Monday, July 03, 2006

Persistence of Memory

re-posted from: Philadelphia Weekly
Members of the local Sudanese community lead efforts to help their homeland.
by Jesse Smith

Ten years ago Mohamed Ibrahim was a member of the National Democratic Alliance in Sudan, working underground with 11 others to document cases of government torture in the African nation. The group hunted for "ghost houses"-the hidden sites where blindfolded civilians were taken and abused-and secretly sent its reports to offices in London and Cairo for international dissemination.
But while searching for a particularly notorious ghost house, authorities caught and arrested Ibrahim, and detained him in just such a place for four months. He was tortured every night after curfew, so passers-by wouldn't hear his screams. The abuse was both physical-an aspect Ibrahim declines to discuss-and mental.
"They'd threaten to bring prisoners' kids in for torture, or their wives or sisters to be raped," he remembers.
Ibrahim was freed after agreeing to work for his captors within six months of his release, but within five he'd escaped to Yemen before making his way to the United States. Since arriving here, violence in Sudan has escalated, sparking a conflict in the country's western Darfur region that's killed tens of thousands and displaced more than 2 million.
Now Ibrahim and a small but driven community of Sudanese in Philadelphia are working to bring attention to the largely ignored plight of their countrymen.
This week the local Darfur Alert Coalition-made up of religious organizations and activist groups-is partnering with the national Save Darfur Coalition to produce a series of events in Philadelphia aimed at raising awareness of the crisis. It's the first of a 22-stop, 11-state tour that'll culminate in a rally in Washington, D.C., on April 30.
The event is a valuable opportunity for a local community of 3,500 that grew solely as a result of the violence in Sudan-Ibrahim estimates that 95 percent of the local Sudanese population are expatriates who fled the country after the current government of Omar Hassan Ahmad al-Bashir took control in a 1989 coup d'etat.
That population has worked to position Philadelphia as one of the nation's most influential centers of Sudanese activism. In December 2004 activists and the American Friends Service Committee collaborated to produce an exhibit of artwork from Sudanese children that later toured the Northeast. Ibrahim says the exhibit led many cities, including Springfield, Mass., and Hartford, Conn., to create their own advocacy organizations.
In Philadelphia the experience was the foundation for the new Coalition. The group is now part of an extensive local network that includes the Group Against Torture in Sudan, Western Sudanese Association and Swarthmore Sudan.
Their efforts are starting to produce results. The U.S. Islamic community has been largely silent on the issue of Darfur, where fighting is mostly among Muslims, but Ibrahim says the local community has welcomed the tour and offered him a "very positive response."
"We're bringing the Muslim and Jewish communities together for the first time to talk about Sudan," he says. "Each group knows that though they differ on many other issues, they can come together for this."
For others like Dr. Ibrahim Imam, however, the opportunity to share the story of their country is itself a realized goal.
Before coming to Philadelphia, the president of the Sudanese Liberation Movement worked for Sudan's Ministry of Health, searching for evidence of massacres in Darfur. He found three mass graves, including two filled with the bodies of members of his own Zaghawa tribe. He reported his findings to the government, but nothing was done.
"All the government wanted to do was show the people of Darfur that it was responding to their complaints," he says. "They'd just throw away anything I gave them."
Imam was sent to Yemen on a medical mission, but was dismissed for, he believes, his work in Darfur. Imam returned briefly to Sudan, but fled the country fearing harsher punishments, including imprisonment or torture.
Now established in Philadelphia with his wife and children, Imam nevertheless returns to the areas of his country that are protected by the rebel Sudan Liberation Army to participate in peace talks and treat civilians who'd otherwise receive no medical attention. He's eager to bring attention to the crisis he's witnessed firsthand.
"The media in Sudan is controlled by the government," he says. "Nobody knows what's happening there. This gives us the chance to tell people the truth."

Jesse Smith ( This article was originally posted here:

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