Darfur’s human face


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When I first met Bakr, I wasn’t looking to discuss the struggles of humanity, and I wasn’t feeling particularly benevolent or philanthropic. I needed a ride home, and when my friends and I climbed into a cab that night, nothing about the other rider signaled me that meeting him would eventually inspire me to write his story.

There was nothing unusual about Bakr; in fact, he seemed like an average middle-age immigrant. He was friendly, inquisitive, and chatty. And like every person I’ve split fare with, I assumed this congeniality was more for his benefit than my own.

I was wrong about Bakr. As turns out, he is a man further from average than any other I’ve met. He is a man whose courage helped re-ignite the selfishly dampened humanity of one very ordinary, unaffected, 25-year-old American.

Bakr is a political refugee from Sudan — specifically, the region called Darfur. What he told me that night, and in subsequent interviews, not only personalized my interpretation of global politics but compelled me to be more active in my understanding of world issues.

I’ve always claimed to be moderately well informed on current events, but in the true essence of naïveté, my understanding is based more so on opinion than actual knowledge. Though I’m ashamed to admit it, prior to Bakr’s account, I was completely unaware of what was going on in Darfur.

Bakr was born in Kulbus, Sudan, in early spring somewhere in the mid-to-late 1960s. “Tell them I was born on top of Dolo Hill, in Kulbus,” he said. “They will know who I am when they read this.” He requested I refrain from using specifics, which might jeopardize the anonymity of his surviving family members in Sudan.

“One summer night,” he recalled in a later interview, “we went to sleep early, as always.” It was June 2002.

Around midnight Bakr woke up to find his world coming down around him. While the townspeople slept, hundreds of Janjaweed militants had surrounded the village, igniting the haystacks on the city perimeter. As he and his family fled their home, they watched as neighbors ran terrified through the smoke toward the gunmen waiting for them in the darkness.

“People were running everywhere,” he said. “No one knew where to go.”

Panicked, Bakr and his family ran south with the wind, hoping the smoke would blind the gunmen on the southern outskirts. From the corner of his eyes Bakr saw his family members fall to ground, one by one.

“They took everything,” said Bakr, “I watched, and I could do nothing.”

Days later, safe in a refugee camp, Bakr was given the chance to scroll through pictures of survivors in other African refugee camps on a computer. Not one of them was a family member.

Today, Bakr lives in Iowa City. After becoming a temporary citizen, he has located his mother (in a refugee camp) and two of his brothers. His youngest brother now helps lead a mountain army fighting the Janjaweed on the border of Chad. His other surviving brother was forced to work as a propagandist radio host for the Sudanese government, urging Darfurians not to flee their villages ahead of Janjaweed massacres.

I spent Christmas Eve with Bakr, and although he doesn’t celebrate the holiday, this article is the best gift I could offer him. His story, offered to the world, can do more than I can do singularly.

Last month, the citizens of Sudan voted to determine whether the country will split in half. Darfur borders the western half of the country. While the result of this referendum would not end genocide in Darfur, it might be a step toward the region’s independence. The official results of the vote, and the government’s response, will not come until the middle of this month.

Please pay close attention to what is happening in Sudan. Cultivate an understanding of these issues and encourage others to do the same. Let Bakr’s story remind you, these are some of the most important matters we will consider in our lives.

Matt Bechstein is a communication studies student at Kirkwood Community College.

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