Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Tales of the Desert - Sad and Poignant...

Darfur, Sudan – We hear about it every now and then; we read about the conflict there in news papers and occasionally through the electronic media. UN Peace keepers, genocide – these are things that I have heard, spoken about, but not until reading ‘Tears of the Desert’ by Halima Bashir, I could have claimed some knowledge about the gravity of the situation.

This is a true story of one woman (Halima Bashir) who “survives” the “horrors” of Darfur. The book is organized into four parts – ‘Child of the desert’ about the experiences of growing up told beautifully from a young girl’s perspective, ‘School of the desert’ about the initial education and the nurturing of ambitious dreams, ‘Desert of fire’ about the life in university and the withering away of hope and ‘Desert of no return’ about the flight from the horrors of the conflict.

Non-Fictional accounts of cruel acts are disturbing. They make us realize how fortunate we are in comparison to the multitude whose only mistake is to have born in a conflict zone. We complain, crib and cry, but seldom do we appreciate the checks and balances guaranteed by our constitution.

Coming back to the book, the first few chapters are beautiful. In giving an account of the childhood games, the innocent village life of her tribe, the Zaghawa - described as “a fierce, warlike black African people who are the most generous and open in welcoming strangers” – and the sweet pleasures of growing up, occasionally, there are indications of impending gloom. Halima’s grand mother, in particular, will be in the reader’s memory for such is the degree of courage and conviction attributed to her. As she tries to adjust to the onslaught of the radio and TV, the reader is totally engrossed. The distinctions drawn between the tribes and the tales of the medicine woman engage the reader compellingly; they are telling.

As Halima starts going to school and moves away from her parents, she comes to terms with discrimination. Her love and respect for her father grow multifold. “The Arabs won’t make anything easy for us in this country…” says her father. To arm and fortify herself and to fulfill the dream of her father, Halima studies hard and wins her entry to medical course in the University in Khartoum.

There are some passages where one feels, the explanations and reasons could have been better, but I am tempted to put it down to a poor grasp of the history of the conflict. Halima enters university and after the first year, when plain clothes men come to recruit students for “Jihad”, her aspirations take a beating. But, the state of affairs doesn’t continue for long. Amid “rumors of war”, she completes her course and returns to a hero’s welcome to the village.

Her profession and posting brings her in contact with black African rebel fighters and true to her noble profession, she treats them. This lands her in trouble with the Government and soon enough, she finds that she has been posted to a village in the remote north of Darfur. There, she is witness to unspeakable horror when a group of Janjaweed men attack the local school and brutally rape 8-13 year old girls.

“Never, not even in my darkest, blackest nightmare, had I imagined that I would ever witness such horror. What was happening to my country? Where had all the love gone, the goodness, the humanity? Who had let the devil in and given him free reign?” – writes Halima. As she writes about what the men in khaki uniforms do to her, one wonders if such devilish rage and brutality has anything to do with humanity…

The devastation is complete when helicopters suddenly land in her village and it becomes a “vision of hell”. While the children, the old and the women hide in the forest, the men folk are slaughtered. At the end of this third part in the book, one feels emotionally drained and only with a huge effort can continue reading…

Halima is separated from her living kith and kin and manages to flee Darfur and land in London. Then, begins the account of the plight of the asylum seekers – countless people who are forced to flee their lands and search for safety in foreign and mysterious shores.

“Spring flowers were pushing through the grass, trees were in bud, but there was winter in my heart”.
After the media listens to her plight and to her horrific stories about her homeland, she decides to work on this book.

“During my darkest moments I concluded that for those who had died, life had perhaps dealt them the better hand – for the living have to live with the memories and the trauma every day, for the rest of their lives….For me, the scars run deep and will take many a year to heal”.

When I read about the conflict online, I realized that many stories of the World are conveniently ignored and certain nations can go to any extent to exploit natural resources and arm perpetrators of abominable crimes.

Read this book to know about such a story, a sad and poignant story that is known to us because of the bravery in the face of unimaginable odds, of a young woman.

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