Refugees of civil war struggle for a new start

Sudanese: Despite years of violence, they remain hopeful of returning to a peaceful homeland.

August 23, 2004|By Kelly Brewington | Kelly Brewington,SUN STAFF

Sitting on the grass at a picnic ground on a humid afternoon at Gunpowder Falls State Park, a dozen Sudanese women sipped a potent brew, made from green, unroasted coffee beans.

Although temperatures soared into the 90s, they drank the traditional coffee from shot-glass-size porcelain cups with ease, relishing the taste of home.

Along with their husbands and new friends, they were among about 75 members of the Baltimore area's Sudanese community who gathered for a picnic organized by a caseworker with Dundalk-based Tressler Refugee and Immigration Services. The agency, an arm of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services, has resettled about 30 Sudanese families in Baltimore since 2000.

They are refugees of Sudan's seemingly endless cycle of violence - fortunate enough to have fled from a long-raging civil war, but still haunted by its horrors.

Today, the latest flash point for the violence is the country's western Darfur region. Since January last year, when two non-Arab African groups rebelled against the Arab-dominated government, at least 30,000 people have died in an area roughly the size of Texas. Arab-backed militias known as the Janjaweed have targeted civilians who belong to the same ethnic groups as the rebels.

About 1.2 million black Africans have been left homeless by the strife, which is rooted in a struggle over political power, land and water.

It is the latest upheaval to rock Africa's largest nation, where a decades-long civil war has killed 2 million people.

At the park, Baltimore's Sudanese compared struggles of starting over. They consisted of Muslims and Christians from all over Sudan and with varied opinions on the current crisis.

Akube Ndoromo stared at Angelos Agok across the chess board, plotting his next move. They both fought against the Khartoum government as part of the Sudanese People's Liberation Army. But they have different opinions of Sudan's struggle.

"These conflicts are 10 years old, it's nothing new," said Ndoromo, whose left thigh is scarred by a gunshot wound from a battle in 1989. "We have only ourselves to blame for not solving it."

But Agok believes in the fight. He hopes to obtain a bachelor's degree in economics and return to Sudan to help rebuild a country that is no longer dominated by one group.

"I don't feel relieved here because my duty is not finished," he said. "We want to see a change in the system and a change among the people. We want people to be proud to be Sudanese."

He arrived in the United States in 2000, aided by Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services. Today he works for the agency, resettling other Sudanese refugees, who he knows have no option but to flee.

"I had no choice but to leave," he said. "If I stayed there, I would have been killed. People were being killed like animals in the street. My uncle was one of them."

Although the roots of the conflict in Sudan are complicated, many refugees blame "Arabization," the government-led campaign to outlaw many tribal customs, such as replacing indigenous languages with Arabic.

In a country that is multireligious and multiethnic, such an effort has come with resistance and violence from many sides for decades.

"The government is promoting an agenda in the name of Islam and that doesn't reflect the true sentiment of the religion," said Mohamed Ahmed, who is Muslim, and who left Sudan in 1971 to study chemistry at the University of Michigan. "The people in power are appealing to emotional instincts instead of what's rational."

A peaceful Sudan can only exist if the government guarantees equality for all, said Ahmed, who teaches community college chemistry. "People are being programmed, but they only want to be accepted," he said.

Many of the women at the park had just met each other, but they quickly learned they had shared pain. Husbands kidnapped by militia and hauled to notorious murder chambers. Children starved to death. Wells poisoned with bloody bodies. Family members missing in the ensuing chaos.

Amelia Kwaje, who arrived in Baltimore three months ago, described her perilous escape from Sudan's bloodshed with a passionless voice and weary eyes.

Dryly, she recounted: Her father was shot and killed. Her husband, killed. Her baby, died of starvation.

"When the militia came, there were massive killings," she said through a translator. "We lost everything."

After the militia massacred Kwaje's family in 1992, she fled to Khartoum, the capital. After years in a resettlement camp, a friend helped smuggle her across Sudan's northern boarder into Egypt in 2000.

Years of civil war have sent refugees such as Kwaje to surrounding countries and across the globe. About 200,000 Sudanese refugees have fled to Chad and many others to Kenya and Egypt for temporary relief.

The United States, with an application process that can take years, has settled 17,763 Sudanese refugees between 1983 and 2001, according to the Office of Refugee Resettlement in the Department of Health and Human Services.

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