who called in notwithstanding, the fact is most of us here in the West don't give a damn. In the days after "Witness to Slavery" appeared, a book agent called, convinced it would make a compelling nonfiction work. America's book publishers thought differently.

"It really wouldn't work well as a book," they insisted. Translation: It wouldn't make us any money because it wouldn't sell well, and who cares about the wretched blacks of the southern Sudan anyway?

Well, not American blacks, for whom the blacks of southern Sudan are just a little too black for our tastes. Since "Witness to Slavery" appeared, dozens of African-American state legislators have traveled to Sudan at the urging of the Schiller Institute, a group affiliated with political extremist Lyndon LaRouche. No slavery existed in Sudan, they proclaimed, although none of them had the guts to go to Bahr al-Ghazal and talk to the people there.

You won't see Jesse Jackson getting involved. There's no photo op, no chance to get his kisser on the cover of Newsweek. The Organization of African Unity, which is supposed to handle such matters, has been as ineffectual in the case of Sudan as it has been in the case of Rwanda.

But something needs to be done, and quickly. Jackson, as a Christian minister, should make himself useful and offer his services as a mediator in the second Sudanese civil war, which is in its 15th year. Louis Farrakhan and W. D. Mohammed, two black American Muslim clergymen, should join him in the effort. A mediation attempt by this trio might be what's needed to heal the rift between Sudan's Christian south and Muslim north.

Pub Date: 5/17/98

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