It seems as if our prayers for Sudan’s western region of Darfur may have been answered. The genocide there, which has taken the lives of hundreds of thousands and torn millions from their homes, may soon be over. Last Friday’s headlines declared that a peace agreement had finally been reached with at least some of the Darfur rebels. Encouraged by the appearance that the plundering of janjaweed and Khartoum’s troops may be over in Darfur, it is also a good moment to remember another part of Sudan that has been ravaged by genocide and jihad, and its relation to the current tragedy.
On the morning of April 29, 2006, Sudanese from all over the United States arrived in Washington, D.C. They had taken a day off from work–some even two or three–to be part of a historic reconciliation meeting of Christian and Muslim Sudanese, and then to attend the Save Darfur Coalition’s Rally to End Genocide. I was privileged to be at this meeting with my Sudanese friends as they declared their intention to stand as one against genocide, to stand as one with the people of Darfur.
On Saturday evening, the marquee on the large front lawn of the Best Western Capitol Skyline Hotel proclaimed “Welcome Sudanese!” and below that, on a small tent meant to be a model of the shelter of Darfurian refugees in Chad, a sign read “Camp Darfur.” Those of us who sat in the crowded ballroom at the Sudanese Standing Together meeting, listening to the heartfelt cries for peace and reconciliation from those who were formerly enemies, will never forget that unassuming white building.
Some in the media and in the Darfur advocacy community have criticized the southern Sudanese movement to reach out to the Darfurians. The Washington Post quoted Mohamed Ibrahim, the co-chair of the Darfur Alert Coalition, condemning Sudan Sunrise and its partner, the Sudan Council of Churches USA, for “creating a conflict by spreading the false claim that the perpetrators of the violence in southern Sudan were from Darfur.” “Violence in southern Sudan” is a dismissive reference to the two million people killed in the south and Nuba mountains in their efforts to resist Khartoum’s imposition of Islamic law and “Arabization.”
In fact, during this first phase of Sudan’s genocide, before the signing of the U.S.-brokered Comprehensive Peace Agreement between the Khartoum government and the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), many Darfurians swelled the ranks of Sudan’s army. They were conscripts, and they were African cannon-fodder for the regime in Khartoum that has always been adept at creating, to its own advantage, division between the different Sudanese peoples. The refugees from Darfur, when they meet southern Sudanese who have come to Chad to help them, ask for forgiveness from those they thought were their enemies.
There are some who are upset that the issue of forgiveness has even been raised. They think that it implies some sort of moral superiority. But this is certainly not the case here, and this misunderstanding misses the importance and necessity of forgiveness. One of the speakers at Sudanese Standing Together–a former Lost Boy–was the Reverend Abraham Nhial, who made it quite clear when he opened the meeting Saturday evening that forgiveness is not about manipulation, but about forgetting oneself for the sake of another.
“Forgiveness is costly,” Nhial declared, as he stood before hundreds of Sudanese–all of whom had brought from Sudan their own personal history of sorrow and death. Nhial explained that true forgiveness is not forgetting or denying the wrong that has been done, or saying that the wrong was something acceptable, but of putting it aside for the sake of those who are forgiven.
“You must not wait for someone to ask your forgiveness,” Nhial continued. “You must forgive even if they do not say they are sorry.”
“Who will forgive the Darfurians?” Nhial challenged, his eyes searching out particularly the southerners and Nuba around the room. And they stood, almost as one person. Nhial then asked the Darfurians to stand. As the rest of the room applauded, Nhial said, “We stand with you. We love you.”
On Sunday morning, after a worship and prayer service at the Best Western, we all marched together to the National Mall to attend the rally. As we rounded the corner and came in view of the tens of thousands who were already waiting for the rally to begin, the crowd applauded and cheered excitedly for the Sudanese. They were by far the largest contingent of Sudanese–or even Africans–attending the rally. It appeared as if most of the rally attendees had no idea whom they were cheering for.
“Are you from Darfur?” I heard one woman ask an extremely tall young Dinka from southern Sudan.
And they seemed to have little awareness of who has been the perpetrator of the genocide–both now in Darfur and the one that took place previously.
“Was it Western (U.S.?) troops that killed people in southern Sudan?” a young student asked one of the former Lost Boys.
So it was good that no section or seats had been reserved for the southern Sudanese at the rally. As they searched for a place to stand, they were able to spread among the crowd. Over and over I heard southern Sudanese telling their story of over two million people dead and five million displaced to the friendly, inquisitive Americans.
That was pretty much the extent of the mention of southern Sudan’s genocide and the attempt to eradicate the people of the Nuba Mountains. None was forthcoming from most of the rally speakers. Many of the speakers were never involved in grassroots activism for Sudan in the years of jihad waged against the south and the Nuba Mountains. Even some of those who were involved spoke of the genocide of Darfur as if it were the only time Sudanese had ever suffered in such magnitude. The Clinton administration’s National Security Council point person on Africa, Gale Smith, spoke far more forcefully about the genocide in Darfur than she ever spoke about Sudan while in office. Another speaker even framed stories of his past activism for southern Sudan as if it had been activism for Darfur.
As I took in the enormous sea of faces, the signs, the tee-shirts, the passion for the victims of genocide, and the determination to do something about it, I was torn between pride in the caring people of America and sorrow that there had never been an outpouring on this scale over the starvation, slavery, aerial bombardment, torture, and death that took place in Sudan’s first genocide.
My southern Sudanese friends seemed to have no such problem, however. They shouted “Stop the genocide in Darfur” as loudly as anyone else at the rally. They stood beside their Darfurian and northern Sudanese friends–grateful for the outpouring of support for peace in Darfur.
Now we hear there is a peace agreement. The main rebel group, the Sudanese Liberation Army, has agreed on terms with the government of Sudan. Southern Sudanese in the United States and the government of south Sudan have witnessed us spending all our political and material capital on Darfur. Now is an appropriate time to turn an eye once again to southern Sudan, and to the new government that is trying to forge a democracy out of jihad-ravaged land. As Khartoum continues playing chess with the West, using the deadly combination of the proxy militias, rebels, and its own troops to distract and preoccupy, they are always setting up their next move. If south Sudan is lost because we fail to see the next move that is coming, it will be unforgivable.
–Faith McDonnell is director of the Church Alliance for a New Sudan (CANS) at the Institute on Religion and Democracy in Washington, D.C.