« Highway of Heroes: An Open Letter to David Miller | Main | God's Name is Celia »
Thursday
Apr012010

They Have a Dream

They Have a Dream

Over five years, the BPFNA’s work with the Swedish Fellowship of Reconciliation (SweFOR) and the Sudanese Organisation for Non-violence and Development (SONAD) has issued in more than 110 graduates of a training-of-trainers in conflict transformation. This article recounts the stories of some of those graduates, who are members of the organisation they founded in 2006, the Sudanese Non-violence Forum.

The Khartoum Monitor carries news of yesterday’s attack on an Army Base in North Darfur by one of the rebel groups – to which the military responded with an air attack on nearby villages, the dead not yet counted. The ceasefire in a brutal war of attrition that has left 2.5 million homeless and at least 350,000 dead, enjoys the respect of neither side. The government is once again escalating the violence, targetting humanitarian aid efforts, hoping perhaps to present a status quo of permanent destruction prior to further UNAMID deployment in the months leading up to national elections. President Omar al-Bashir chafes under his indictment by the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity, throwing tantrums that reach across the peripheries of this war-torn land.

The early morning is gloriously cool; it is Friday and the streets are deserted. Veterans of earlier trainings begin to filter in and the storytelling begins. This is not the death-defying work of humanitarian aid workers attempting to deliver food, shelter and medical care to the displaced, desperate and dying. This is the history-defying, social norm-, cultural-, religious- and warrior-defying work of non-violence training. The participants have taken risky journeys to get here, as the edges of multiple conflicts overlap and spread across the map of this country.

The 110 people we have trained have themselves trained more than 20,000 Sudanese from 69 tribes across the country. Saleh continues his work with the SPLMi membership, doing his bit to coax it out of warrior mode and into governance mode. Isaac, assistant to Riek Machar, South Sudan’s Vice President, is working with the members of the new South Sudan Parliament; he is also Juba’s mediating envoy to talks between the Ugandan government and the Lord’s Resistance Army. Light tells us that the University of Khartoum now implements a SONAD-inspired non-violence course for people from all regions, tribes and religions across Sudan, in schools, villages and in the capital. Others are training police who will be deployed as monitors in all 26 states as the elections approach.

I have a dream, one says, consciously quoting Martin Luther King – that someday there will be a Sudan chapter to A Force More Powerful that will tell the story of the Sudanese Non-Violence Forum, who challenged the course of history, tradition and culture to bring about radical, non-violent change in centuries-old systems of oppression and inter-tribal, inter-religious, hostility and warfare.

Mufeeda tells a story of the recent census in Darfur. In an attempt to persuade the reluctant to participate, four women, including Mufeeda, were designated to carry out the census in the IDP camp on the western edges of El Fashur. Driven from their homes over the years by alternating waves of violence at the hands of the Sudanese air force, the government’s out-sourced violence, the janjawiid, and the responding violence of the rebel movements – the people were suspicious. A census can only mean one thing: counting the numbers of boys still remaining in the camp, ripening for recruitment.

The people were afraid of the police who were to ‘guard’ the census-takers; they were, after all, the same men who, with a group of soldiers, killed their children. ‘We’ll let you count us,’ they agreed, ‘as long as the police do not enter our houses!’ Mufeeda spoke for the community: the armed men could accompany the women into the market place, but they had to stay out of their houses; the questions would not be asked and answered in the presence of the police.

Still, more than two million Darfurians remain uncounted, invisible, absent from the voters’ rolls.

They role-play out what they learned about rules: there’s nothing not up for interrogation – whether in church or mosque, the street or school, the marketplace or the kitchen: who wrote the rules? who benefits from the rules? if only a select few, only one gender, one race, one class, one tribe, one village or region and not another – then maybe this is a rule that needs to be questioned, changed, broken. Identifying those oppressive aspects of our landscape that have been normalised into invisibility, that need ‘problematising’, bringing to consciousness the contours of the problem and then finding those ways and places where non-violent self- and other-affirming dissent, rule-breaking and change can be brought to birth – this this is what we are doing here.

Wahaba recalls one set of rules that invariably encounters intransigence: gender – with both women and men insisting that they have their role and it is ordained from forever: bearers and nurturers of children, cooks and searchers after water, fuel and food; rulers, warriors, protectors, herders, soldiers. Rule-breaking stories emerge: wives and daughters challenging their father’s and husband’s gendered assignments for them in life, their marginalisation, their refusal to raise warrior sons, their dissent from their role as mute recipients of the beatings expected of a diligent and loving husband.

Over tea later, when I ask her about her wedding plans, the overtly husband-hunting Wahaba tells me the engagement is off. ‘Of course, once we’re married, you’ll drop all of this activist rubbish,’ he had told her. ‘And so I had to choose.’

Luka, a teacher and a Christian, talks of a remarkable invitation to do training during Ramadan in a Muslim community in Western Kordofan. Tall, lanky, with a mobile face and a body that seems to have more springs than joints, Luka asked the participants in the workshop, 'What is love? We all talk about it, but what is it? Why is it that we prepare so much more efficiently for war than for peace?'  He spoke about non-violence in the Bible; the participants responded with verses from the Qur’an about love of neighbour.

The next day, Luka began with: 'Why do we beat our children?'  'Because otherwise, they will be savages,' their parents assert. 'Who knows what they would do if we didn’t beat them into submission?'  Sulafa, a child psychologist who encounters the children who have become the soft targets of their war-broken fathers’ impotence and rage, adds: ‘They often suffer broken bones as well as broken hearts. They learn early the language of violence, that coercion and the threat of a beating is the only way to get them to show up to class. But a child beaten today’, she says, ‘will grow up to beat someone else, their children, their partner, their neighbour, the stranger. It never ends. At some point you just have to stop.’

With another dam planned for the Kajbar, at the Nile’s second cataract, Rashaad has organised thousands of his fellow Nubians to protest the latest chapter in a miserable history of displacement and destruction – of their history, their antiquities, their land and their living. The Committee to Rescue the Kajbar organised simultaneous demonstrations in Khartoum and at Tagab, the site of the proposed dam. At Tagab, thousands gathered peacefully to demonstrate, eventually making their way to the Nile. As they approached the river, a phalanx of armed men on horseback appeared over the hill on the other side like a scene from a spaghetti western, opening fire, first with tear gas – which sent them running for the river to wash the sting from their eyes – and then with bullets, wounding dozens and killing one young man from the village.ii In Khartoum, Rashaad was arrested and tortured, imprisoned for nine days without charge.

Shortly after Arig, a young Muslim physician, completed the training, Light asked her to accompany him to Abiyei, an area of tension and heightened conflict where negotiations to decide the boundary between the North and the South repeatedly founder on longstanding tribal quarrels over issues of traditional lands and compensation for extracted resources. Arig went to her parents to ask their blessing. Her mother acquiesced easily, while her father remained adamant that he would not see his daughter travelling to the Christian south for such dangerous nonsense!

At the airport, having secured her father’s reluctant permission, she was told to go and wait somewhere else as the next flight was for Juba. But I am going to Juba, she insisted. Indicating her hijab, they countered: but Muslim women don’t go there. Even as she boarded the plane, their sceptical looks persisted with a certainty that she was in error, getting on the wrong flight. Over the course of the following three days, the only northerner and the only woman, she heard the participants, Mysserya, Nuer and Dinka Ngok, lay out the details of their conflict. She sighs heavily, conceding that the prospects for peace in Sudan remain tenuous. But, she says, this one thing I know: A dream is being birthed from below.


i The Sudan People’s Liberation Movement, the political movement of the southern Sudan People’s Liberation Army, which fought a 21-year war with the central government, ending in 2005 with a peace agreement whose key elements remain un- or under-fulfilled by Khartoum.

ii See footage of the protest at Tagab: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EdzJJY2l-Ss