Thursday, June 7, 2012

If Only Our Leaders Had Mariam’s Guts

June 6, 2012



I’d like to introduce a valiant woman here, Mariam Tia, to President Obama and other world leaders, so she could explain how they’re allowing Sudan’s leaders to get away with mass atrocities that echo Darfur.

Once again, in Sudan there are starving children, tens of thousands of refugees, rapes and racial epithets, a spiraling death toll and passivity in the White House.

Mariam was pregnant when the Sudanese Army invaded her village here in the rebel-held Nuba Mountains and shot her husband dead. Enraged, she took over a mounted machine gun set up by rebels and began to rake the soldiers as they burned the village’s huts.

Mariam said she isn’t sure whether she actually shot any soldiers and that soon they began firing back, so she had to run for her life. She eventually relocated to a dank mountain cave, where — like countless other Nubans — she felt a bit safer from random bombings by government warplanes. When her due date came, two months ago, Mariam delivered her baby by herself inside the cave.

She named her baby girl Fakao, which is shorthand for: bombs are dropping. When people hear Antonov bombers releasing their payloads, they shout “Fakao! Fakao!” That’s the signal to huddle behind rocks and hope for the best.

“When this child was in my stomach, I used to run from the bombers,” Mariam told me as she nursed Fakao in front of her cave. “I named her this so that I could remember the struggle we went through to give her life.”

“If I ever see the enemy again,” she added, “I will tie this baby to my back and pick up a gun and fight them.”

World leaders could use some of that backbone. Instead, they have said little and done almost nothing as President Omar Hassan al-Bashir has — for a year now — undertaken daily bombings in the Nuba Mountains and the neighboring Blue Nile region, blocked food from entering, expelled aid groups and tried to bar witnesses. I entered illegally on a dirt track from South Sudan, and, as noted in my last column, I found that hundreds of thousands of people in the Nuba Mountains have run out of food and are surviving on leaves, wild roots and insects.

As I travel about here, I find the contrasts heartbreaking. One is the gulf of technology between government forces and their civilian victims: I interview impoverished families huddling in caves and eating leaves and bugs, and our conversations are interrupted by Sudanese MIG or Antonov bombers overhead. Sudan mostly drops antipersonnel bombs full of shrapnel, but it occasionally drops cluster bombs.

One woman, Hasia al-Ahmar, told me that her mother had starved to death and then the government dropped a bomb that landed directly on the family’s grass-roof mud hut, with her sister inside.

“We could just pick up little pieces of her and put them in a plastic bag,” she said. “And then we buried the bag.”

The collision between a 21st-century bomb and a village woman in a traditional mud hut — that pretty much captures the horror of what is unfolding now in the Nuba Mountains. The same bombings and starvation also seem to be occurring next door in the Blue Nile region, forcing tens of thousands to flee to South Sudan.

Another contrast is between the timidity and fecklessness of world leaders, and the courage and grit of the Nuba people themselves. Take Hamat Dorbet, a 39-year-old evangelical Presbyterian pastor.

In an anti-Christian campaign a dozen years ago in this Muslim-dominated country, the authorities began arresting Hamat for ringing his church bell and preaching to his congregation. They would arrest him each Sunday, according to his account and that of neighbors, and then beat and torture him for a few days.

Each Sunday, after a few days of recovery, Hamat would struggle back to the church, ring the bell and begin another service. Then police officers would come and drag him out for more torture. Once they shot him, and he almost died. A month after that, when he could move again, he roused himself out of bed one Sunday morning, limped to the church and boldly rang the bell to deliver another service.

A peace accord shortly afterward stopped the persecution and, perhaps, saved his life. But these days, Pastor Hamat is again struggling to stay alive. Like most of his church members, he has nothing to eat but leaves, roots and insects, and he is fading. And, of course, this is a government-designed famine: in Sudan, “to starve” is a transitive verb.

Hamat is not asking for help, and he’s not feeling sorry for himself. I’d like to explain to him why the world lets this happen without even speaking out strongly, and I just don’t know what to say. President Obama?

I invite you to visit my blog, On the Ground. Please also join me on Facebook and Google+, watch my YouTube videos and follow me on Twitter.

© 2011 The New York Times Company

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"The master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles. The master class has had all to gain and nothing to lose, while the subject class has had nothing to gain and everything to lose--especially their lives." Eugene Victor Debs

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