When Simon Deng’s captors suspected he might try to escape, they would show him a gruesome photo depicting a man whose arms and legs had been cut off – warning Deng, then nine years old, that the same fate would befall him if he tried to make a run for it.
“When they said that they would cut off my legs … I believed it,” Deng told a crowd at Ryerson University on Friday. “They really meant it.”
Deng, born in what is now South Sudan, was kidnapped and sold into slavery as a young boy. Decades of conflict between Christians in the south and Muslims in the north had mired his country in ethnic and political turmoil, prior to its partition into Sudan and South Sudan.
Years later, Deng has turned the captivity and violence he once endured into a message of perseverance in fighting for human rights.
Deng is bringing his chilling anecdotes to campuses across the continent, as well as a condemnation of the United Nations (UN) for its alleged incompetence in handling conflicts, and his unwavering support of Israel for embracing Sudanese refugees. He aims to balance a debate on both subjects that he says is largely biased.
“The United Nations – or as I call it, the United ‘Do Nothing’ Nations – didn’t help us,” Deng told the crowd.
He outlined his experience as a slave, victim of political and religious violence, and refugee in Egypt, and later, Israel.
“We were victimized in the name of Islam by the Arab government in Khartoum,” Deng said, referring to Sudan’s capital and the largely-Arab government prior to Sudan’s division.
“The West stands up when crimes are being committed by westerners,” Deng added, saying that crimes committed by Arab nations go unnoticed.
“You would think the United ‘Do Nothing’ Nations would pass at least one resolution against the government of Sudan,” Deng said. “But you would be shocked. Nothing was being done.”
After fleeing Sudan, Deng arrived in Cairo, where he says his treatment worsened in a UN compound. An attack by Egyptian forces left hundreds dead.
The talk was hosted by student group Students Supporting Israel at Ryerson and Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center for Holocaust Studies. It largely focused on Israel’s acceptance of refugees prior to, and during, Sudan’s civil war, as well as the portrayal of Israel in the UN and in the media.
But it was advertised online as a criticism of UN involvement in conflict zones – something on which Deng is typically an outspoken critic, but which he eschewed in favour of detailing his journey to Egypt and finally Israel. He heaped praise on the latter for its embrace of Sudanese refugees.
As a boy, the village in which Deng lived was a perpetual target for the Sudanese military, a hostile force in the region made infamous for its perennial attacks on Christian villages. They would open fire on civilians, burn down houses, and enslave children – who were made servants to Muslim families in the country’s north.
One such raid left Deng’s family displaced and their house reduced to rubble. But they managed to escape with their lives, an accomplishment in and of itself.
“I stand before you as living proof of the crimes against humanity happening over and over,” said Deng. “I don’t want to talk about it – I have to talk about it … so that whenever an injustice (is) being inflicted on innocent persons, then (it is) incumbent on us to look at ourselves and say, ‘No. That kind of crime should not be tolerated by all of us.’
“I speak to you now … as a free man living in a free country talking to the free people like you.”