To Darfur, with love

Davis and Woodland join the fight against genocide in Sudan

Sometime Davis resident Lako Tongun escaped the Sudanese civil war in 1962. He says the sheer numbers of deaths in Darfur have earned that conflict the title of “genocide.”

Sometime Davis resident Lako Tongun escaped the Sudanese civil war in 1962. He says the sheer numbers of deaths in Darfur have earned that conflict the title of “genocide.”

Courtesy Of Lako Tongun

Is it genocide or not? Does it really matter what we call the atrocities being committed today in the Sudanese province of Darfur—a Texas-sized swath along the east side of Africa’s largest country that’s set smack in the middle of the Arab and African divide of the continent?

Though it has called for 51 Sudanese to be tried in the International Criminal Court for serious violations of human rights, the United Nations stopped short of calling the slaughter in Darfur genocide. The United Nations says the killing lacks the requisite “intent” contained in the definition of genocide: “the systematic and planned extermination of an entire national, racial, political, or ethnic group.” The international community isn’t in agreement over what to call it. The United States stands alone in calling it “genocide.”

In Darfur—where nearly everyone is Muslim—the attacks are not based on religion. But ethnic identification comes into play, with government-backed attacks by Arab Janjaweed—literally “devils on horseback”—fighters targeting rebels who claim African identity. That’s why Lako Tongun, an associate professor of international and intercultural studies at Claremont’s Pitzer College and a recognized expert on Sudan and the situation in Darfur, said the conflict deserves the name “genocide.”

Tongun, who teaches in Southern California but spends summers in Davis, says the sheer numbers alone have to matter. It’s unlikely that a true picture of the slaughter will emerge until after the fighting stops, but estimates are that anywhere from 200,000 to 400,000 have been killed in Darfur since the conflict erupted in early 2003. Another 2.5 million have been driven from their homes into refugee camps inside that Sudanese province and in neighboring Chad.

Regardless of what it’s called, the crisis mobilized an interfaith group in Davis and Woodland to raise money to feed 110,000 refugees—equal to the combined populations of the two Yolo County cities—for one day. It costs only 16 cents to feed a refugee in Darfur for a day.

That makes the goal of the “Dear Sudan, Love Davis/Woodland” project $17,500. And on May 21, the grassroots organization raised $1,000 at a fair for Darfur in Davis, while nearby Cesar Chavez Elementary School raised another $1,000.

Americans are generous in their personal support, and the U.S. government is the No. 1 supplier of food to refugees in Darfur. Those efforts have been frustrated by the Sudanese government, which has blocked delivery of supplies to refugee camps and thus used starvation as a key tool of its genocide. Humanitarian workers have been attacked also.

America strengthened its support early this year by calling for U.N. peacekeeping troops to take over from African Union observers. And just last month, the president asked Congress for another $225 million in emergency food aid for Darfur.

Could the United States do more? Tongun thinks it could, if it were not for the “politics of cynicism” created by the war in Iraq. He’s open about his “disappointment” over the lack of action from Europe and the rest of the international community.

Courtesy Of Lako Tongun

The causes of the conflict are complex and decades old, with the Arab nomads and African farmers both fighting for economic and political control.

It was the Sudanese government’s efforts in the 1960s to establish an Islamic state in its rulers’ image that forced Tongun to begin a five-year odyssey—traveled largely on foot—from his home in Juba in Southern Sudan to Uganda, to the Congo, back to Uganda, then on to Kenya, and ultimately to California.

After the government switched the national day of rest from Sunday to Friday and made other changes to align the country with Islamic principles, Tongun organized a strike at his Catholic school in protest. Hunted by government forces for his role in leading the strike, the 14-year-old joined with six other boys and fled the country on November 22, 1962. Tongun’s parents would not learn whether he was alive or dead for another five years.

The boys walked the 300 miles of the initial leg of their journey in seven days, crossing the border into Uganda without passports. They were arrested and jailed for three days without food. A sympathetic wife urged her Ugandan husband to free the boys. But fearing deportation by Uganda, the boys fled in the night into the Congo. They returned the next day, however, when news reached them that the government had rescinded its order to send the refugees back to Sudan.

Life in a Ugandan refugee camp wasn’t as harsh as on the road. Still, it was tough. Meals were a thin gruel with so few beans that they boys joked about going “fishing for them in salted water.” A lack of vitamins caused night blindness that sent them bumping into each other when they’d try to find the toilet in the dark. Later, Tongun was lucky to be sent to school, but he found himself exploited by families that housed him who forced him to rise early each morning and pick coffee for just a few schillings.

He fled to Kenya, where he was able to finish secondary school and met a couple from Berkeley who paid his school fees and then brought him to the United States after he passed his final exams. He graduated from St. Mary’s College in Berkeley and earned master’s degrees and a doctorate from UC Davis. He’s been a professor of international and intercultural studies at Pitzer College in Claremont for the past 17 years. He’s now a recognized expert on Sudan and Darfur.

Today, Tongun jokes that he’s one of the original “Lost Boys of Sudan,” a name that was given 25 years later to thousands of boys between the ages of 7 and 17 who in 1987 began fleeing forced conscription in the civil war that divided Sudan into north and south until a peace agreement was reached in January 2005.

It’s going to require U.N. troops to enforce the peace and resettle refugees on agricultural land in Darfur, which Tongun said has been taken over by nomads for grazing their herds and stripped bare of landmarks that would help them find villages obliterated by the Janjaweed’s attacks. The United Nations is gearing up to send 20,000 troops into Darfur by September to enforce a peace agreement signed on May 5 by the largest of the three main rebel groups, but so far the Sudanese government has not agreed to receive the peacekeepers.

Activists urge Americans to keep up political and economic pressure on Sudan to allow the peacekeepers to come in. The act of putting the label of “genocide” on what’s happening in Darfur in itself applies significant pressure. “It puts other countries on the spot,” Tongun said. “It means [they] must hold Sudan responsible.”

They say Americans can also help by urging their representatives to act, supporting divestitures of investments in Sudan as some universities and states have done and raising their voices.

Actor-director George Clooney raised his voice last month, bringing celebrity attention to the issue and calling on people in America and around the world to help by telling the people of Darfur that “it matters that much to us, that it’s that important to us” to stop the killing.

It worked to end Apartheid in South Africa, Tongun told the 100 or so people who listened to him speak at the Darfur Fair on May 21. “I’d like to borrow an idea from [Bishop] Desmond Tutu in mobilizing people to act against the genocide in Darfur: ‘My humanity is bound up in yours, for we can only be human together.’”