Breaking the “international conspiracy of silence,” Dr. Barnaba Benjamin, a vocal advocate for the people of southern Sudan and a member of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM), spoke Monday February 8 on “The Current Political and Humanitarian Situation in the Sudan.” Discussion of the Sudanese plight continued at a lunch forum on Tuesday, addressing issues of slavery, refugees, and displaced populations in the Sudan.
Robert Peck, Chair and Director of Athletics, introduced Benjamin to an audience of about a hundred students, faculty and community members. Benjamin was educated at the University of Khartoum and received a degree in medicine from the University of Cairo. He worked in southern Sudan for the Ministry of Health and studied surgery and tropical medicine at the University of London.
When civil war broke out in the Sudan in 1983, however, Benjamin postponed his medical career to devote himself to the work of the emerging SPLM. Benjamin organized the first SPLM London office and a diplomatic regional office in Harare, Zimbabwe. He is a member of the Central Committee of the SPLM, the highest political organization of the movement, and was involved in the 1989 peace talks between the Government of the Sudan and the SPLM.
Benjamin focused on the extensive history of the Sudan which have led to the conditions sustaining the long periods of civil war that have ravaged the Sudan since it gained its independence from Britain in 1956.
Benjamin described the chasm between the northern and southern regions as developing from the Islamic invasions of the late first and second centuries. The north accepted the Islamic culture and began a process of “Islamization” and “Arabization,” while the south retained its Christian kingdoms. The division solidified with continued Islamic invasion through the nineteenth century; under British colonial rule, the north and south were governed as separate entities.
When the Sudan became independent in 1956, however, the north and south were united under a single government, controlled mainly by the north. This led to mutiny and civil war which killed over 750,000 before peace accords ended the fighting in 1972. The south was established as an independent administration but remained a part of the Sudan. The peace lasted only until 1983, when the north declared the entire country under unified, strict Islamic rule.
Faced with an Islamic state which “flattened the country on two parametersâ€”Arabism and Islamism,” Dr. Benjamin found himself among thousands of southern Sudanese asking, “Is this my country?” and deciding “If it is your country, you will work hard to change that system.” The south responded with a call for independence, and the Sudan Peoples Liberation Movement and Army (SPLM and SPLA) formed in 1983.
Benjamin emphasized that the war is “not a war targeted between Islam and Christianity,” but a small number of “fanatical leaders who are doing a disservice to Islam.”
The civil war resumed until peace talks convened in 1989. A conflict resolution committee of neighboring countries facilitated the negotiations with the support of Inter-Government Authority on Drought and Development (IGAD), comprised of the U.S., Britain, Holland, Canada, Italy, and Norway. The north and south agreed on a primary Declaration of Principles, in which the south demanded separation of church and state above all, but also decentralization and justice irrespective of religion or race.
If the north would not accede to these principles, then both sides agreed that the south should become an independent state. They reached this agreement in 1994. Dispute continues today over how to provide a peaceful interim government which would allow for a referendum to gauge the will of the southern Sudanese. Arguments over who will conduct the referendum continues to divide Sudan.
Discussion extended to include the topics of slavery, refugees, and displaced persons at a Multi-Cultural Center lunch on Tuesday. “Many people believe slavery ended in the nineteenth century, and it becomes an embarrassment to the international community to learn that slavery exists,” Benjamin commented.
Benjamin cited the civil war’s violence and destruction of the Sudan’s infrastructure as the creators of two to three million internally displaced Sudanese and an estimated one million refugees who have crossed international borders out of the Sudan, mainly into neighboring African countries. The internally displaced Sudanese, mostly southern Sudanese living in squatter camps, comprise the largest such population in the world. Benjamin expressed frustration at the lack of aid available to these “internal refugees.”
A Sudanese refugee who works at Berkshire Farm expressed his feelings toward his homeland, “This is a place today turned into a pariah. . .a country we dearly love. To leave that country is hard for us. It is really difficult.”
Professor Cheryl Shanks, who teaches a political science course on “Refugees and Humanitarian Disasters,” commented,“In the Sudan, the two nightmares [slavery and genocide] are rolled into one, one actual event that’s happening now. Two million people have been killed and there’s slavery at the same timeâ€”now, you could pick up the phone and call active slavers and active perpetrators of genocide using your Fone-Card!”
“Yet we don’t know about it,” Shanks continued, “and if we know, we don’t really care.” This is the “international conspiracy of silence” that Dr. Benjamin is helping to break.
Ben Warner ’99, who had not been exposed to the situation in the Sudan before Dr. Benjamin’s visit “was glad to have learned a bit about an important international situation. [The discussion] made me think a bit about what it means to be ‘American.’ I think that a presentation that does that for a student is incredibly valuable for a campus which prides itself on being one of the top American educational institutions.”
Peck, who met Benjamin during a six-month stay in Zimbabwe in 1996-1997, wanted to bring Benjamin to campus “to raise consciousness about what’s going on in the Sudan.”
“It’s [the civil war, slave trade] been going on for a long time,” he said, “it’s not getting a lot of play for a lot of political reasons. There’s a kind of lethargy that shouldn’t be happening.”
Peck encourages those interested in learning more about the Sudanese civil war to read “The Invisible War,” an article by William Finnegan in the January 28 issue of The New Yorker. To promote the peace process in the Sudan, all are encouraged to write their congressman.
Peck also suggested a drive for clothing and supplies, or a fundraiser, since money is easier to transport.
Peck noted that,“The Williams community and the Western Massachusetts community resonated to the need” of the plight of the Sudan, and he would “like to see if this can be turned into action in support of the Sudan.”