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Yearning for Freedom in Southern Sudan : Africa: A subjugated people seek their destiny apart from the Islamic fundamentalists who dominate Khartoum.

April 26, 1993|WILLIAM OCHAN AJJUGO | William Ochan Ajjugo earned a U.S. engineering degree in December and now lives in Newark, N.J. Paul H. Liben, a writer in New York, assisted him in this commentary.

Names always have meaning. My family name, Ajjugo, means pillar or overcomer in my native language. Looking back at my father's life, I see how well this fits him, and also the brave, resilient people of the southern Sudan.

I was born in the south's equatorial region in 1964. In 1965, my father moved us southward into northern Uganda. The reason was simple: Others wished to tear us from our roots and tell us how to think, what to believe, how to live.

These were Sudan's rulers to the north, in Khartoum. They planned to do to the south what they had done to the north since the Middle Ages--forcibly Islamize and Arabize its indigenous, heavily Christian population.

In the north, we lost a people, a culture, a civilization. There, they destroyed the highly advanced Nubian Christian kingdom and others like it. Resisters were slaughtered or enslaved. The rest accepted Islam or fled to the south, where for centuries they denied and defied Arabic and Islamic power.

Between 1898 and 1956, Sudan's British rulers kept the south separate from the north--and Islamic fundamentalism away from us. Once they left in 1956, Islamic encroachment resumed. Once bombing began in 1965, my father took my mother and us 12 children and walked 300 miles to Uganda. There, he and my mother cleared a wilderness area and began farming it.

What emerged was astonishing--a new settlement that became home for about 500,000 south Sudanese exiles, many of whom had been in U.N. refugee camps.

As leader of this self-sufficient community, my father became known as a counselor and a peacemaker, a man of wisdom and faith. He was quite good at handling disputes within families. Often he would separate the warring factions, letting weaker persons stay at our home while he got to the bottom of the matter. One fact stands out about that time: Not once did the police have to come to our settlement to arrest anyone.

In 1979, Uganda's own civil unrest forced my father to return to the Sudan, where he found others occupying his land. He was never a man of violence, so he did not oust the occupiers. Rather, he repeated his Ugandan success. He found some land outside of the town of Opari, and he cultivated it. Again, a prosperous new town sprung up; once more, refugees poured in and began new lives of self-reliance and dignity.

In 1972, the north had granted the south autonomy. My father was skeptical, and time has proved him right. Since 1972, Khartoum has repeatedly flouted that agreement. In 1983, when Khartoum began imposing Sharia--Islamic law--on it, the south exploded in rebellion. Today, the strife continues, accompanied by a terrible famine caused by the war's dislocations and by the north's unconscionable use of food as a weapon.

Many young people have since left the country. I was compelled to do so. It all began in 1984, when I helped lead a student protest in Juba, the south's major city. My Christian faith, as taught by my parents, was one of freedom, not force. It prohibited us from forcing it on others and required our rejecting the force of others, including Muslims, even at the risk of death. And so, peacefully but firmly, I and others protested Islamic tyranny.

The government arrested me and, after taking down my name, began beating me. Intending to make an example of me, the police then broke my fingers. Though I was eventually released, it became clear that my life was now in danger.

With my family's blessings, I fled the country. My goal was America, which I reached in September, 1988; I began working and attending school.

My father died in 1987. He was in many ways the embodiment of my people. Though he was unique, others have had qualities like his. How else could my people have survived all these centuries? How else could my ancestors have pioneered civilizations all along the Nile Valley when given the chance?

Today, what he would want is what we need and deserve--independence from Khartoum. Historically, its rulers have always oppressed us. Culturally and spiritually, we differ profoundly from them. We must be allowed to go our own way, determine our own destiny.

What is that destiny? Even when kept down and oppressed, we, like my father, have created, adapted, persevered. Imagine what can happen if we become free. Experts say that the south can satisfy up to one-fourth of the world's food needs.

With independence, peace and education, we can become for the world what my father became wherever he settled--a major food producer and life sustainer. Our culture and faith have also equipped many of us to be peacemakers like my father. With proper leadership, I see an independent southern Sudan--Cush, as we say--teaching Africa and the world the ways of brotherhood and peace.

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