PORTLAND — Four years ago, El-Fadel Arbab was desperately trying not to become another gruesome statistic of the Darfur genocide.
Today, Arbab, 25, is one of several Darfuris hoping to raise awareness about the ongoing slaughter of upwards of 400,000 people and displacement of about 2.3 million others. He is booking speaking arrangements in middle and high schools across the country. In the coming months the Portland resident will head to Boston, New York and Connecticut to put a human face to plight of Darfuris. He hopes to create a groundswell of grassroots support to end the genocide that will eventually reach the upper echelons of American power.
Arbab has come a long way, literally and figuratively, in the four years since trekking across Darfur – a western Sudanese country larger than either Texas, Australia or France – that has been engulfed in a government-sponsored ethnic cleansing since 2003.
“Sometimes I cannot believe I’m in America,” he said.
Darfuris live in huts without running water, electricity or telephones. Since coming to Portland, Arbab has learned to speak English through a combination of Portland Adult Education and reading along with books on tape. He has, at times, worked two jobs, 16 hours a day, seven days a week to provide for his mother and brothers, some of whom still remain in Darfur.
With his youngest brother now taking classes at the University of Southern Maine, Arbab only needs to work eight hours, seven days a week to make ends meet. The reduced work schedule allows him to fulfill a moral imperative, one his conscience will not let him forget.
“I have to work on the Darfur issue,” Arbab said during an interview at the Meg Perry Center on Congress Street. “I have to share my story with people.”
His story is disturbing. He said the genocide said aims to “clean the land” of African Muslims by 2011, so Arabs can settle in Darfur, a region rich with resources, including oil and diamonds.
When Arbab was 12 years old, his village was surrounded in the early morning by Janjaweed militia (loosely translated as “devil on horseback”) and the Sundanese military, which destroyed the village and separated him from his family.
Arbab said the attack was typical. After the Janjaweed and Sudanese military surrounded the village, an aerial bombardment began. Then, militia set the huts on fire with families in them, while the military shot anyone trying to escape. Wells were plowed over and others were poisoned with dead bodies.
Women had babies plucked from their arms. Boys were beheaded with machetes. “So they wouldn’t waste a bullet,” Arbab said. If it was a girl, the baby would be taken until old enough to be raped, he said. The militia would rape the adult women and then cut off their breasts to prevent her from nurturing babies in the future.
Most disturbingly, if a woman was pregnant, the mother’s belly would be sliced off. Both would be left for dead, he said.
“(The Janjaweed) know 100 percent it’s a boy,” Arbab said of regnant women. The Janjaweed know that “the boys, when they know the history, in the future, will be against them.”
The United Nations sent a 17,000-member peace-keeping force to Darfur, but its activity has been hampered by the Sudanese government and threats of kidnappings by the Janjaweed, he said.
Arbab escaped and ran a full week’s time to a neighboring village. By day, he would climb a tree, so as not to be seen by the roving militias. By night, he would run as fast as he could, for as long as he could. His grandfather told him to follow the glowing lights and he would find a city.
Over the next 10 years, Arbab traveled to the Sundanese capital, where he felt like a stranger in his own land. He scoured garbage bins for food and clothes and slept on cardboard boxes at night. He and other Fur tribesmen, one of three groups targeted in the genocide, would clean discarded goods and try to sell them at a market. They would use the money to buy clean water.
At the market, refugees would seek not only money, but the latest information about lost loved ones. After years of no news, Arbab finally received a letter from his brothers, who sent an envelop of money so Arbab could join them in Egypt, where they were waiting to come to the U.S.
That same day, however, Arbab learned his mother and youngest brother were in a particularly volatile village. He nonetheless resolved to save them.
After retrieving them, he fled to Egypt. It took four years for Arbab, his mother and his youngest brother to receive the necessary clearances to come to the United States. The U.S. government sent him to be with his older brothers, who were relocated to Portland, where “the weather was cold and there are more opportunities,” he said.
Arbab fondly described his first Portland snow fall, which occurred while he was sleeping. He awoke in the morning, he said, his bedroom bright with light reflecting off the newly fallen snow. He ran outside, barefoot, to take it all in – until his calloused feet burned with cold.
Arbab has since grown used to the cold. “I am a true Mainer,” he said.
Not a day goes by, he insists, without realizing how lucky his to be in America. But he can’t forget the family he left behind and the ongoing genocide, which many people in the U.S. simply don’t understand.
“I am only one of millions, thousands and hundreds,” he said. “Some of them, their stories are worse than mine. Some of them, their whole family’s been killed.”
Arbab said his father is still somewhere in Darfur. His mother cannot sleep at night, not even in Portland. She fears for her children’s safety. She sleeps during the day, but awakes, screaming and tossing from nightmares that continue to haunt her.
Arbab said he needs to tell his story and will to anyone who will listen. He hopes the retelling will not only provide a much-needed catharsis, but put a human face to the statistics and to the word “genocide”: the deliberate and systematic destruction of a racial, political or cultural group.
“When I tell people my story, it makes me happy,” Arbab said. “When people understand our stories, they will start helping us. … We are all human beings. We don’t need people to be killed for any reason.”
• For more information, log on to FurCulturalRevival.org. To book El-Fadel Arbab for a speaking engagment, e-mail elfadel@furculturalrevival or call Dan Muller of Peace Action Maine, 772-0680.