This article was first published in The Jewish Advocate
January 21, 2011
By Charles Jacobs
The stars blaze in Wanyjok as though G-d flicked on the lights on a vast black ceiling. I’d not seen stars so bright since I was a child in the unlit New Jersey countryside. As I sat in my campsite in the northernmost part of South Sudan, I sensed why, from time immemorial, men ponder star patterns, seeking hints of G-d’s plans. Last week it seemed to me, He might have signaled an historic, even miraculous, change.
I went to Sudan two weeks ago to witness history: the people of South Sudan – mostly Christians and tribalists – began on Jan. 9 a weeklong vote on whether to secede from the dominant Arab/Muslim north. As anyone who reads newspapers could know, the Islamic Republic of Sudan has been slaughtering its African, non- Muslim southerners for decades – long before it began slaughtering its African Muslims in Darfur, in the country’s western sector. Though South Sudan’s partisans – in Africa and America – fought for decades against these racist onslaughts, not many of us actually believed the South could actually free itself from Arab rule. Africa has thrown off its European colonizers, but no African nation had ever rolled back Arab colonialism, which preceded the West’s and persists even today.
Surely, we thought, neither the region’s Arab dictators nor the world’s Islamists could allow a vast region under Arab control to simply get up and walk away. Certainly Egypt, a regional power, would never permit the headwaters of the Nile, which are in South Sudan, to be controlled by a break-away Christian nation. But in 2005, President George Bush, pressed by grassroots groups here, forced Khartoum to sign a treaty with the South that provided for a vote on partition six years later. The North thought it could divide the African tribes, and convince – through sweet bribes – enough Southerners to vote for “Unity.” This was a foolish self-deception. I went to two polling stations with translators and talked to dozens of men and women, all of whom explained – with glee – that they were voting for separation. Why? Because “the Arabs stole our women and children, stole our cattle and murdered us in our villages.”
Barak Obama may actually have clinched this deal for African freedom by applying the diplomatic squeeze. He sent Massachusetts Senator John Kerry to deal with Khartoum – promising, according to news reports, to take Sudan off the terror list if it would abide by the outcome. Kerry also, according to sources, bolstered the confidence of the South that America would stand by its commitment to the new nation’s freedom. If it becomes known that Obama assisted an African escape from Arab/Muslim dominance, the notion that the president is a secret Muslim should die a quicker death.
In addition to witnessing the vote, I also participated in the emancipation of Southern slaves – Christian, animist and Muslim – brought back to Dinka tribal areas an hour’s ride from our camp by Arabs who are committed to Arab/Dinka peace. (The Dinka, Sudan’s most numerous tribe, have been the primary victims of slaughter and slavery.) The liberation was organized by the Washington-based Christian Solidarity International, a rights group I’ve worked with for more than a decade.
Local Arab tribesmen need to graze their cattle on Dinka wetlands and to sell goods in Dinka markets. The two sides worked out an indigenous peace treaty through which the Arabs would send retrievers north to help liberate slaves and bring them south. Christian Solidarity injected incentives – at first cash, now cattle vaccine – into this existing arrangement to vastly increase the number of freed slaves.
We drove to the sites on two separate days and met gatherings of 200 slaves. I photographed hundreds and extensively video-interviewed almost a dozen slaves, with Dinka and Arabic translators. This is not the place to publish the horror stories that emerged.
Though nothing is for certain, it looks likely that South Sudan will be the second non-Muslim polity to escape from Arab rule in the region, the first being Israel. This was not lost on the educated, literate Christian South Sudanese I met. When informed that I was Jewish, bright smiles broke out and big hugs: “You were the first to defeat Arab colonialists.” And, from a Balanda tribeman at a refueling stop: “You are from the Chosen People. Welcome!” Who knew?
When Francis Bok, the escaped Christian Dinka slave who lives in Boston and works with us at the American Anti-Slavery Group (read his book!) watched “The Ten Commandments,” he grew tearful. “G-d opened the Sea for the Hebrew slaves, but He’s not yet redeemed my people.”
Go look at the stars in Wanyjok, dear Francis.