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Former Sudan slave, others marching to D.C. in support of homeland

By Marcia Biggs, CNN
  • Sudanese activists are walking from New York to Washington
  • They're hoping to gain support for a referendum in southern Sudan and to bring peace to Darfur
  • "How many people have to die in Sudan for the world to speak out?"

New York (CNN) -- A former Sudanese slave began walking from New York to Washington on Wednesday to gain American support for a referendum in southern Sudan as a step toward peace in Darfur.

Simon Deng is walking alongside Abdel Gabar Adam, founder and president of the Darfur Human Rights Organization of the USA. The 250-mile walk, which began outside the Untied Nations, will take 22 days and will culminate with a rally at the Capitol on October 7.

Deng gave a rousing speech to the 50 or so activists gathered for the start of the march, calling on the "United-do-nothing-Nations" not to delay a January referendum that could allow the southern part of Sudan to separate from the Khartoum government.

When asked what he believes the result of a referendum would be he said, "These people waited through 60 years of enslavement, Islamization, and Arabization. The time has come for them to choose to go to hell or to go to heaven. I believe they will not choose to go back to enslavement. They will choose freedom."

The march comes as the United States prepares to host a summit on September 24 on the issues of Sudan, from the brutal campaign of government-backed militias against tribes in Darfur to the possible secession of southern Sudan. At stake in the situation are Sudan's large oil reserves, located mostly in the south but controlled by Khartoum.

Deng holds little hope for the summit, saying, "The Khartoum government will play ... as usual -- one step forward and two steps back. The time for unity is gone -- 60 years is enough, three and a half million lives perished in Southern Sudan is enough. Thousands of southern Sudanese enslaved is enough. Seven million refugees in southern Sudan is enough."

Deng was 9 years old when he was taken as a slave in 1969 by a family in northern Sudan, a practice that was common during Sudan's two civil wars (1955-1973 and 1983-2005). Three years later, in 1972, he escaped his captors and was reunited with his family, later becoming the national long-distance swimming champion of Sudan.

In 1990, he moved to the United States, and he began telling his personal story in 1998, after reading an article in which it was revealed that slaves were still bought and sold in the Sudan for the price of $10.

This is the fourth long-distance walk in which Deng has participated. In 2006, he partnered with Manute Bol to create the first Sudan Freedom Walk between New York and Washington. He has also participated in walks in Chicago in 2007 and from Brussels to the Hague in 2006.

Also on hand Wednesday was Francis Bok, another former slave, captured in 1986 at the age of 7 years old, and held for 10 years. He came to the United States in 1999 and has written a book on his story.

Breaking down with emotion, he said, "I'm begging you, I'm begging you, save us, save us on January 9th to become our own. God want(s) us to be like you."

"This building here, the United Nations, has all the leaders from around the world come here and talk about peaceful co-existence for all human beings. Why are they always saying 'never again' and again, again, again people are dying?"

"How may people have to die in Sudan for the world to speak out?" Bok continued.

Of the small group of activists gathered around the Sudanese, many have been demonstrating for six years, only to see very little accomplished to end the violence.

"We hope that by walking in front of these offices to Washington, D.C. -- we hope that somebody will listen to us this time," said Adam of the Darfur Human Rights Organization of the USA.