“I had to defend my mom and my sisters, my female siblings, so they would not be raped. Because, you know, the camp was not secure. There were a lot of crimes.”
(describing conditions in the refugee camp, Kalma, near Nyala, Darfur, where he and some of his family lived for four years)
By some measures, Hassan Hassan might be considered lucky. He is a survivor of the war and genocide in Sudan, which began in 2003. He still has all of his limbs. He now lives safely in Canada. All pluses, when one considers the alternatives.
But as with many things, luck is a relative word. The scars on his body bear witness to what was certainly violence and, by all logic, torture, that he was subjected to when he was just a child in his native Darfur fourteen years ago. And although he managed to survive, many in his family didn’t, including his father and an older brother.
I met Hassan shortly after the One Young World summit in Ottawa last fall, where he spoke passionately as a youth delegate for Sudan, told his personal story and appealed for help from the international community for those unfortunates still living in the war zones and displaced camps in and around his native country.
Since then we’ve spoken on several occasions and twice he has granted lengthy, recorded interviews and allowed photos, knowing that this might put him in jeopardy. At the last interview he graciously removed his shirt and tie and hiked up his trouser legs so that I could photograph his scar tissue.
… he is determined to see justice done for the atrocities that have been perpetrated in Darfur.
Hassan is now twenty three years old. He came to Canada four years ago after living as a displaced person and refugee for a decade, first in a village in Mukjar under Sudanese government control, then in a camp in Nyala, Sudan under UN protection. From there he went to South Sudan and finally to Uganda. He is an outspoken critic of the government of Sudan. And he is determined to see justice done for the atrocities that have been perpetrated in Darfur.
“I saw my village being burned down; women were raped and kids were killed.”
He is, by all accounts a cheerful, optimistic and forward-looking individual. But when we spoke about the things he had seen and had happened to him as a child in Darfur, it was emotionally difficult for him. He became almost distraught at times, choking up as he recalled some of the events in his past. One of the things he described happened in August of 2003 when he said the Janjaweed and Sudanese government troops attacked the village where he was born in a division of Bindisi in western Darfur, near the border of Chad.
“The war has old roots. It was boiling inside Darfur in 2003. I saw my village being burned down; women were raped and kids were killed. Destruction of the town and people and whatever property we had. So we fled from there. Some villagers and myself, my family, we went into the forest and we hid in there for about two days. We went to survive.”
He said that one of the reasons that some of the people from his village are still alive today was because they had advance notice of the raids and attacks that were happening in other areas of Sudan.
“It’s very hard, you know, to leave your town, and everything you knew.”
“We hadn’t seen the janjaweed before, where I lived. They were hiding in the forest and mountains. But my uncle, brother of my father, he came on his horse and he called, look here, my village has now been burned down. My dad was there too, it’s called Kudum. So my uncle warned people, you know look here, you have to leave this village, as many and as fast as possible as you can.”
Hassan and his mother and sisters eventually managed to make their way to a larger village, still in western Darfur, where they were able to find shelter. It was under government control. When he was relating this, again he became visibly upset and did not hide how he felt.
“And we went to a town called Mukjar. We walked there.” (here he choked up) “This is so painful. I feel like I am there right now. It’s very hard, you know, to leave your town, and everything you knew. So we went there. We reached Mukjar, by ourselves, me and my sisters. My mom, she went and brought our grandma. And we lived there for about nine months.”
When villages in his area were being attacked and people there were avoiding the violence all around them, he also attributes the survival of some to a seasonal weather factor in that part of Darfur.
“The good thing, it was the wet season. Where plants grow already. Farmers had planted crops, and we hid in there, so some people did survive because of that.”
It has been well established by organizations like Human Rights Watch that the janjaweed, partisan nomadic outlaws and criminal “militia” in Sudan that preyed on the civilian village populations and herders, were supported and financed by the Sudanese government. This allowed them to raid, burn and loot villages and kill and rape civilians with impunity.
According to a 2004 report by Human Rights Watch, once the janjaweed attacks began in Sudan: ‘Their armed encroachment on African Zaghawa, Masaalit and Fur pastures and livestock in past years resulted in local armed self-defense measures by the targeted communities when they realized the government would not protect them.’
“But when they came, their goal was to kill people.”
The janjaweed raids were driven mainly along ethnic lines, with the intent to eliminate or “cleanse”, the region of indigenous ethnic tribes. Hassan, whose people are from the Fur tribe, is adamant that this was the case when his village was attacked in 2003 and subsequently, when he was tortured while he was a hostage.
“The janjaweed and government troops. They were together. They were wearing uniforms, official uniforms. They came to the village to take taxes from people, and people have no money. They would take grain as a form of tax. But when they came, their goal was to kill people.”
His experience is borne out and ratified by the 2004 Human Rights Watch report.
‘Civilians sharing the ethnicity of the rebel movement, namely the Fur, Masaalit, and Zaghawa and a few small tribes, have become the main targets of government military offensives aimed at destroying any real or perceived support base of the rebel forces. Government forces and janjaweed militias have inflicted a campaign of forcible displacement, murder, pillage, and rape on hundreds of thousands of civilians over the past fourteen months.’
During the first interview, Hassan and I were sitting in a relatively quiet location in the Demarais Building at the University of Ottawa. At one point he pulled up his shirt and showed me an ugly scar on his chest. It is slightly oblong, about the size around of a twoonie, and is just off the centre of his breastbone. It looked like a brand, the kind seared into flesh with a branding iron. It was something like I’d commonly seen on livestock, cattle, in my youth.
“When I refused to tell them anything, I was beaten.”
“It’s getting smaller now”, he said. When I asked him how it had happened he told me that he was burned there, as punishment, with a stick of wood that had been heated in a fire. He was eight or nine years old at the time. The scar was the result of just one of a number of physical abuses that he suffered as a displaced person in Sudan, at the hands of the janjaweed, and, he said, Sudanese government troops. At one point after his village was burned he was separated from his family and taken into custody.
“They captured me and my friends. Government soldiers, they captured us and they took us to near the Chad border. They were using us as a tool to find directions, as interpreters, translators. But I barely knew anything about that. I speak the language of Fur, and there are so many other tribal groups in Darfur and we did not know their language. When I refused to tell them anything, I was beaten.”
I asked him if he had ever been shot, hit with a bullet, and he said no. Then I asked: What about knives?
“Yes, knives,” (here he pointed to his back) “and the sharp parts of a gun. Some of them have knives and they chop you with them. They chopped you on your back.”
And beatings, apparently, were regular occurrences. He twisted his body slightly and moved his arm back over his right shoulder, pointing back to an area near the shoulder blade and wincing a bit.
“Old wounds, you know, my shoulder here, sometimes I have trouble with it. I don’t sleep very well at night. Body sweating and such.”
He may have some residual damage to the muscular and skeletal connections there as result of beatings he received. He has other scars too (some of which I photographed during our second interview a few weeks later near the Corktown Footbridge). On his back. On his abdomen. And on his legs, where he was beaten, cut and also burned.
“My head was all infected, how you call, rotted inside.”
“They beat us, you know. Some people, some young janjweed, young people, who were about sixteen years old, maybe eighteen years old. They were fueled by the government and they were violent, so that they could hit you anytime. To them we were less than humans.”
During one of the beatings he suffered a head injury that he says still affects him today under some conditions. He was hit in the head with a wooden stick, a club, and parts of it were left in the wound.“The head wound, it was one of the worst, the one that influenced me physically and mentally. I had to look for a solution to get treatment. So we, myself and others, we skipped the janjweed camps at Emar al-Jadid and went to where we were approached by the UN rescue agency. They later escorted us to an unknown village. We didn’t know English to speak to the UN. Some of them, they didn’t even know our languages. But they helped us. I showed them I had wounds on my back, my head. They had to provide medication for us. Especially for the head wound. It lasted for about three months. My head was all infected, how you call, rotted inside.”
There was no hospital but he was treated, he said, by a Sudanese doctor at the village who later died.
“UN soldiers, they took us to that village. But he was the one who helped. He managed to treat me. And right now I’m okay. After the treatment, the moment I start to run, I feel this (he touched a spot on his head) affected by the wound on my head. Sometimes, still, I can feel it when I run.”
He said he also suffered abuse for a different reason.
“I was forced to study the Quran at school, a traditional school, Here in Canada you might go to bible camp where you go to learn about bible study. There in Sudan, our education, it was the Quran, in a traditional school. They took young kids to the school and forced them to study Quran. And I refused to study. So they burned me with fire as a punishment, so I would obey.”
This all happened when he was eight and nine years old. He has scars on his knees from when they, as children, were pushed down and forced to kneel on rocky ground.
Hassan said that his father’s family in Sudan has been almost “wiped out”.
Hassan’s father was killed in Sudan in 2003 when he joined the rebellion against what was happening there. And one of his older brothers, he said, was slaughtered at his own wedding. When I asked him about other family, his eyes welled up.
“We lost so many, I can’t count them. More than three hundred.”
I must have looked shocked by this. By family, Hassan said, he meant that the number also included all the members of the extended families of his parents who had been killed, distant relatives. If this number sounds incredible, almost unbelievable, one only has to read the international reports coming out of Sudan to realize the scope, scale and magnitude of the atrocities there. Hassan said that his father’s family in Sudan has been almost “wiped out”.
What Hassan experienced as a child might have broken many people. He somehow found the internal will and tenacity to move ahead with his life. According to Nietzsche: ‘That which does not kill us, makes us stronger.’ The phrase has been long debated as to the German philosopher’s intended meaning. In Hassan’s case, it has the ring of literal truth.
When Hassan reached Uganda as a refugee from Sudan in 2007 he did not speak a word of English.
“We learned English in Uganda, from abc to z. There were schools there for the United Nations. And I also went to a Christian school.”
Today he is studying at Carleton University, with the intent to get a degree in leadership and organization management. He is firmly focused on the way ahead, but it would be a mistake to believe that he has put the events of his childhood completely behind him. When I asked him about what he sees as his future he was at first pensive, then he articulated a vision and strategy that he is working toward for the long term.
“If I were to go to back to Sudan today, I would be arrested. Not only arrested, but worse.”
“I am proud to be a part of Canada. But I have a goal. I need to see my country, Sudan, at peace and see stability there. And I need to see justice done there for what is happening now and what happened in the past.”
He is also cognizant of the need to complete his education and of the resources that he will need to carry out his plan.
“When I left Sudan, I had no clue of what education was all about. I couldn’t even write my name. I want to help bring change to the Sudan. But you can’t go back when you are a poor person. I can’t go back there without knowledge and I can’t go back with empty hands.”
Besides his engagement with the One Young World organization, Hassan is also involved with an international group called Darfur Educates Abroad Organization (DEAO) that is working toward helping right the wrongs in Sudan, those both past and present.
“Our goal is to bring the government of Sudan to justice through the ICC, the International Criminal Court. There has to be accountability. I am working with the DEAO and Sudan Allied Youth to bring the Darfur genocide case to the ICC.”
Attempting to change the status quo in a country torn apart by a war that is still raging comes with inherent hazards even if one is working from the outside. Hassan has been an outspoken critic of the war in Sudan as well as the government there and this, he says, has not gone unnoticed.
“If I were to go to back to Sudan today, I would be arrested. Not only arrested, but worse.”
When I asked him if he thought it was safe for him and his family here (his mother and several other members of his family now live in Manitoba) he shrugged philosophically.
“They are targeting me even in Canada here. They have attempted several times but I know what I am doing so they can’t reach me easily. I am trying to balance a life of study and politics living here. I am protected living in Canada. They can’t arrest me, or put me in prison here.”
“If we had a TV channel we would be able to get the message out about these people who are still dying.”
He said that he believes that one of the things that is needed to raise awareness about what is happening in Sudan is a television channel located outside the country, possibly in Europe, and he is looking to raise funding for such a project.
“Media is going to be the most fundamental tool we can use to reach our goal. And television especially will be one of the most powerful influences. If we had a TV channel we would be able to get the message out about these people who are still dying.”
“War is something that has no value at all.”
At twenty-three years old, Hassan has already seen and experienced more human misfortune that the average person born in Canada will probably see in a lifetime. At one point during our interview he shook his head sadly.
“I can’t explain it. War is something that has no value at all. It is catastrophic. It destroys everything, takes the lives of people, destroys families. Making war will never bring peace.”
To speak with Hassan Hassan and to listen to his personal story is to come face to face with the monumental human tragedy that is the war in Sudan. That this is still happening in the second decade of the twenty-first century is an appalling note on the human condition. Hassan has made a commitment to try to change the paradigm. It shouldn’t have to be left all up to him. REG
Note: Hassan Hassan’s quotes for this article were edited and condensed for clarity, from recorded interviews.
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