When Gabriel Bol Deng was on the way back to his home village of Gogrial in southern Sudan, after a typical day of grazing cows in the nearby fields, he was fortunate enough to run into two of his fellow villagers that told him to stop: “Gabriel, don’t go to the village — there is fighting.”
“I became inconvincible; I wouldn’t listen to what they were saying,” said Deng as he began last night’s lecture in Goldwin Smith Hall about his experiences as a Sudanese refugee back in the 1980s.
After Sudanese government’s raid was over, Deng, then a very young boy (he doesn’t know his exact birth date because the records do not exist), made his way back to the village only to find a plethora of dead bodies amidst the burning huts. He said that he has not seen his family since that tragic day.
In 2001, Deng was granted political asylum, and in June 2006, he officially became a U.S. citizen. Still, his path had not been easy.
“I don’t know how I survived … what I have seen with my eyes, I cannot nearly explain,” he said.
After fleeing from the destroyed village, Deng was confronted by a lion, and he climbed a tree, where he remained for the next two days without any food or water. He saw a large crowd of villagers who, fortunately for Deng, settled underneath the tree and talked about the loved ones that they had lost in the recent raids. Deng whispered “good morning” and was taken into the custody of the refugees.
This was just the beginning of a long journey of approximately 968 miles that took Deng to a refugee camp in Ethiopia and later in Kenya. According to Deng, the journey was extremely difficult as, among other challenges, the refugees had to build boats out of Papyrus trees in order to travel for nearly 12 hours along the Nile river. Some never got past the first part of the trip.
“People died. … [many] were eaten by crocodiles,” Deng said.
The second part of the journey to Ethiopia’s Dimma refugee camp involved a four to six-week desert crossing. Deng recalls that everyone suffered from dehydration and after finally making it to the destination, Deng had to be hospitalized for a couple of weeks just to be able to get back on his feet.
In 1990, while living at Dimma, Deng started his primary education. He recalled that in his home village there were neither schools nor kindergartens. The children were taught the traditional trades such as hunting and grazing: “If you kill a lion, you will be a hero for the generation!”
In 1988, when the foreign representatives visited the Dimma camp, Deng observed the fellow refugees as they welcomed the visitors and engaged in traditional dancing in order to show their respect.
“I was hoping that [the foreign representatives] would bring everything for everybody”, remarked Deng.
Alas, the visitors turned out to be journalists that came to cover the troublesome situation in the region. Still, Deng was struck by the laudatory manner in which the refugees treated the newcomers, and he concluded that education is the key to becoming successful.
Deng’s educational process had to be cut short in 1991 when the Ethiopian government was overthrown and the refugees had to flee the country and travel to the Kakuma camp in Kenya. The Kakuma camp, where Deng resumed his studies in 1993, became his last home on the continent. In November 2000 Deng had successfully passed the interview process (there were about 17,000 interviewees) with the U.S. officials and was extended an invitation to come to the U.S.
Within 6 months of arriving at his new home, Deng completed the GED and went on to obtain an associate’s degree in mathematics and science at Onondaga Community College. This year he will receive his bachelor’s degree in math education, with concentrations in philosophy and special education, from Le Moyne College in Syracuse.
Deng’s recent philanthropic Project H.O.P.E., which stands for Helping Offer Primary Education, for Sudan is a New York based non-profit charitable organization dedicated to providing educational services to millions of war-affected children in Sudan and around the world. As the first part of fulfilling the mission’s objective, Deng is looking to establish Ariong Primary School in Sudan between 2006 and 2008. Currently, the organization is in the process of raising funds for this undertaking.
After relating his lifestory, Deng took some time to explain the history of the civil conflict in Sudan. He suggested that the ongoing Darfur conflict has its roots in the First and the Second Sudanese Civil Wars.
According to Deng, during the Second Civil War, which began in the 1980s, two million Southern Sudanese were killed, four to five million were internally displaced and 100,000 were taken into slavery — as the government-backed Islamic militia strived to wipe out the indigenous non-Muslim population.
“Sudan is not an Arabic state, it’s an African State,” Deng said, as he recalled his recent chat with an Arab cab driver who tried to bond with Deng on the religious question.
Speaking about the current Darfur crisis, which is now one of the most troubling issues for the human rights advocates across the world, Deng suggested that the international community could have prevented the ongoing atrocities if it had attempted to assuage the situation back in the 80s.
“Where were the international organizations [back then]?” he asked rhetorically.
The event was put together by Cornell Students for Tolerance, Awareness and Remembering Survivors organization and co-sponsored by the History and the Government Departments.