April 11, 2007

Sudan Refugee Shares His Sorrow

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[img_assist|nid=22787|title=A trying past.|desc=Benjamin Ajak, a refugee from Sudan, describes his psat experiences in Sudan and current life in California.|link=node|align=left|width=100|height=66]Despite the trauma of his life’s experiences, Benjamin Ajak is comforted by the hope that his speaking out will help heal his tumultuous homeland.
The Sudanese refugee, one of the “Lost Boys” who fled Southern Sudan as a boy in the 80s, worked toward his goal in a lecture yesterday in Willard Straight Memorial Hall. Ajak is co-author of the 2005 award-winning book They Poured Fire on Us, a true account of his life as a refugee in Africa during the Second Sudanese Civil War and his subsequent journey to the United States. The survivor described his experiences in the Sudan and their relevance to the current situation in Darfur in a lecture, titled “Escaping Hell.” Ajak is currently unable to return to Sudan because, as he said, “It is too dangerous.”
Ajak was introduced by David Chalenski grad., electrical and computer engineering and applied and engineering physics. Chalenski described his introduction to the experiences of Sudanese boys through They Poured Fire on Us as deeply affecting, almost a rude awakening. “I saw that I have so much to learn and so much to be grateful for,” said Chalenski.
Providing further introduction to Ajak’s lecture was Nicolas van de Walle, director of Cornell’s Mario Einaudi Center for International Studies. Van de Walle described his role in the proceedings as both to introduce Ajak and to “provide context: to link the current events in the Sudan [ie Darfur] to the past.” Van de Walle pointed out the similarities between the Southern Sudanese conflict in which Ajak found himself and the current crisis in Darfur. Both are incidences of non-Muslim Sudanese provinces’ “refusal to be subordinates” as van de Walle put it, to the Northern Muslim government of Khartoum, which has sought to impose Islamic law upon the region since the 80s.
“I am a survivor. Being a survivor is not an easy thing,” began Ajak as he described his haunting experiences starting at the age of five. One day in 1987, Ajak returned from his village’s pastures to the grim spectacle of government troops murdering his people, including his parents. “That was the first thing I saw and I had to escape it,” said Ajak.
Ajak fled a thousand miles to Ethiopia. Along the way, he came across his cousins Benson and Lino Deng who were then seven years old. A third cousin, Alephonsion, who would co-author Ajak’s book with Benson, joined the boys later. Three years later, they attempted to return to Sudan. According to Ajak, the villages in which they sought refuge were targeted regularly by “helicopters dropping bombs.” The book is titled after this period in Ajak’s life. Before Ajak was delivered to the U.S. as a refugee, he and his brothers escaped brutal rebels in the Natinga Mountains to Kenya.
Ajak was shocked by American ignorance regarding the horrors in the Sudan when he arrived in the U.S. in 2001 after briefly being deferred to Canada. “People were silently suffering for over twenty years in Africa — it’s a long time and nobody heard about it,” said Ajak.
Ajak attributes this ignorance to the machinations of the Khartoum government. The Khartoum government has violently barred international journalists from the country, keeping the extent of the destruction brought down upon Southern Sudanese and now Darfuri people hidden from foreign eyes. “If you try to get news coverage , that is your last day,” said Ajak. But Ajak added, “I will not accept that.” He has made it his mission to inform the public that is blinded by the Khartoum government.
In response to an audience question, Ajak acknowledged the comprehensive peace agreement between North and South of 2004, but lamented that 2011, when the South will be allowed to vote on secession, is “far away.” Ajak added “2011 is going to be farther for the people in Darfur who are getting killed everyday.” He elaborated upon the situation in Darfur, calling it “the same thing.”
“They are asking for their own lives too,” said Ajak.
Two other questions addressed Ajak’s ability to adapt to life in an entirely different country, and the emotional toll of his uprooting. “It is too hard,” said Ajak. “You have to push yourself into it.” Ajak said he dealt with the difficulty by finding “a lot of friends in this country who believe in this culture and can teach me.” Regarding his emotions, Ajak said he gets the strength to carry on from “the hope and the self confidence that I have.” Ajak is confident that he can raise awareness through his talks, which he uses to encourage audiences to write to their senators asking for intervention and aid on behalf of the Sudanese people.
“I need to go and see it again,” said Ajak of his lost homeland. But the survivor does not despair. Ajak is confident that with the aid of concerned activists across the globe, “I will claim my life back.”