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“Voice for Darfur” speaks out on ethnic cleansing

Daoud Hari came to Lehigh "to let you know my story, our story ..."

As Daoud Hari translated for New York Times reporter Nicholas Kristof, the two Sudanese girls—just 9 and 12 years old—described kidnapping, rape and torture they had endured at the hands of soldiers belonging to a fierce militia called the janjaweed.

“One girl’s body was destroyed by knives and burnt by fire. Three to five different men every day raped them,” Hari recalled Thursday night, during a talk on Lehigh’s campus.

When the girls were released two weeks later, the youngest was unable to walk. The older girl, also injured, carried her to her village.

“The village was very happy to have their girls back,” Hari said.

After they left the village, Hari and Kristof told the girls’ story to a local humanitarian organization, which provides aid to victims. And the former sheep and camel herder, who endured imprisonment and torture himself for aiding Western journalists seeking to shine a light on the atrocities in Darfur, has now dedicated his life to telling that story to the world.

That’s what brought him Thursday night to Sinclair Auditorium, which was packed with students, faculty and community members.

“I came here to talk about Darfur, to let you know my story, our story and to be a voice for Darfur,” said Hari, one of only three Darfuri refugees admitted to the U.S.

“Making the conflict a reality”

The janjaweed wields rape as a weapon in ethnic cleansing, which the U.S. government calls genocide. Conflict in Darfur escalated in 2004 when the Sudanese government sponsored militias to quell rebels complaining that the Arab government neglected black residences.

Since then, the janjaweed has murdered, burned and pillaged villages in western Sudan. The United Nations estimates that more than 400,000 people in western Sudan have died and 2.5 million more are displaced.

“But we know people are dead in much bigger numbers,” Hari said, suggesting that the number of actual deaths is closer to 600,000.

The presentation opened with a brief movie depicting victims of the violence. Hari then described his own experiences and answered questions from the audience. Afterwards, audience members lingered to enjoy a small repast and talk with Hari.

Ahmed Salim ’08 introduced Hari. “We’ve all heard about the conflict in Darfur,” said Salim, an international relations major. “We’ve read about it in the newspapers, seen it on TV. Today, we see a different aspect. We see an aspect straight from Darfur, basically making the conflict a reality.”

“One day is like one year”

Hari’s tale began in 2003, when soldiers, suspended by helicopters, unloaded a firestorm of bullets on his small Sudanese village, killing men, women and children. The attack also destroyed the herder’s dreams of owning camels and possibly attending school.

“There is no village, no camels,” he said.

His family has been scattered or killed.

“My older brother died in 2003. My two brothers and mother are safe,” he said. “My father is dead. I lost two sisters. I don’t know where they are. I hope they will be okay.”

Escaping the raid, Hari took refugee in Chad. Over the next three years, he assumed an alias and returned to Darfur, translating for non-governmental organizations and journalists.

“They needed someone who knew English, someone from Darfur, someone who knew how to be safe,” he said.

In 2006, he was arrested under false charges along with Chicago Tribune reporter Paul Salopek, who was writing a special for National Geographic.

They were held and tortured in a Sudanese prison for 35 days.

“When you are tortured, one day is like one year,” Hari says. “We had no food, but sometimes they would give you food once a day.”

On Sept. 9, 2006, Salopek and Hari were released to Chad after the intercession of New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson.

“America is the world leader”

But Hari’s adventures were not over. The Chad government detained Hari, threatening to deport him to Sudan again. He remained in Chad for 10 days while journalists and attorneys lobbied the U.S. government to intervene on his behalf. Hari was released again and sheltered in Ghana for three months, before he received approval to enter the U.S. as a refugee in March.

“When I was released, I had hope that one day, my people will also be released,” Hari said.

Today, Hari lives in Asbury Park, N.J., where he speaks for his countrymen and his family, some of whom are still in Darfur. He has testified before Congress three times and is writing a book about his work translating.

For Nicholas D. Kristof's May 14 New York Times column on Hari, read The Witness Next Door.

By re-telling his story, Hari believes he can end the killings.

“I am looking to tell the American public about Darfur,” he said in a brief interview before his talk. “America is the world leader, and their politicians are concerned about what the people ask for. If the American people know what is happening, then they can push their Congress and senators to act.”

“We need peace. We need security,” Hari said.

Hari’s presentation, which was sponsored by the Global Union, initiated a year-long effort to educate the Lehigh community about Darfur, said Bill Hunter, director of the Global Union.

“To most people, Darfur is a horrific atrocity occurring far, far away,” Hunter said.

Before Thursday night’s talk, Hunter told Hari: “Tonight, you will make it real for the students.”

One of these students was Matthew Reeser ’09, an international relations major. Until Thursday, Reeser only knew about the conflict through discussions in class and televised news reports. After hearing Hari’s story, he plans to research the conflict and find ways to end the violence.

Reeser believes that more people should hear Hari’s tale.

“If more (presentations like this) were held throughout the country, it would make a big difference,” he said.

Hari’s story especially resonated with Caroline Kusi, ’11, who grew up in Ghana.

“I know what it is like to live in a state of oppression and suppression,” the biology major said. “People need to speak out and students of Lehigh need to raise awareness.”

--Becky Straw

Photo by Theo Anderson

Posted on Friday, September 21, 2007

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