Necessity Still Breeds Ingenuity - Archive of SQUALL MAGAZINE 1992-2006

Fugee's Sad Song

Refugees fleeing from civil war and famine in Sudan have found their unlikely way to Sussex, England. Gibby Zobel reports on their plight, flight and fight for identity in a town where a 90 per cent white population includes the head of the British National Party.


"Some were put into custody, others tortured and lashed. I saw my brother get 40 lashes for a traffic accident. As a medical doctor they showed us how to amputate offenders. They were tried in 'tent courts' by soldiers. The punishments were immediate."

Dr Wagdi Habib pauses, remembering. "Under the Sharia law, if you steal something worth less than £100 you don't amputate. One man was accused of stealing a tape recorder which costs £90. The soldiers decided the value of the batteries would be £10, so his hand must be amputated. My medical colleague made himself absent, rather than perform the operation. He left Sudan.

Dr Habib was to follow shortly. He is now the Chairman of the Sudanese Coptic Association, the largest such group in the UK, based in Brighton. Fifteen thousand Sudanese refugees fled to Britain after the military coup in 1989. It is easy to see why.

"I was taken by soldiers after filing a report on a prisoner outlining his injuries. I was blindfolded, put in a car and spent 36 hours in a cell - they called it a `ghost house'. It was a narrow room measuring just one and a half square metres filled with people and cubes of ice. I was taken on a tour to see what was going on. I saw someone in a room with his hand outside the door holding a bucket of water. He told me he had been like that for two days. I saw someone naked, lashed and thrown in the cement dust. I was dumped back in Khartoum.

"The next day I found I was to be moved to the frontline of the war in the South - Christians vs Christians. I took a flight at 4am to London and left everything I had in Sudan. My house, my medical practice and my mother and father."

The tale is not isolated. The London-based Sudanese Victims of Torture Group was set up to document and records such crimes. And Amnesty International's 1998 report into Sudan makes sober reading: "Torture and ill-treatment by security officials and police remained common. Courts imposed judicial punishments of flogging and amputation."

Sudan is the largest country in Africa, bounded by nine countries and the Red Sea. Independent from Britain for the last 42 years, the last 16 years has seen it ripped apart by civil war. A fragile peace agreement has been holding for the last three months but the famine worsens daily.

In Brighton the Sudanese are one of many of the close-knit ethnic `hidden' communities like the Bangladeshi, Gujerati, Chinese and Iranians. "People moved quite by chance to Brighton, there are no specific historical ties, " explains Dr Salah Bander, whose survey, Sudanese Community in the UK', was published last year by the British Refugee Council. There is now a Coptic church, St Mary's & St Abraham Coptic Church in Hove, which "symbolises the time spent in exile".

Dr Bander's survey reveals a perhaps surprising profile of an average Sudanese refugee: 35 years old, educated to university level, worked for 5-10 years in their profession. "Most find it very difficult to come here and work. Apart from the language problem, retraining is hard. The Coptic community has the highest unemployed rate."

"I would still recommend coming here, " maintains Dr Habib. "The South Coast is the nearest we have to our weather in Sudan! And as a former British colony, we know the traditions and behaviour of the English."

Their new life is not without new problems, however. Having fled from persecution and torture they face an alien language, spies and racial attacks.

At 11.20pm on November 7th 1993 Ali Ibrahim, a 21-year-old Sudanese refugee was walking along Western Rd in Brighton with two friends. Moments later, a single stab wound to the chest from a drunken attacker ended his life. His killer was jailed for a minimum of 20 years, including an extra tariff on his sentence for a 'racially-motivated' attack. The killing sent shockwaves through Brighton's Sudanese community.

Ninety-eight per cent of Sussex is white. It is the home of head of the British National Party (BNP), John Tyndell, who delivered a controversial BNP General Election broadcast last year. He is a long-time resident of Hove. Tony Hancock runs the BNP printing press in Uckfield, and Brighton is the international mail address for the BNP. Against this backdrop Sussex has seen reported racial incidents leap from 15 in 1988 to 253 in 1995/96. The rise may reflect an increase in reporting by victims, rather than conclusive proof of a rise in the actual level of racially-motivated crime.

Community workers say the Sudanese community is too frightened to report incidents to the police, even when they have been told they can do so without giving their names. Many fear reprisals from Immigration at the Home Office.

"People feel they are being watched most of the time, " says Dr Bander, a community activist. "Three years ago the Sudanese government planted someone within the Sudan Human Rights Organisation, giving information to the Home Office. They infiltrated the community as an enthusiastic activist working as a volunteer. Now there is an atmosphere of mistrust, the betrayal created disunity."

"My mission is to be part of the British mosaic. I'm dedicated to empowering our community. A major problem for refugees is that they come here feeling they are here for just weeks or months and believe Sudan will change and they want to go home. So they fail to connect with British community and system. They have `unpacked bags' in their minds and live in their own enclaves, trying to create a smaller Sudan in their isolated flats and gatherings."

"We must find ways to accept the reality of being British from the Sudan, not a Sudanese living in Britain. Many children have been brought up within a British culture and face that challenge into adulthood. It's a very subtle switch."

Adverts are running daily appealing for emergency funds, while the news pages focus on the bombing of the Shifa pharmaceutical factory in the capital, Khartoum. The interior minister maintains that the plant produced 50% of Sudan's entire medical supplies while the Americans insist they have evidence that it produced a precurser chemical to making nerve gas. Eight days before the US bombing the photographer Tom Stoddart was reported making the following observation: "I focused on the spindly black legs ... I wondered what would happen if they were spindly white legs, would Uncle Sam's finest charge in with high technology to the rescue?" Not quite.

"We are against terrorism. We feel very sorry for the victims of the embassies in Kenya and Tanzania and victims in Ireland, Sudan and everywhere. We don't have a clear idea what was being produced in Khartoum, so we cannot give our opinion for the time being", says Dr Habib.

Save the Children say 2.6 million people are in urgent need of food aid. In Southern Sudan an estimated 1.2 million people are at immediate risk from starvation according to the UN World Food Programme. In some areas the death rate is worse than the Ethiopian famine in 1984 which inspired LiveAid. And the next harvest is twelve months away.

Operation Lifeline Sudan (OLS) has been running since 1989, the year the current leader General Ahmed el-Bashir took control in a military takeover. It is the largest international relief operation in history spending an estimated $2 billion plus. It combines the weight of over 35 aid agencies in a co-ordinated effort to stem the war-blighted famine.

"The future in Sudan is very dark, it is not a stable country, " says Dr Habib. "People are now eating the seeds for next year's crop. When I call my family they have no light or water and they live in the centre of the centre, the capital of the capital.

"As a community we will do whatever we can. We have very little finance as most of us are on benefits. We are supported by churches here including protestants and catholics. We will send a cheque to Save the Children with whatever we can afford. It is nominal, but we should do something."