Tuesday, March 08, 2005

CityPaper Interview with GATS

Overseas Plight
A group of Sudanese West Philadelphians works to help torture victims recover.
by Hannah Yi

Mohamed Elgadi knows the horrors of the Sudanese civil war firsthand. Now living in West Philadelphia, Elgadi became a human-rights activist in his African homeland at the age of 17. When a military coup brought a new faction to power in 1985, all citizens were subject to an 8 p.m. to 5 a.m. curfew. That was the least of his worries, as an era of persecution against activists and trade-union boosters was underway.
Before long, Elgadi lost his job as an environmental specialist with the nation's Agriculture Department. In all, he says tens of thousands of people were suddenly unemployed. A few days later, security agents visited his home after midnight. A group of four guards surrounded his place and harassed his neighbors. They bullied Elgadi for the identities of other activists. When he refused to name names, the agents began visiting twice a day. Feeling that heat, he and 12 others went underground and formed a makeshift human-rights organization called the Democratic Alliance Group. Their aim was to tell the world of the horrors in Sudan; it wouldn't be easy.
"The government had all organizations banned so the outside world didn't know," recalls Elgadi. "We networked and collected information and interviewed people released from ghost houses," the secret facilities where detainees were tortured with whippings, clubbings, electric shock, starvation and sexual abuse.
Many of the torture victims referred to the site of their torture as the "Citibank ghost house," so Elgadi and other activists set out to find it. (All they knew was that detainees could see a Citibank logo from their cell.) They ultimately found it, but not in a heroic fashion. In April 1992, the activists were arrested and taken there.
"There were all kinds of sophisticated torture, physical, mental, high-tech pharmaceutical and chemical torture where they inject you," says Elgadi, refraining from discussing specific torture methods he witnessed during this four-month stay because, "it was bad and I prefer not to speak about it. They wanted to destroy us, our brain, and then sent us back into the community to scare off any other activists. When I came out, I decided to do something and not personalize it but instead to do it for people and help people get out."
So that's what he did.
Having fled Sudan for the United States after his release, Elgadi is now president of GATS, or Group Against Torture in Sudan, a West Philadelphia-based advocacy group working to draw attention to the ongoing atrocities. Elgadi says he started the group, the only of its kind for Sudanese-Americans in the U.S., in Philadelphia because there were some 120 Sudanese living here in 1995. That number has since increased to roughly 3,000.
Located in a nondescript building that serves as an insurance office on the corner of Baltimore Avenue and 45th Street, GATS educates people about the ongoing organized torture in Sudan, promotes reconciliation between warring Sudanese communities and provides torture victims with appropriate treatment and rehabilitation.
Of the 15 core members, three are actual torture victims. They hold awareness exhibitions and organize rallies and meetings that consist of video presentations and documentaries followed by open discussion. Though the others don't like talking publicly, at their meetings they sometimes perform short skits to teach family members how to deal with their loved ones who were torture victims. They also collect individual stories about the torture they faced and the struggle of overcoming it so they can help others cope.
Elgadi knows that things aren't all that different today in Sudan. One needn't do much more than seek international news to see there are still serious problems. On Jan. 9, a historic peace agreement was signed between the Sudan government and rebel groups to end more than 21 years of war. The piece of paper, however, didn't put an end to the perpetual fighting and flagrant crimes against humanity.
Then, earlier this month, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan called upon the European Union and NATO to supplement the inadequacy of the country's effort to bring peace. Deputy U.S. Ambassador Stuart Holliday proposed sending 10,000 U.N. peacekeepers along with 715 civilian police and human rights and legal experts. That, too, has yet to quell the problems overseas.
For Elgadi and the other members of GATS, it's still difficult to watch from afar, even if they're in a better place today.
"This is a really very strange stance of the international community," he says. "The U.S. was the first country to admit genocide was occurring in Darfur last September, but they are not doing more since that time. It's sad."
Though the Sudan crisis has dimmed from the media's radar, the reality of the war crimes continues. Elgadi keeps plugging away to help fulfill GATS' mission, whether it's aiding those in Philadelphia who cannot escape their past or coping with his own demons.
"People have started to relax thinking there is peace in Sudan," Elgadi says, "but the crisis is still there."

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