Through the eyes of a Victim

Imagine coming home from work to find your neighborhood destroyed, your parents gone, your home in ruins. What would you do? Where would you go?Thousands of Sudanese children faced that unthinkable scenario in the mid-1980s at the outbreak of the second Sudanese CivilWar. Returning from working in the fields, these “Lost Boys” as they came to be known, went home to ransacked villages, dead bodies and confusion.Not knowing where else to turn, many fled to neighboring Ethiopia. Eventually, a select few found their way to the United States through aid groups like the International Rescue Committee (IRC).A small population of students who attend the University of Vermont call Sudan home, many hoping to return there one day. These students, refugees of their native country, attend UVM in hopes of completing an education that will someday help them make a difference in their own lives and those of children currently living in Sudan.Third year student Atem Deng is one of seven Sudanese natives who attend the University of Vermont. He came to the United States from southern Sudan when he was 19-years-old as part of an IRC programthat brought 4,000 Sudanese to the U.S. forthe chance at an education.The IRC held interviews with the thousands of refugees, with only one fifth of the 20,000 applicants accepted to come to the U.S.”You had to write your life story, and if you passed the interview then you were allowed to come to the United States,” Dengsaid.Deng was separated from his parents in 1987 at age 6, around when the second Civil War began. At the beginning of the conflict, Deng was driven from his home village to a refugee camp in Ethiopia, where he resided for four years. In 1992, the evacuees were driven out of the Ethiopian camp due to local Civil Warand forced to make their way back through Sudan to Kenya.The harrowing journey to Kenya was filled with dangers unknown in even the grittiest of refugee camps. After walking hundreds of miles, 10-year-old Deng and the mass of refugees were held up at the flooded Gilo River, and each day that their journey was postponed the threat of enemy assaults loomed. Deng and the other refugees waited in the tall grass of the African bush for the water level to decrease so they could make it across.Many of the refugees did not know how to swim, but it came down to the choice of attempting to cross the river or dying at thehands of the adversary. Some drowned, others were killed by crocodiles. A numberwere simply massacred – shot mercilesslyby enemies waiting on the riverbanks.Deng was one of the fortunate who made it across the river safely, eventually arriving in Kenya where he remained in a U.N. camp for nine years.While pursuing an education at the U.N. refugee camps, Deng not only faced the challenge of staying alive despite enemy pursuits, but also a lack of both food and water and the fear of dangerous animals that live in the regions.The refugee camp in Kenya was located in the desert area of Kakuma, and while U.N provisions were limited, water was scarcest. Death was a constant companion in the camp with people dying nightly, Deng said.Those living in the Kakuma camp also had to be wary of Kenyan natives who would sneak into camp at night to raid U.N. supplies.”They didn’t have enough food themselves, and if you tried to stop them they would kill you,” Deng said.Deng lived in Kenya until 2001, when he was able to move to the United States with the help of the IRC program. When Deng was accepted to come to the United States, he came directly to Vermont – the Green Mountain state having been randomly selected by the IRC as his new home.The Sudanese who moved to the U.S. had no say in where they were to live, and many were unaware of the immensity of the country.”You couldn’t choose where you were going to be,” Deng said. “Whether it was in California, or here in Vermont. None of usknew what it was going to look like.”Upon arriving in Vermont, Deng quickly began working his way towards attaining a bachelor’s degree in social work.When this is accomplished, he plans on continuing work with an organization that he helped bring to UVM: the New Sudan Education Initiative (NESEI), whose ultimate goal is to build schools for southern Sudanese children.”All of these things like hospitals and schools that human beings need to live are not there,” Deng said. “Building schools is another way to bring peace to Sudan.”Last year, when the group was initially formed, it attended a conference in Washington, D.C. to outline specific goals and plan the projects that would aid it in the funding for the schools.”It’s not something that can be done by only two or three people,” Deng said. “It’s something that necessitates a lot of involvement from both friends and Sudanese.”Currently, NESEI is planning two efforts to substantially increase their supportand funding, and to spread the word about the problems facing Sudan.The first method uses letter writing to increase awareness of the initiative’s efforts by telling the story of the Sudanese plight. By writing to their friends and family, students from UVM and St. Michael’s College hope to raise donations for schools in Sudan.The second, called the 100 Churches Project, aims to raise money by having Sudanese from around the country share their stories at local churches. Deng hopes that by pursuing funding at a local level, the group will be able to develop strong connections within the communities that they reach.”The big thing now is how the NESEI project can be something that we can work for to better the lives of the Sudanese,” Deng said. While southern Sudan focuses on rebuilding, the country at large has become engulfed by the festering destruction in the western region of Darfur.Officially labeled genocide by the U.S. – though not, startlingly, by the United Nations – the Sudanese government has been waging war against its native people and committing ethnic cleansing.”These two groups, they have the same culture, the same beliefs and everything,” Deng said of the two conflicting parties, who are primarily Muslim. “It’s just the color. They’re different colors.”The crisis in Darfur contributes to a national conflict that has been present inSudan since the first Civil War began in 1955.The genocide has developed despite peace agreements between the warring northern and southern parts of Sudan in late 2005.The mercenary group Janjaweed, alleged by local accounts to have been hired by the government, have transcended civil war and run amok in Darfur.Deng believes that there is no easy solution to the complicated situation in Darfur. Unlike the Sudanese civil wars, which raged between the Muslim North and the predominately Christian South, the Darfur genocide has nothing to do with religion.”It’s sad,” Deng said. “But what can you say to them? What can you do to them?”If you ask President Bush, ‘what are you going to do about it?’ he has no answer,” Deng said. “Same with Kofi Annan. If you ask him … he has no answer.”Deng said that the U.N. has two viable options in dealing with the crisis: methodically removing the current regime, or giving the civilians a chance at finding an education elsewhere.”The bad news is people call it genocide, but they don’t do anything,” he said.Deng’s life is much brighter than it was ten years ago. Last year, he returned to Sudan to reunite with his parents whom he had not seen in 17 years.While his father is currently still in Sudan, his mother is living in the bordering country of Uganda for the time being.His trip home shed light on the current situation in Sudan, which is beginning to hold the promise of a cessation of conflict.The Comprehensive Peace Agreemen, signed by the Sudan People’s Liberation Army and the Sudanese government in December of last year, was an important step towards healing a wounded region.Deng realizes how lucky he truly is, not only to have been able to come to America, but also for the opportunity to return to his war-torn home. “Everyone is trying to go back to the homeland,” Deng said. “They are starting to build a new foundation.”