Oral History — May 16, 2017, 5:12 pm

Don’t Speak

A Sudanese refugee on life in Darfur 

From a conversation with Abu Alsam Alcadro* that took place in his temporary home in East Amman. Alcadro is a 46-year-old journalist from Kutum, in Sudan’s North Darfur region. After nomadic militias known as the Janjaweed attacked his hometown in 2003, Alcadro fled, first to al-Fashir, the state capital, and later to Jordan, where he and his family registered as refugees. In November, after they had been waiting for two years, U.N.H.C.R. referred them for resettlement in the United States. Their interviews with the International Organization for Migration have been postponed following President Trump’s executive orders, which bar entry for citizens of six predominantly Muslim nations, including Sudan, and cut in half the total number of refugees admitted into the country.

*His name has been changed to protect his identity.

When I was born, my father was a farmer. He farmed vegetables and had some animals: sheep, goats, camels. Growing up, we feared wolves. Wolves attack people. We didn’t know that people attacked other people. We didn’t know war, or killing, or death. Our world in Kutum was plants, water, animals, stones, valleys, fruits, vegetables. We lived in peace.

I studied media and communications at the Omdurman Islamic University, near Khartoum. It was 1999, and the Bashir regime was already in power. I was the president of the Darfur Students Association, and I felt there were problems with discrimination against Darfur students. If your skin was black, a little black, there was racism. We held a seminar about the Black Book—a book about injustice in Darfur by Khalil Ibrahim, the founder of the Justice and Equality Movement, an opposition group—and we were threatened for it. The book was forbidden, but we decided to discuss it publicly and openly anyway. And then the security forces in the university beat us and we stopped.

After I graduated, I went back to Darfur, but there wasn’t any work. I started volunteering with schools, but the next year the Janjaweed came to my hometown with weapons and camels. They beat people, including our neighbor. Our house in the town had a small store. The Janjaweed hit it with bazookas and looted it, leaving nothing. I ran away with my family to the wilderness. We climbed the palm trees and hid there.

We decided to run away to al-Fashir. We rode donkeys over mountains and valleys, 80 kilometers in a day and a half. We hid in the bush overnight and slept inside a well. Almost 20,000 of us fled to al-Fashir. Whenever the Janjaweed attacked a village, the government would help them with an air strike. The whole country was filled with war and killing and looting. We were exhausted, hungry, and thirsty.

Once, the Janjaweed caught me on the road and hung me upside down from a tree by my ankle. Because I’m Zaghawi. They beat me and asked me questions. I lost consciousness; I don’t know how long I was hanging, but I was with them for three days. They asked me: Where are you from? Are you Zaghawa? Are you Fur? and so on. In the end, they saw I had nothing. I got away.

After this incident I was always dizzy. But when my health got better, I took a test to be a journalist. I became a correspondent for various Sudanese newspapers, covering the things happening in Darfur. I’d use the telephone to tell them what happened, or I’d write emails at a public internet café in the market. They didn’t publish all the news. They’d publish parts of it. But not the realities—those they’d cut.

I became the external relations officer for the Darfur Journalists Association (D.J.A.), which was started in 2006. Around that time, there was a radio station from Holland called Radio Dabanga, an independent news station for Darfuris. I didn’t have relations with them, but the government thought I was telling this radio station about the bad news from Darfur, which would have been forbidden. In 2007, they arrested me and detained me for a week. The prison was very dark, very small, and narrow. There was no electricity. And I was by myself. Eventually they let me out—I was just dealing with journalists within Darfur. It would have been a big problem for the government if you had contact with foreigners and talked about problems in Darfur. They would kill you for that.

I stayed in the Kassab camp, mainly helping various NGOs with aid distribution, but I continued to freelance by calling up Sudanese newspapers and giving them information about the humanitarian situation. One day at the end of 2011, an Italian came with an NGO. She had money to bring water and services to the civilians, and she wanted to photograph the camps and talk to journalists. I got a call from an office director in Khartoum to take her around and help her with the photography. I didn’t expect this to be a problem, because she had come through the government and the Sudanese security forces were following and tracking us to make sure nothing happened. But when she went to the airport, they confiscated everything, her film and so on. She left, but I was still there. I worked for many agencies and newspapers, so I became afraid for myself.

They took me to prison again for about a month. I said, Bring me to court, because I knew I hadn’t done anything wrong. But while I was in prison, they told me, Don’t write again, don’t photograph, don’t speak—there was no freedom to express, to speak, anything. I saw injustice in my country. I saw the killing of my family in front of me. My cousin was raped. My aunt was killed. My uncle was killed. I felt the danger. I was afraid.

Now we just want a country that has security. We want life without racism. We want to have a life where we feel like humans.


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