This article was first published in The Huffington Post
September 16, 2010
By Heather Robinson
Human rights leader Simon Deng, a former Sudanese national swimming champion and escaped slave, has launched his 250-mile freedom walk from the United Nations to Washington D.C. this week to gain U.S. support for the independence of South Sudan.
After holding a rally in front of the United Nations on Wednesday, Deng set out on foot. He plans to stay in churches and homes along the way, stopping on Saturday September 25th in Philadelphia to hold a rally in memory of late Manute Bol, an NBA superstar who played for the Philadelphia 76ers and other teams, and who accompanied Deng on previous marches.
Set to culminate in a rally at the Capitol Building in Washington D.C. October 7th, Deng’s walk is intended to raise awareness in the U.S. about the South Sudanese independence movement in advance of a vote to take place in Sudan in January that may allow the country’s South to separate from the Khartoum government.
“We will go to D.C. to tell President Obama that we can’t wait,” Deng told me on Tuesday, the day before he started to walk. “We are ready to govern ourselves. Yes, we can.”
Deng’s original Freedom Walk in 2006, covered by The New York Daily News and other outlets, gained him an audience with President Bush, then-New York Senator Hillary Clinton and then-House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. It culminated in a rally at the Capitol April 5, 2006–the day the House passed the Darfur Peace and Accountability Act.
For Deng, the issue of South Sudanese independence is tied to a personal story of enslavement and survival. Son of a prosperous farmer in the south of Sudan, he was kidnapped at the age of 9 and enslaved by an Arab Muslim family, during a time of war between Sudan’s Muslim North and its Christian South. During that time, thousands of South Sudanese–Christians and animists, or practitioners of native religions–were enslaved.
The Islamist government of Sudan, headquartered in the capital, Khartoum, has waged war on Sudan’s Christians since 1955, killing over three and a half million people through slaughter and starvation, according to Deng. Khartoum, under leadership of Omar al-Bashir, has also conducted a campaign of Islamization, forcibly converting thousands of Sudanese to Islam.
Al-Bashir, a militant Islamist extremist who has been accused of attempted genocide and war crimes, also provided shelter to Osama bin Laden in the 1990’s.
Race and religion are not markers of decency for Deng, however. His initial Freedom Walk in 2006 was undertaken to raise awareness about the Khartoum government’s slaughter of Darfuris, who are Muslim.
Deng says he is expecting between 20,000 and 30,000 supporters at the rally at the Capitol October 7th.
The walk is also timed to coincide with a United Nations General Assembly meeting on September 24th in which the issue of the referendum for South Sudanese independence is on the agenda.
The January referendum is the result of a 2005 peace agreement brokered by the Bush administration between Sudan’s Muslim North and its Christian South. While supporters of an independent state of South Sudan anticipate the January vote as an historic opportunity for the Southerners of Sudan to gain autonomy, some worry about the potential for violence on the part of Islamists who oppose independence for the South, which is largely Christian.
Deng emphasizes the need for free peoples to support the movement of South Sudanese independence.
“We have waited for 60 years; now we are less than 100 days away,” he told me on Tuesday. “South Sudan is not different from the United States in its quest for independence from the English in 1776. South Sudan will have some difficulty, but that is no reason to jeopardize and block a people with the will to be free.”