A Place Called Homeby Issie Lapowsky
Darfuri immigrants in Brooklyn yearn and fight for the devastated region they left behind.
Yassir Haroune’s bride climbed the dusty stairs of a Brooklyn banquet hall just before midnight, dressed in a long-sleeved white gown and crinoline veil. As she shyly entered the second floor’s main ballroom, her lips trembled slightly, suppressing a smile. A crowd of men greeted the couple at the entryway, taking turns throwing her groom into the air. Haroune reached down to greet them, like a genial king greeting his subjects. The men danced and flashed photographs, moving across the floor to the spirited yet dissonant strains of a lone musician playing Sudanese songs on a keyboard. Women wearing jewel-toned dresses and matching head scarves stood to the side, clapping their henna-stained hands and ululating in celebration. Their children weaved through the adults, eager to catch a glimpse of the grand entrance. Still, the bride averted her eyes and allowed only a few brief giggles to betray her excitement. She was reverent and reserved, as Sudanese brides are expected to be.
Fatimah had arrived in the United States only a few weeks before the celebration, joining her husband in the Kensington neighborhood of Brooklyn, where more than three hundred Darfuri refugees and emigres have clustered over the past several years. The couple had already taken their official vows in their native Darfur, but it took Fatimah a full two years to secure the visa to join him in New York. This night was simply a rare opportunity to celebrate.
The wedding guests guided the couple to a stage at the front of the hall. There they took their seats, like the prom king and queen, on two gauze-covered thrones, and accepted individual congratulations. The women sat close to the stage and cradled their children, while the men kept their distance from the women in adherence to Islamic tradition, filling the seats on the opposite side of the room. No alcohol would be served that night, either. Bottles of Coke, Sprite, and Poland Spring acted as the centerpieces on the round table tops.
Some of the guests, like Hamza Ibrahim, were friends and family. Because he was one of the first to arrive, along with his wife and daughter, Ibrahim gladly assumed the role of usher, smiling as he welcomed the flow of familiar faces into the banquet hall. Others, like Adeeb Yousif, were linked to the couple only by a common affection for a ruined country. Like the bride, Yousif had gotten to New York only a few weeks earlier, and, like so many others, he was not planning to stay for long. As a human rights defender, he was determined to return to Darfur within a few months to continue his work. Yousif’s work is his life, and his intimacy with Darfur’s suffering has made him an invaluable asset to the Sudanese community abroad. Yousif, for instance, could have told several of the wedding guests what their native villages looked like after they were reduced to rubble. And the community’s longing for home is so urgent that even in the context of celebration, many of the Darfurians would welcome these updates about a home they cannot now, and may not ever, be able to live in again.
The guests danced well into the early morning hours, as wedding guests do. Most of the men and women kept their respectful distance from each other. Around 2:30 a.m., the couple left the banquet hall to change out of their white gown and black suit into ornate Sudanese clothing. Fatimah’s long, crimson dress was encrusted in gold and sequins, and Haroune’s simple white jalabia made the bride at his side look all the more stunning. They returned to the ballroom for another procession, this time following a trail of burning incense. Around 3:30 a.m., the party began to thin. For now, the celebration was over. The next time I would see these familiar faces, they would no longer be just the bride, the groom, and their guests. The next time I saw them, they would call themselves the Darfur People’s Association of New York.
Any Darfurian who was living in the United States before 2003 can recall what it was like when the refugees began to arrive in great numbers, fleeing what has alternately been called a conflict or a genocide in the Darfur region of Sudan. There, the Arab-led government and Janjaweed militia have waged war against African-led rebel groups and civilians. A small group of Darfuri immigrants founded the Darfur People’s Association of New York to help these displaced refugees and immigrants adjust to life in the United States. Six years have since passed, and despite their prayers to return to the land they still consider home, membership in the group continues to grow.
At rallies and conferences throughout the United States, they rehearse their longing for peace and justice, dressed in the same well-worn suits, holding the same often-misspelled signs and reciting the same chants of “Justice, Justice for Darfur.” For a while it seemed that a preoccupied world was ignoring their cries. But then, the International Criminal Court’s chief prosecutor, Luis Moreno Ocampo made their cause his own. On July 14, 2008, he proposed an arrest warrant for Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, and on March 4th of this year, the court formally charged the head of state with war crimes and crimes against humanity. It’s the decision the Darfurians of New York have been fighting for. It has renewed their hope of return. Until there is justice, they believe, there cannot be peace, but once there is peace, they promise each other, they will go home.
Down the street from the quaint Connecticut Muffin Café, a block from the “BOOKS COFFEE DEMOCRACY” sign outside of the Vox Pop coffee shop, at the corner where Coney Island Avenue meets Cortelyou Road, four Darfuri men waited on the sidewalk by a white 11-seater van. This corner is their usual meeting place. Just north of it is where the wedding had been, and one block south of it is Punjab Hall, where members of the community sometimes gather for their religious and cultural celebrations. On this day, though, the intersection of Cortelyou Road and Coney Island Avenue was only the first stop on a weekend trip full of rallies, lectures, and panels in Washington D.C. Everyone was running late.
As the president of the group, Bushara Dosa had done his best to wheedle his friends and fellow Darfuris out of bed that morning so they could get an early start; he even took the time personally to iron a few pairs of slacks for them. At 29, he is younger than most Darfuri men in the community, an unlikely authority figure with a boyish smile and endless patience. After a few phone calls and a bite of a doughnut, he decided it was time to go. He hopped in the driver’s seat, turned to the other passengers and asked, “Everybody’s in?”
Sitting in the first row of seats, Adeeb Yousif looked serious as ever in his long, tan trench coat. He is a short, stocky man who has spent years under the watch of the Sudanese government, and the severity brooding in his bloodshot eyes is a quiet reminder of that suffering. He remained quiet as Dosa stopped briefly to let the newlyweds, Yassir and Fatimah, into the van. Henna still tinged their fingers a full month after the wedding celebration, and Fatimah gladly greeted the people in the van with the bright, young smile she had withheld that night.
It was 9:15 a.m. when Dosa pulled up to a house where another white van was waiting. Nearly twenty men, toting small duffel bags for the trip, hustled in and out of the house. Inside, the living room was empty, nearly devoid of furniture. It was as if the occupants had just moved in or were about to move out, though several of them had lived there for years. Theirs was not the only Darfurian home that felt unsettled. Some nearby houses held box upon box in corners, piled high to the ceiling, while furniture stood haphazardly in the hallway, awaiting a permanent place. The men rarely apologized for the mess. After all, these spaces are not really home to them, they’re just home for now.
Outside, Hamza Ibrahim sat in his yellow cab, smiling that trademark smile as he greeted the earlier arrivals, many of whom are also taxi drivers. Driving is a thankless job for Ibrahim, who, at 39, still longs to go back to school, but for now he works long hours behind the wheel to sustain his wife, their precocious five-year-old girl, and the family and friends who depend on him back home. As one man would say without an ounce of resentment in his voice, “All of us have that burden.” Standing around Dosa’s van were former accountants, teachers, and artists, who in this foreign country had become just a few of many overqualified cab drivers, delivery men, and corner store owners. One by one they slid their white “Darfur People’s Association of New York” t-shirts over their button-down shirts and got into the two vans to begin the trip south.
In Dosa’s van, the green apple air freshener hanging from the rear view mirror blended with the heady smell of exotic cologne. As Mariah Carey’s voice streamed from the radio, the long-haired man sitting in the front seat turned the conversation to the recent presidential election. Just three days before, Barack Obama had been elected President of the United States, and everyone in the van wholeheartedly subscribed to his credo of hope and change.
“I feel like I’m on top of a mountain,” Ahmat Nour said, turning his head full of braids around to face the other passengers. “I found myself jumping.”
Feeling equally triumphant, but not half as animated, Yousif stared intently at his laptop, proofreading a flyer he had created that declared in bold letters, “Congratulations Barack Obama: Historical Victory as Forty-Fourth American President-elect.” He then opened up a lengthy spreadsheet, which listed, in sickeningly plain terms, every act of violence that had been reported in Darfur in the previous week. On that same outdated laptop Yousif stores hundreds of gory photos, further proof of the egregious human loss in Darfur. Since 2003, he had traveled from village to village, 339 of them to be exact, snapping photographs of the destruction that the Sudanese army and popular militias had reaped across the region. In his travels, Yousif documented every pulverized skull he encountered, every exposed, infected gunshot wound, every naked thigh bone, hanging freely from the hip, no longer protected by skin or flesh or fat, just bone, stripped clean.
“These photos are very tough,” he would say before opening each file. “But for me, it’s almost something normal.”
It was a relief, then, for Yousif’s tired mind and broken heart when he arrived in New York in September of 2008 for a lecture tour that would help him regain some of his waning strength.
“War is a very bad thing, by the way,” he said, his imperfect English still managing to convey the gravity of what he meant. “Nobody can realize this unless he or she has been inside this and seen people that were killed and helped people that were injured and taken a body and bury somebody. Unless you are there physically, I don’t think anybody in the world can imagine how much people are suffering.”
So he sat silently in the front row of the van, reviewing the gruesome spreadsheet, as his fellow passengers chatted among themselves and on cell phones. He was an elbow’s nudge from the other Darfurian men in the van, but the great difference between those who have seen and those who have heard forged a gaping rift between them.
The fact that Yousif didn’t come to New York with help from the Darfur People’s Association, further broadened the distance. His sponsor was the American-run New York City Coalition for Darfur, which raised the money to fly him to New York. And rather than living among the Darfurians of Kensington, the World Council of Churches paid for his single room in a hostel in Manhattan. There are deeper, cultural differences, too. Yousif is a member of the Fur tribe, Fur aristocracy at that. The majority of the people he would come to know through the Darfur People’s Association are Zaghawa, evident from the series of scars on their temples. Months later, Nour with the braids would speak of this tribal culture with pride.
“It’s a very strong relationship if you compare with here or Western culture, or even Sudan also,” he said. “Over there we don’t have half brothers, we don’t have half sisters. Your aunt’s daughter is your sister. Your uncle’s brother is your brother, so we all are the same family, so we all share everything.”
To Nour, this solidarity is a romantic notion, but to Dosa (Nour’s cousin or nephew depending on whom you ask) the familial dependence can be just as limiting. “One problem when you live in a community like this, you try to isolate yourself from what’s going on around you,” he said. “I encourage them a lot to basically get to know the people around them, do other things.”
Though Dosa is Zaghawa, he too followed a different path to New York than most members of the community, who came here as students, refugees or through the U.S. visa lottery. For starters, Dosa was born in Iowa, “a country boy,” he says. But when he was two years old, his father finished his Ph.D. at Iowa State University and moved his wife and two sons back to Sudan. Dosa’s father was one of the first men in the North Darfur region to receive a Ph.D., and because of his father’s stature, Dosa also felt the pressure to seek out a better education than Sudan could offer him. “It becomes part of your life you cannot escape, because people expect more from you,” he said.
So, at 19, he brought his U.S. passport back to the country where he was born. After two years, he began studying electrical engineering at the University of Maryland. That was the year 2000. Three years later, the Sudanese government began launching a brutal counterinsurgency against Darfurian rebel groups and civilians, and in August of that same year, Dosa learned that his father had been arrested for reprimanding the government in the capital city of Khartoum. For four months Dosa didn’t know if his father was dead or alive. As it turned out, he was alive, and while the news came as a relief, it did not quell the realization that life in Darfur was becoming synonymous with death in Darfur. Although it was unsafe for him to return to the country, he felt the need to be with the members of his cultural family who had ended up in Brooklyn, those people who were playing the same traumatic guessing game that he was. So he left a good job with NASA and a network of friends in Maryland and moved back to New York in 2005.
Outside of the Sudanese embassy in D.C., the van stopped. So did the conversation. Nour quit bobbing his braids to the radio, threw open the passenger side door, jumped onto the sidewalk and bellowed with full force, “Omar al-Bashir to ICC!” Everyone picked up the refrain. Police officers guarded the embassy’s lawn where a mass of people held cardboard signs with long plywood handles, bearing the names of destroyed Darfurian villages: Foldong, Ombaro, Golo. There were more signs than there were bodies, so the tall sticks rested ominously against a tree branch until more ralliers, primarily the men from New York, arrived to hold them up. An oversized papier maché replica of Omar al-Bashir’s head looked on smugly from a corner of the crowd.
One gray-haired woman, in peace sign earrings, moved the rally along with the help of a stout, bespectacled black preacher. Both Nour and Ibrahim took control of the single microphone at different points in the early afternoon to talk about the injustices they had faced and the family they had lost. But they were quickly cut off by the crowd of rowdy Americans, ready to burst into yet another round of “Hey hey! Ho ho! Genocide has got to go!” Protesters had traveled across the country to lend their voices to this rally. One by one, young, enthusiastic activists from Texas, Maine and even Alaska told the group, through the microphone, about how much money they had raised or how many people they had gathered at a particular rally. The Darfurians largely stood aside. They were appreciative of the work these people had done, but apart from a few interviews and petition signings, their voices had been drowned out. They appeared, and not for the first time, to be bit players on an elaborate stage, when they could rightfully have been the stars. Perhaps they should have learned the words to “We Shall Overcome.”
In the absence of air time, Ibrahim cornered particular people to talk specifics. He laid out, with wild hand gestures in rushed, broken English, his vision for the peace process in Darfur. For years, he explained, the U.N. African Union Mission in Darfur had been in the country simply to report acts of violence and destruction. The troops are not mandated to defend themselves or the civilians they were sent to protect. And so, in Ibrahim’s opinion, they had been virtually worthless. What they needed, he believed, was expanded authority to shoot back when they were being shot at. Some 26,000 UNAMID troops had been assigned to the mission, but little more than 15,000 are actually there now, and the discrepancy outrages the Darfurians, Ibrahim included. But after six years of rallying, they have become accustomed to half-kept promises.
The sun was beginning to set when people started asking where Yousif had gone, and it had given way to the moon when he finally emerged from a taxi. He spent the greater part of the afternoon in meetings at the Holocaust Museum and arrived back at the rally looking sharp in a red silk tie, black suit and toting a matching black briefcase. He hoped to add a Darfur wing to the Holocaust Museum, and if all went well, he said it could be built within four months. But Yousif didn’t have much time to discuss his day. He was the man everyone had been waiting for, as wanted among the activist community as he was by his own country’s government, if for very different reasons.
“Oh, you’re Adeeb Yousif,” the lady with the peace sign earrings said to him with a note of respect. “I’ve been trying to partner with you. Oh...you’re courageous.”
Yousif shook his head. News of his past, his personal history, his imprisonment, had clearly been spreading, but that was not the badge of honor he would have chosen to wear that day. She could have asked him about the medicinal trees from Kenya that he planted in Darfur’s rural villages or about the Sudan Social Development Organization that he helped found in April, 2001. She could have asked him about the bricks he’s laid with his own hands to build clinics and schools throughout the region. Maybe then she’d have gotten more than a shake of the head, more than a shrug of the shoulders. The lady with the peace sign earrings would have been right if she noticed he was distant. After all, she and the other activists meant well. But during Yousif’s early months in the States, which he believed would be his only months in the States, he gladly kept that distance. He was a man on a mission.
But it was not a one-man mission; he had a true friend in Sharon Silber. She is the co-founder of the New York City Coalition for Darfur, the woman who spearheaded Yousif’s trip to the United States and the last person you’d want to face in a debate. “I never really intended to be a political activist,” she said, but her work with Jews Against Genocide to end the violence in Bosnia led her irrevocably on the path to activism. Like Yousif, she is not afraid of criticizing advocacy organizations. She demands more from them and constantly encourages a Darfurian presence at meetings and conferences. She, too, took the trip to D.C. that weekend to attend a series of lectures and panel discussions sponsored by Save Darfur.
After Friday’s opening rally, the two white vans sat parked outside the L’Enfant Plaza Hotel for most of that November weekend. Inside, the Darfurians, activists and students divided their time between the hotel’s many conference rooms and lecture halls, where they discussed how to change the devastating status quo in Darfur. It was in one of these rooms that Silber vented her frustrations to Jerry Fowler, Save Darfur’s President, regarding the direction the activist movement was taking.
“What exactly are the sanctions that you want us to ask for?” she asked initially, before continuing. “What I don’t want is to push for yet more resolutions without any teeth in them that mean nothing to the Sudanese government, that they continue to violate.”
The edge in her voice was both imploring and accusatory, yet Fowler responded in his signature conciliatory tone. As head of the world’s largest Darfur advocacy group, Fowler faces a constant barrage of requests to fix all the squeaky wheels at once: Enforce a no-fly zone in Darfur. Demand UNAMID helicopters on the ground. Get a full force of UNAMID troops in place. Encourage large-scale divestment from countries like China that are funding weaponry in Sudan. Fowler does his best to keep a splintered movement afloat.
He said that so little has changed in Darfur over the past six years, because activists and politicians have been more concerned with addressing small issues than encouraging wider political changes in Sudan. “A piece does not solve the whole,” he said, “and what we really need now is an [Obama] administration that makes a commitment to address [the conflict] comprehensively first and foremost.”
Another one of his Save Darfur colleagues explained to Silber that while it is important to set “milestones and benchmarks” for humanitarian work, President Obama and his administration need to develop “an overarching plan” to end the conflict.
“I’m saying I want you to come up with an overarching plan,” Silber instantly replied. “That’s where our disagreement is. I don’t believe it’s a good way to lobby to tell government, ‘Come up with a plan.’ The better way to lobby is to say, ‘This is the plan. This is what we want you to do.’”
Though Yousif withheld his comments that weekend, he wholeheartedly agreed with Silber. “I don’t think this is the right direction for saving people in Darfur,” he said later. He believed there was too much talking that weekend and not enough action. “I’m very annoyed with Save Darfur,” he said.
Between lectures, Yousif largely kept his distance from his travel companions. They pulled extra chairs up to one round table in the lunchroom and filled up on the complimentary sandwiches and cookies. Meanwhile, Yousif paced by himself on the hotel balcony, taking slow, intentional strides. He looked the part of a 1920s gangster, a coil of smoke burning from one end of the cigarette that he held between his thumb and index finger. It was easy to see he was frustrated, and it was not hard to see why.
He didn’t stay long at the last big event on the National Mall and chose, instead, to hitch an early ride back to New York with Silber. It was Sunday, and hundreds of painted tents made of heavy canvas and metal rods filled the stretch of land between the Capitol and the Lincoln Memorial. They were called Tents of Hope, decorated and donated by aid organizations around the country, soon to be shipped to refugee and internally displaced persons camps in and around Darfur. Painted with peace signs, rainbows, and the occasionally forlorn-looking face of a child, the tents were built in the shape of houses, big enough to fit only two or three bodies comfortably. Under the sunlight on the mall, the tents looked both beautiful and out of place, like the camping grounds of an unfamiliar colony from another world.
Ibrahim walked through them, not smiling for the moment, but pushing at the tents’ corners, scratching at their surfaces, standing in the shade underneath them.
“It’s cool, but very small,” he said. “It’s good material.” He knew people who would be living under the strong canvas of tents like these, and since he easily could have been one of them, he inspected each tent personally, like he would a new car.
Throughout the afternoon, musical acts and impassioned speakers spread resolute messages of hope from the stage, but something was missing. Someone had forgotten the trademark banner of the Darfur People’s Association of New York and without it, the group was incomplete. While Ibrahim ran to the van to retrieve it, students from Berklee College of Music began singing a song from their Darfur-inspired album. Within minutes, Ibrahim returned with the felt banner, fashioned in the black, white, red and green likeness of the Sudanese flag. A handful of his friends huddled around him, fumbling with the banner’s corners in an attempt to unfurl it. The song the Berklee students were singing had reached its instrumental interlude. Then, as if it had been choreographed, the music swelled, the Darfurians stood erect, the banner straightened and the students on stage belted the words, “We are all connected.” A cinematic cheer rushed through the audience, as they suddenly turned their cameras and attention to the solemn and steadfast faces behind the felt banner. To the crowd on the mall, in that moment, these were no longer the faces of people who were forgotten at the rally on the first day or who sat among them at lunch at the L’Enfant Plaza. In that moment, they were faces of survivors. The visual cue brought more than one bystander to tears.
The group drove home in the dark, in the same seating configuration, minus Yousif. Nour had purchased a CD of Darfurian tunes, the soundtrack on the long drive to New York. Amid the buoyant melodies came frequent laughter and intermittent sleep. It was almost ten when the vans stopped in Brooklyn. With hardly a word of goodbye, the men with Fatimah in tow, got out of the vans and followed Nour down a dark street.
“One of the members’ mothers died, so these guys are going to see him,” Dosa explained as he watched them go. “She died back home.”
Darfur was the last region of Africa to succumb to British colonization in 1916. From that time on, the once-independent region became the westernmost part of the nation of Sudan. Since independence in 1956, however, Darfurian people have never felt wholly represented in or protected by the Government of Sudan. While mud huts with grass roofs fill the arid villages of Darfur, the capital city of Khartoum has flourished into a metropolis of high-rises and 21st century conveniences.
“Historically Darfur has been a region of Sudan which was seen as neglected,” Jean-Marie Guehenno said. He is the former U.N. Under-Secretary-General for Peacekeeping Operations and has become increasingly skeptical about the future of Darfur. He believed that the division between African and Arab people was an oversimplification of the problem. He said it was, instead, “a way to deflect the tension between the decentralized part of Sudan and the center,” between Khartoum and Darfur.
Among Darfur’s African indigenous tribes, including the Fur, Zaghawa, and Massalit people, feelings of injustice have festered for nearly a century, while the Arab elite in Khartoum deny most Darfurians equality in education, infrastructure and government influence. Beginning in the 1980s, people from the south of Sudan, bound under the Sudan Peoples’ Liberation Army/Movement, were already engaged in what would be a decades-long war. They opposed the central government and fought for a more inclusive Sudan. During that time, the people of Darfur were just preparing for their turn at resistance.
Despite the inequity, though, many members of the Darfuri diaspora would give anything to return to the Darfur they knew as children. Yousif grew up in the mountainous Jebel Marra region of central Darfur in a village called Juldo. His father had two wives and a total of 22 other children for Yousif to play and pick mangoes with.
“In the evening, also, we gathered around an old man or grandmother, and she’d narrate to us the stories,” he said, stories that often dissuaded the children from straying too far.
At 35, Yousif can be stern and reserved, but as a boy, he was cheeky, more interested in mischief than saving his people. Recalling his childhood always makes Yousif smile. When he moved from primary to intermediary school and was able to start wearing shorts, instead of a long dress, Yousif would wait out by the marketplace, ready to show off for the girls passing by. He was younger than most of the students in his grade, too, and thus excused from some Islamic traditions, like holiday fasts. Only the older children had that obligation. Instead, while his classmates fasted, he would flaunt his food in front of their hungry faces, complaining about how spicy it was.
“By the time I was in university, I was a mature guy,” he laughed.
Life was no less carefree for Nour, growing up in North Darfur’s capital city of El Fashir. Though he knew that there had been an ongoing war between North and South Sudan, he remembers spending his days playing soccer, volleyball and checkers.
“When you’re a kid it’s very good over there,” he said, “We learned the culture through imitation. If you want to grow up, you want to be like your father or your uncle or some one of them.”
From an early age, he dreamed of getting “highly educated” at an American or European university. He took inspiration from the writing of the late Sudanese author, Tayeb Salih, particularly his nonfiction work, Season of Migration to the North.
“It was holiday,” Nour said, leaning forward. “I took the book, and I start reading, and I say, this is interesting. So I left everything and just keep reading, reading, til the morning. I didn’t eat that day. I didn’t drink. I didn’t move. I didn’t play. I didn’t do nothing.”
A copy of Salih’s book might look unremarkable at first sight. Its dented orange cover would be at home on the average street side vendor’s table on West Fourth Street. But within its pages, it tells a story that is all too familiar to Darfurians like Nour. This is the passage he remembers best:
It was, gentlemen, after a long absence – seven years to be exact, during which time I was studying in Europe – that I returned to my people. I learnt much and much passed me by – but that’s another story. The important thing is that I returned with a great yearning for my people in that small village at the bend of the Nile. For seven years I had longed for them, had dreamed of them, and it was an extraordinary moment when I at last found myself standing among them...I felt as though a piece of ice were melting inside of me, as though I were some frozen substance on which the sun had shone—that life warmth of the tribe which I had lost for a time in a land ‘whose fishes die of the cold.’
Driven by these words and the encouragement of his tribe, Nour left Darfur in 1997 on a student visa, believing he would return, as Salih had done in his book, when his yearning for home grew extreme.
“They say whenever the birds fly, they’re still going to sit on the ground,” Nour said. “So no matter what, you’ll go back.” He traveled to Paris and then to New York, never knowing how unbearable that yearning could become.
Meanwhile, by 1998, members of Darfur’s early rebel groups had already begun arming themselves. On July 21, 2001, a group of militants, both Zaghawa and Fur, vowed on the Quran to end the Arab domination of Darfur, and on February 26, 2003, a rebel group known as the Darfur Liberation Front announced it had attacked the government’s district headquarters in Golo. Though fighting had begun before this date, it is widely referred to as the event which launched the government’s six-year-long, slaughterous counterinsurgency.
This is when Yousif began his most strenuous work as a human rights defender. Before 2003, he had focused on development projects in rural areas with the Sudan Social Development Organization. The group’s work was crucial in the development of schools, clinics and fresh water supplies throughout the country. But when tensions turned into violent confrontations, Yousif began scouring Darfur, camera in hand, capturing the images now saved on his laptop.
He sent these photos to Amnesty International and other human rights groups around the world, illuminating the scope of the conflict for people who could not see it for themselves. This roused unwanted attention from the Sudanese government.
“I’m not hiding,” he said defiantly. “Everybody knows that I’m taking photos and telling people that what they’re doing is wrong.” By “they,” he meant the government.
And so “they” imprisoned him, many times. He remembers with blistering clarity the Friday afternoon that members of the Sudanese National Security arrested him in Zalengei, just days after he found his grandmother’s charred body in the rubble of the village where he grew up. He remembers the plainclothes soldiers waiting to take him away from the Meridien Hotel in Khartoum, where he was attending a human rights workshop. He remembers having his passport and his money confiscated at the airport when he first tried to board a flight to the United States. He remembers the four months he spent in one cell with nine other people at a torture center known locally as “Abu Ghraib” and the two months he spent living in a bathroom in Korba prison. Sometimes he closes his eyes softly and puts his hand under his chin when he remembers these things.
“It’s difficult to tell, because if I tell you that they beat me, you have to imagine somebody beating an animal or a dog...or somebody wanting to end somebody,” he said, feeling that even these words were inadequate. “It’s difficult to describe this kind of thing. I have the result on my body. Every single act, I have on my body.”
Yousif’s scars aren’t visible when he’s dressed, but he points to them over his corduroy pants and button down shirts, a corporal time line of torture. He had shown the full extent of the scars on his body to only one person, his lifelong friend, a teacher named Bashir. Like 33 of Yousif’s relatives, Bashir too lost his life to the conflict.
“The Janjaweed came to the village. They went directly first to him, because he was well-educated among others,” Yousif said. “They cut his neck, then they play with his head like a ball...So, that was the way he was killed.”
Now, Yousif can recall having only two dreams in his life. “In fact, not a dream,” he said, “but I don’t know the word in English”; The word he wanted was “nightmare.” In one he was drowning. In the other, he relived the moment when he found his dead grandmother.
Nour, too, had trouble sleeping when he finally did make it back to Sudan in late 2004. It wasn’t the nightmares that got to him, though. “The gunfire don’t let me sleep,” he said. In the United States he split his time working as a delivery man for Long Island Banana and managing the clothing store he owns in Indiana. His brother was sick, and as a primary provider for his family, Nour was saving money for his brother’s treatment. During the few months he spent in Darfur, Nour also married his best friend’s sister, but she remains in Sudan. After four years of marriage, Nour has not yet applied for her visa to the United States. Perhaps he believes he’ll be able to return home before she can make the move.
“We have one guy, his name is Bushara Omar. He spent 25 years in Europe. He came back,” Nour said. “So I spent 10 years? I’ll go back.”
In the meantime, his family, both immediate and extended, have spread themselves throughout the region and the country, cast among the estimated 2.5 million people who have been displaced by the violence.” Some of them, they live in camps. Some they live in cities,” he said. “Some of them, I don’t know where they live. Some they are rebels.” Nour also counts 58 people he knows who have died, the brother whose treatment he once paid for among them. That’s 58 of the roughly 200,000 to 400,000 people who have been killed in the conflict.
Though he still hasn’t made the move permanent, Nour is one of the fortunate ones who has been able to visit home at all. Some, like Ibrahim, have never been back. He left Darfur in 1993, just 20 days after his wedding day, and his criticism of the Bashir regime, both before and after he left the country, has made him fearful of ever returning.
“He can’t go, because they know him. He’s very active,” his wife Hadjara said, though she, herself, is desperately homesick. There’s an apparent sadness in her voice that the men she surrounds herself with either conceal or suppress. “I feel like I don’t have a life at all. It’s so hard for me. So much stress.”
She wants to introduce her family to her five-year-old daughter, a happy little girl who knows Darfur only as a word. Sometimes, Ibrahim tells Hadjara that next year, he’ll take his family to visit Darfur, hoping that by next year “the situation is going to change.”
But the years keep passing and little has changed. “They’re so hopeful, and I don’t understand it,” Laura Limuli said. She, like Sharon Silber, is one of the community’s biggest cheerleaders. As chairperson of the Brooklyn Coalition for Darfur, she paints signs for rallies and does the laundry for clothing drives, but even she gets discouraged by the constant blows the Darfuri population has had to face. “One of them last year actually purchased a house there, and then it was burned down,” she said. “I don’t know why anybody would buy anything there or think it wasn’t going to burn down, but that’s how much they feel that they have to keep investing in their homes.”
Yousif, more than anyone else, had embraced this stance of hope, insisting that he would return to his work in Darfur within the year. “You have to be close to the water source so you can drink from there,” he said in October. But by the time December had come and gone, he, too, found himself stuck. The Sudanese government threatened his family, detaining his brother and interrogating him about Yousif. Though life as a moving target has been tough on Yousif, he’s been willing to sacrifice his own safety. But not his family’s. And so, as fall turned to winter and winter to spring, in a land “whose fishes die of the cold,” Yousif moved from Manhattan to Brooklyn, back to Manhattan and to New Jersey, but he has not, yet, gone home.
To be part of the Darfur activist movement is to live in a perpetual state of déjà vu. A sea of familiar faces move as one, from conference to conference, to meeting, to rally, where earnest, heartfelt words are repeated or rephrased again and again, until they detach from the issues they intend to address, like endlessly repeating the word “spoon” until it’s just a word and not a utensil.
There’s Sharon Silber standing by the first few rows of seats, wearing a tan, linen jacket. Then, Jerry Fowler makes his entrance through the back door. After the talk has started, Dosa quietly guides a van full of Darfuri Brooklynites, the round-faced Ibrahim among them, into the room. They are late, as always. Yousif gets there early, of course. He is wearing a round, porkpie hat and he smiles, now, twice as often as he did in his first few months; he has begun to trust the commitment of this group. And there is another recognizable face in the crowd, with wiry gray eyebrows and a mass of salt-and-pepper hair. Though this face seldom makes appearances at these events, its presence alone breaks the flow of the habitual scene. This face is a harbinger of action.
It is the face of Luis Moreno Ocampo, the International Criminal Court’s chief prosecutor, the man who might as well have been Jesus Christ sitting in the front row of seats at Yale Law school on a Friday morning in February. He was preparing to give a keynote speech on the Court’s highly anticipated upcoming decision regarding al-Bashir’s arrest warrant. Before Ocampo approached the microphone, the esteemed Dean Harold Hongju Koh offered the audience this prompt: “Our question today is how to bridge the gap between rhetoric and action.”
Whether that question was ultimately answered is yet to be determined, but Ocampo did his best to give an unforgiving and condemnatory speech, stirring the crowd and inciting it to more than one bout of unexpected applause. He had collected more than 100 eyewitness testimonies upon which to build his case against al-Bashir. The U.N. Security Council had referred the case to the ICC, and it was Ocampo’s job to convince the Court that al-Bashir was guilty of war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide. In his speech, Ocampo showed no sign of doubt that the conflict in Darfur is, indeed, a genocide, but it would be up to the Court to decide whether the evidence sufficiently supported the charges.
“The prosecution alleges that fear, rape and hunger are the weapons of the genocide in Darfur,” Ocampo said, noting that the violence was directed at the Fur, Zaghawa and Massalit tribes.
“The Sudanese armed forces and popular defense forces called militia Janjaweed, you have to understand they are popular defense forces integrated in the state,” he said, “systematically collected joint military operations directed against civilians in towns and villages inhabited mainly by these three ethnic groups.”
The International Criminal Court’s Rome Statute is the treaty that initially established and currently dictates the Court’s rulings. There are four crimes within its jurisdiction: war crimes, crimes against humanity, crimes of aggression and genocide. The last of these crimes is the most difficult to prove. It is defined as any number of violent acts “committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.” Though there’s proof of the violent acts, al-Bashir’s “intent,” or lack thereof, is what has thrown the word “genocide” into question.
“I have to apply the law to massive crimes. I have to do it without fear of failure,” Ocampo said, noting that the court should be both punitive and preventive. “The decision of the court, if confirming the existence of the crimes, should create a momentum to close ranks around one objective: stop the crimes today.”
There had been fear, of course, that the issuance of an arrest warrant would only infuriate an already militant al-Bashir, causing him to lash out against civilians with even more fury. But Ocampo, like many of the Darfurians in the audience that day, was resolute in his belief that justice must be pursued for justice’s sake. It would be wrong to “sequence peace and justice,” to let peace precede judicial processes. “There’s something between bombing and nothing,” Ocampo said, “and we have to create this something.”
After Ocampo’s talk, the panel discussions took a turn for the typical. Could peace and justice work together? What is peace? How does one define justice? Which is more important and which comes first? And what about security? Simple as they were, these are questions that did need answers, answers that no one could supply.
Some of the speakers were optimistic, emphatic. “The National Congress Party, despite their record of death and destruction in Southern Sudan and Darfur, is not the Taliban. Bashir is not Saddam,” John Prendergast said. As a writer, activist and co-chair of the Enough Project, Prendergast has been to Darfur eight times since the conflict began.
“They don’t want to go down with Bashir,” he said. “They’re much more pragmatic. They’re survivalists. That means they will adjust.”
Some of the speakers were cynical and definitively so, like Jean-Marie Guehenno. “It’s a sad story to tell,” he said, “but I think after years of displacement in big camps, Darfur will never be the way it was before the war. It’s unrealistic to think that all these people are going to go back to their villages of origin. It will not happen. The way of life in Darfur has changed forever.”
The discussions were loaded with contrasting opinions. The single unifying moment of the afternoon came when Sudanese ambassador Akec Achiew Khoc, a tall man black man with eerily narrow eyes, stood in front of the audience to say, “I’m afraid if an indictment goes on today, it will be bad timing for the peace process. It is good timing for the peace process today without indictment.”
His declaration yielded not a single clap of applause. The silent response the audience offered him was a collective reminder of a motto the Darfurians hold sacred: “There is no peace without justice.” The ICC would have to indict al-Bashir.
And then, on the morning of March 4th, there it was, live-streaming from the International Criminal Court’s headquarters in the Hague, a predictable decision with unpredictable consequences. Al-Bashir was the first sitting head of state to be charged with war crimes and crimes against humanity. The warrant did not include the charge of genocide, but it didn’t matter to the Darfur People’s Association of New York. Perhaps for the first time, they were early to the rally outside the Sudanese mission to the United Nations that day, greeting one another with the widest smiles, shaking hands and patting one another on the back. The word of the moment was “happy.”
“We are so happy “ Ibrahim said.
“It’s a very happy day for every Darfurian,” Yousif said.
“I can’t describe my happiness,” Dosa’s younger brother Nasir said.
All along 47th St. from First to Second Avenue, Darfurian men and women rejoiced in the “happy” news. Standing behind signs that read, “WANTED: Omar al-Bashir” or “Well come Well come to ICC Decision,” they chanted, “No peace without justice, al-Bashir war criminal.”
They hung on the fiery words of the Rev. Herbert Daughtry, the African-American minister from Brooklyn. Into the microphone he shouted with all the vibrato-laden fervor he might use in front of his congregation, saying, “Al-Bashir must go. And so, we gonna get the handcuffs and go lookin’ for him. If you see him anywhere, tell him he’s under arrest. And there’s no hiiiiiiding place. No matter where he goes, he can’t hide. He can run, but he can’t hide. Yeah he can jump, but he can’t hide.”
The rally grew to at least 40-people strong on the corner of 47th St. and First Avenue, demanding attention for the victory. This was not the same monotonous scene they had known for the past six years. Today, the Darfurians would not be pushed off the stage. Instead, they would push back.
On Second Avenue another group had gathered. The lighter tone of their skin suggested that they were not from Darfur. They, too, held signs printed with the names and faces of Ocampo and al-Bashir, but their signs read, “Ocampo Politicizes Justice.”
“There’s not a genocide,” said a tall, hulking member of the group, who is originally from Khartoum. “It’s a foreign agenda. It’s a business war.”
“Our message is very clear,” his shorter counterpart confirmed, “We want to keep our country in one piece.”
The taller of the two had an unusual accent, a unique mixture of his Sudanese upbringing and his life in New York. “I would never go back there ever,” he said of Sudan. “America’s my second home.” The small group of Sudanese people around him nodded in agreement.
Meanwhile, the group that had already taken over First Avenue moved westward to confront their fellow countrymen leading the counter rally. The black faces of the Darfurians mingled with the olive complexions of the opposing group, and pieces of the multicolored signs that each group held began to fall on the snowy ground. As frustrated fists ripped and tore at the contradicting messages on each others’ posters, Dosa forced a smile, tensely pulling his friends behind the barricade, which nearby police officers were hastily constructing.
“We have some people sneaking out,” Dosa said, nervously laughing.
The smaller counter rally moved to the other side of Second Avenue, and for a while, spirits were high once more. At the microphone, one man from the Darfur People’s Association read al-Bashir’s criminal charges aloud, eliciting a resounding chorus of “Guilty!” each time he asked the crowd. “How do you find him?”
“I think it spurs them on,” Laura Limuli said amidst the ongoing chants. “They really have been very depressed ‘til this summer when Prosecutor Ocampo told them he had finally put the evidence together after three years and was presenting it to the judges, and I guess they still had a well full of hope, because they were expecting something good to happen.”
The group across the way had begun to disassemble. It had failed to produce a comparable turnout to begin with, and by 3 p.m. only a few stragglers were left behind. Ibrahim’s wife Hadjara hadn’t taken her eyes off them all day. “When I see them, I just want to fight,” she said, holding a piece of scrap metal in her hands. “If the cops weren’t here, I swear to God I’d fight.”
The last remaining al-Bashir sympathizers parted ways along Second Avenue. Only one of them decided to approach the jeering crowd across the road. He was also a native of Darfur, who had married a girl from Khartoum. He was known among the Darfur People’s Association for siding with the regime, and on that day, instead of joining them behind the barricade, he stood in front of them and took photos. Within seconds of the first snapshot, three members of the Darfur People’s Association were on the ground, held beneath the heavy grip of police officers. They had leapt out from behind the barricade to stop the lone photographer, as if each flash of his camera were a deadly bullet. All Darfurians know the power of a picture. They know that their activism in America affects their family’s safety at home.
“They tried to take photos,” Yousif said, already fearful for his family in Darfur, “and these photos going to be sent to Sudan, and they going to torture the people there.”
Police officers quickly ended the scuffle, throwing the three would-be heroes to the ground, where blood now stained patches of snow on the sidewalk. One of the men was new to New York and in the process of applying for asylum. At home, the Janjaweed had kidnapped him and forced him to work in their camps until he escaped across the border to Chad and purchased a fake passport. It was his ticket to the United States. Now, he and one of the other Darfuri man were handcuffed in the back of a police van; the third was also in handcuffs, being treated for a cut on his face.
The peaceful celebration had turned violent, but it was only a vague indication of what the people in Darfur would encounter. Following the Court’s decision, an enraged al-Bashir expelled 13 non-governmental organizations providing aid to the region, including Yousif’s Sudan Social Development Organization. The 4.7 million Darfuris who have depended on this type of aid now go without.
More than ever, Yousif’s work has become a target, so in late March, he applied to extend his U.S. visa for another six months. Arresting al-Bashir will be a struggle. The Court has no police force of its own, and must depend on the assistance of world leaders to deliver the Sudanese president. Still, he has traveled to several Arab League countries that disagree with the decision and refuse to participate in his arrest. Though President Obama has elected a special envoy to Sudan, his efforts at diplomacy will likely take time to go into effect. Until then, Yousif and the vast Darfuri diaspora will keep waiting.
Outside the police van on that March afternoon, the mood of the rally had changed. With fingers splayed in peace signs, the group behind the barricade nodded approval to the men in the handcuffs, thanking them for jumping to the rescue. As the van drove off, Dosa began calling around for lawyers, and most of the ralliers went back to Brooklyn. They considered the arrests negligible in proportion to their achievements, and around 7 p.m., near Cortelyou Road and Coney Island Avenue, they gathered in celebration once again.
Issie Lapowsky has previously written about victims of political exile for Inc.com and has also been published in Philadelphia and BlackBook. She now works for the New York Daily News.