Diablo Views: Saving Sudan
The handsome African man spoke in correct, accented English to the folks sitting in a circle in the youth room at the Danville Congregational Church on Sunday. His words on this beautiful sunny day were surreal as they told of rape, murder and starvation in Sudan, his homeland. "As I speak right now, people are dying," said Silvestro Akara Bakhiet. He was surrounded by members of his extended family, including his parents, brothers, his wife and baby, two other little children, 13 in all. They were visiting from San Francisco to take part in the church's worship service, its after-service coffee, then lunch and this conversation.
Silvestro has been in the United States since 1997. But most of the family members only recently joined him from a refugee camp in Uganda where they found shelter after escaping from their village of Pageri in southern Sudan in 1985 during the North-South Civil War, and only recently were they all reunited. In the capital, Khartoum, he was arrested for attempting to found an English school. He eventually went to Egypt where he met an American who invited him to visit in San Francisco, then advised him to apply for political asylum. In 2000, Silvestro founded New Sudan Generation in San Francisco; it has opened a girls elementary school in southern Sudan and is planning the New Sudan Generation Resource Center.
Open warfare broke out in Darfur in early 2003 when two rebel groups attacked military installations and the government responded by supporting indiscriminate destruction and killings by the Janjaweed militia, recruited from groups of Arab extraction in Darfur and Chad. A neighbor of mine, Marilyn Hirsch, has worked since February 2005 to raise a public outcry against the atrocities. First she worked with the Jewish communities, since they have learned from the Holocaust what happens when people remain silent. Next she reached out to the Christian churches and other individuals.
In October they held a vigil in Oak Hill Park to raise awareness. "At least 450 people came, that's how many signatures we got," Marilyn said. In February they joined the National Call-In Day, which aimed at 1 million calls to the White House and members of Congress to express concern. The following week, President Bush made a statement that genocide is happening in Darfur and it has to end, said Marilyn. This was an important first step - getting our government to realize there is a problem. In April, a vigil rally drew 50,000-70,000 in Washington, D.C., and 15,000 in San Francisco. At this event, Marilyn and her friend Deena Levine met Silvestro and put him in touch with the Danville Congregational Church, which is known for its outreach and social action.
Silvestro spoke Sunday of the suffering of his family - his 16-year-old sister shot to death by army troops as she hid under the bed, his father's brother shot to death in his house, his 50-year-old aunt raped to the point of death. "That is the pain we had," he said of his family. "Yet I see others' pain and know mine was nothing compared to theirs." He said the people in Sudan are friendly and honest, and love each other despite religious differences, and the government in Khartoum must give them their rights. Millions are at risk of rape, murder and starvation, after the destruction of towns, food and water supplies. There are no roads between the north and the south, Silvestro said, and even government officials live in tents. Some 400,000 civilians have been killed in the violence; 2.5 million have been displaced; and 3.5 million are hungry, according to the U.N. and the Coalition for International Justice. Ten thousand are dying every month. Silvestro said other African countries are dealing with their own problems so he hopes NATO can help. He would also like to see groups, such as the church, sponsor a water project for at least one village, to help build a peaceful life; and a school for at least one village, to raise future leaders. One of his brothers added that medical help is also needed.
Deena was at the lunch, as was the Rev. Laura Barnes, associate minister of the Danville Congregational Church. There was an older man who had served in equatorial Africa during World War II, as well as a young woman who had gone to Africa on her honeymoon last year. After our visit, we all walked out onto the church grounds and stood under the trees. Silvestro and his good-looking family obligingly posed for photos and expressed thanks for the visit. The two little children dashed around as children will after sitting still, and the little girl shook my hand with a shy smile. I am so glad this family has escaped the death and destruction. But what about the others?
How to help
* E-mail Marilyn Hirsch at email@example.com to be on a Sudan activist e-mail list for future events.
* Gather postcard signatures for a million voices for Darfur; go to www.millionvoicesfordarfur.org and click on "get postcards."
* Call the president every week at (202) 456-1111 or e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org and ask him to work within the United Nations for a multinational, humanitarian intervention to protect the people of Darfur.
* Learn more at www.newsudangeneration.org.