Oct. 2, 2008
Point of view: Do something
By Florence Gold
Many years have passed since my graduation from college and my indoctrination into the “now you are an adult” world of responsibility. Much of the material (thought at the time to be critically important) that was pressed and impressed upon us in those days has been forgotten. However one important piece of advice has remained with me.
I was taking an economics course, taught by a brilliant woman whose interests combined her college teaching career and, fortunately, the world outside the classroom. She loved the chess game of politics and made every attempt to involve us in the excitement of the struggle for good government. She would entertain us with stories of greed, corruption and the innumerable evils so apparent at that time and increasingly evident in the actions of government officials today. We are familiar with the grasp for unilateral power, the problems of a deteriorating economy, the constant specter of war, rising unemployment, the increasing cost of education and transportation, etc.
“Do something,” she would urge us. “If our heated discussions in this classroom have made an impression, go out, join a political party, any party or group whose ideas are meaningful to you. Send out mailings, stamp envelopes (still important today, even in the era of e-mails). Go to meetings, join demonstrations. You are young, well educated and the hope of the future. Do something.”
That message became part of the values that sustained me and stimulated the energy for lifelong “activism.” While we have not yet created a perfect world, clearly our efforts to fight apathy and indifference are important.
I recalled those years and those critical influences as I read a tragic piece by Nicholas Kristof in The New York Times on Aug. 31. Under the headline, “Tortured but not silenced,” it is the story of a young woman from Darfur, who has been tortured and gang-raped by agents of the Sudanese government in its effort to destroy her.
Halima grew up in a small village in rural Darfur, performed brilliantly in school and miraculously managed to become a physician. Many of us have read this story or others similar to it, but it needs to be told, to be hammered into our collective consciousness again and again. It represents the proverbial skeleton in the U.S. family closet, dramatically illustrating a foreign policy that cares little for conditions in countries in which the recipients of disaster and tragedy are the poor and unfortunate members of society, those without wealth or power.
Within a few days, Halima will see the memoir of her experiences published in the United States. She is applying for travel documents and a visa so that, hopefully, she will be here when her story appears.
Her bravery is in dramatic contrast to the world’s failure on Darfur. In fact, it is also possible that the publication of her book may increase the danger of physical harm to her. But she feels that she needs to relate this history to honor those who have suffered disfigurement, torture and death by the Sudanese authorities.
It is simple enough to listen to such a story, to nod one’s head and murmur, “Isn’t that terrible?” and then to go back to the usual pattern of our daily lives, blissfully forgetting the horror of such tragedies. Reading the story, I was reminded of my college professor’s admonition. “Do something, educate others! Join an organization. Get out there! We can’t let this horror continue.” But perhaps the intricacies of these experiences need to be detailed again and again to force recognition of this reality.
The torture and murder of members of black African tribes like the one to which Halima belonged began in 2003. She recalled seeing the badly burned body of a 6-year-old boy who had been thrown into a burning hut by the state-sponsored Janjaweed militia. Because she gave an interview hinting at the involvement of the Sudanese government, she was detained, threatened and sent to a remote clinic where there were no reporters or journalists who could vouch for the truth of her statements.
The warfare, however, continued and then the Janjaweed attacked a girls’ school near Halima’s clinic. She had no suture material or medication to help heal the broken bodies of these young children, who ranged in age from 7 to 13. They were so severely injured, literally torn apart and violently raped, that she speaks of the moaning, wailing and cries of pain, and states that she wept constantly.
She reminds us that young Darfur girls undergo an extreme form of genital cutting called infibulation, in which the vagina is stitched closed until marriage. This makes these brutal rapes of young girls extremely bloody and violent and increases risk of transmission of HIV.
“At no time in my years of study was I taught how to deal with 8-year-old victims of raping under such circumstances,” Halima said. Soon however, it was her turn. She was kidnapped by the secret police and told that she was being punished for speaking to strangers. For days she was beaten, gang-raped, cut with knives and burned with cigarettes.
When she was released, she fled back to her native village. It was soon attacked and most of the members of her family were killed. Eventually she made her way to Britain where she is seeking asylum but hopes to come back to the U.S to discuss her book.
When asked if she regrets speaking to UN officials about the rapes of the schoolchildren, she states that she had no choice even though her experiences were similar. She says, “What happened to me has happened to many others. At least I had the education and the opportunity to tell their stories.”
Florence Gold, a Riverdale resident, is a frequent contributor to Point of view.