Like the Apostle Paul before him, Hakim discovered that the road to Damascus is no picnic. A Christian from South Sudan, Hakim was an adolescent at the time his brother joined the rebel army to fight Sudan's Islamic regime. When government soldiers invaded his village near Yei, they captured Hakim and others. Eventually he wound up in a prison cell in Khartoum after refusing to fight for the Muslim-led government based in northern Sudan. His brother was killed there.
"They kept me in prison," he said, "put sticks in fire and with them burned my legs for two or three hours at a time." At this point Hakim hikes the hem of his trousers, revealing pitted, scarred gashes across both shins. The torture was meant to force him to renounce Christianity. He was told he must convert to Islam. He endured the injuries and harassment for 10 months, he says, until officials turned him over to a security officer who took pity on him. The officer arranged his passage on a plane out of Khartoum. He told him what to say when he showed up in the Middle East without papers. When Hakim's plane touched down just outside Syria's capital city, Hakim wasn't sure where he had landed. He did not really care, except he hoped he could be free.
With its 18-year-long civil war, Sudan is one of the leading exporters of refugees. Ten percent of the world's uprooted people come from Sudan. Last year alone, more than 250,000 Sudanese became either new refugees or displaced people living within the country. Most who flee their own borders wind up in neighboring African nations. But more and more are turning up in the Middle East. There, they face an array of factors-an unbending UN refugee bureaucracy, U.S. homeland-security imperatives, and a developing pan-Arab relationship-that threatens to turn them back to their tormentors.
Arab countries traditionally ease travel restrictions for fellow Arabs, which includes Sudan's National Islamic Front government. This means Sudanese passport holders may enter Syria without filing and waiting for a visa. For that reason, some Sudanese who fear persecution at home will turn out of necessity to a place like Syria. Under cover of these liberal travel measures, however, it appears that Khartoum could be offloading POWs like Hakim to Damascus and other Middle East cities like Beirut. While not all Sudanese refugees arrive without documentation or intent, as Hakim did, many say they had no choice but to flee here.
(How do refugees book these escape flights? They don't. Some were put on cheap flights chartered by Islamic relief groups, some on government flights or state-run airlines.)
Syria is a long way from paradise. A failed Soviet puppet where the cars are 40 years old and the Internet was banned until two years ago, the Assad regime-first of Hafez and now his son, Bashar-practices ruthless suppression of political opponents and haphazard crackdowns on religious minorities. Not a government of Islamic radicals like those who rule Sudan, the Assad regime does have this in common with the Sudanese government: Both make the U.S. list of seven nations sponsoring international terrorism (others are Cuba, Iran, Iraq, Libya, and North Korea).
Since last Sept. 11, however, President Assad has signaled that he wants to be on the right side of history. He publicly distanced himself from Syria's longstanding support of Palestinian terrorist factions, particularly Hezbollah. He also got serious about cleanup measures, including tightening immigration standards and monitoring undocumented aliens. Syria has long faced condemnation for incubating Palestinian terrorists on its own soil, and, more recently, tolerating visits from al-Qaeda operatives. Sept. 11 hijacker Mohammed Atta is believed to have made several visits to Syria for al-Qaeda meetings. Under the new regulations, nonresidents must register with Syrian police and report their status every three months.
The new rules, however, exist apart from overall reform. Syria is not a signatory to the UN Refugee Convention and offers no due-process protections of its own to refugees. Applications for political asylum and resettlement to another country must be made through the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Damascus. UNHCR is currently approving only about one in 10 applications. In addition to facing those hurdles, Sudanese refugees say they cannot overcome a bias among the UN agency's Arab officers against Christians from south Sudan. Most plead not to be returned to Sudan. But without UNHCR approval, they cannot resettle elsewhere, including the United States. Limbo in Syria at least meant survival; now it means no place to turn.
William is another south Sudanese who, like Hakim, in public goes only by first name to protect his identity (and family who may remain in Sudan). He was rejected by UNHCR, appealed, and was again rejected since arriving in Damascus without a passport in 1995. He was a secondary schoolteacher in south Sudan until he lost his home. Government forces destroyed it during fighting near Juba in 1992. After soldiers bombed and shelled his and surrounding villages, they took him to a refugee camp near Khartoum. At el Fashir in northern Sudan, National Islamic Front soldiers imprisoned and tortured him. One day he, too, was put on a plane and flown to Damascus.
In Damascus he has a four-digit file number with UNHCR and little else. He shares a second-floor apartment of four small rooms with a cousin, Mary, and five of her eight children in one of the rundown neighborhoods not far from the historic Old City.
Mary arrived in Damascus from Khartoum on Nov. 23, 1999, according to her UNHCR records. The records also say she entered the country legally as a tourist. But Mary says she "escaped from Sudan to avoid tortures and humiliation that resulted from my family's refusal to be converted into Islam." Government soldiers also burned her house during the 1992 fighting around Juba. The soldiers captured Mary's husband. They threatened to shoot him unless he converted to Islam and served in the government army. He disappeared soon after, she told WORLD.
Mary found herself taken north with her five daughters and three sons. In Jebel Aulia refugee camp, military officials applied the same pressure to Mary and her children. They forced the boys (now ages 23, 20, and 18) into the army. They punished her and her daughters for refusing to convert to Islam. Camp security applied hot embers to Mary's face. Dawa el Islamia, an Islamic organization, managed relief services at Jebel Aulia. Mary said the relief agents denied her family food, water, and medicine because they were Christians. Other reports, particularly from Anglican workers and a Sudan Council of Churches team who later visited Jebel Aulia, confirmed the abuses. Dawa el Islamia workers forced south Sudanese to change their names to Muslim names and their religion to Islam in order to receive help.
In the spring of 1999 government bulldozers entered Jebel Aulia and leveled Christian homes in the camp. They destroyed an Anglican church, along with homes for 200 mainly Christian families from south Sudan. The government said it was clearing the land for agriculture. Mary and her girls were among the completely homeless Christians. Two other women in the group died of heat exposure during that summer. Mary escaped to Damascus.
Her passport, issued in 1999 just before her departure from Sudan, expired last year. The Sudanese embassy in Damascus refused to renew it. She was also denied refugee status from UNHCR. Like others WORLD interviewed, she has a letter from the UN agency stating: "Upon consideration of the claims you presented, it has been decided that, at the moment you are not in need of international protection."
Last December more than 200 Sudanese, fearing deportation to Sudan because of Syria's new rule on nonresidents, protested their nonstatus outside the Damascus offices of UNHCR. The peaceful sit-in lasted four days, according to participants WORLD interviewed. Although the crowd remained constant, it won none of the international press coverage Palestinian demonstrations of fewer people routinely receive outside the U.S. embassy in Damascus. At UNHCR's request, police stepped in on Dec. 11 to arrest the demonstrators: 53 children, 77 women, and 136 men, according to the refugees.
"We told them we have nothing against this country," said William, who was among those arrested. "Our problem is we are refugees and we have no place to go." William said that a threatening letter sent from the Sudanese embassy prompted the demonstration. It said the refugees must "regularize their status" in Syria or face deportation to Khartoum. "There," said William, "we know we will be killed or sent off to fight our brothers in the south."
Adel Jasmine, UNHCR senior protection officer in Damascus, told WORLD his office called for the arrests when the Sudanese would not leave the compound, even though he knew they felt threatened by notices from the Sudanese embassy. "They were asked to leave but refused. Then we asked the authorities to remove them and they did. Women and children were released the same day, but single men were kept," he said. Over 90 men were held-some for over six months and all without legal representation or due process-at a military installation outside Damascus. UN officials worked to resolve their cases, according to Mr. Jasmine. UNHCR sent additional investigators from Cairo to interview the detainees and reassess their status.
In the end, however, UNHCR determined that "a very few" previously turned-down cases were eligible for legal protection as refugees, said Mr. Jasmine. Most were not. Neither William nor Hakim won legal status during the review process.
During that time UNHCR did successfully negotiate with Syrian authorities to extend the time refugees must report to police, from every three to every nine months. With that deadline now looming, the refugees WORLD interviewed again fear deportation. Mr. Jasmine told WORLD his agency is working to keep that from happening. But the refugees see Syria-Sudan relations tightening against them.
Since 2001 top government officials have been meeting almost monthly to negotiate about two dozen cooperative agreements between Syria and Sudan, mostly to increase trade. The agenda is to create "a new era of investment and economic cooperation," according to Syrian Prime Minister Mustapha Miro. Both nations aspire someday to be part of an Arab common market (much like the predecessor to the European Union). So far the pacts boost agriculture, electricity, postal services, along with bolstering the campaign for a Palestinian state. Perhaps it was coincidental, but just as Sudanese refugees were notified to report to Syrian police, President Bashar al-Assad was in Khartoum, meeting with Sudanese President Omar el-Bashir.
"Once a case is rejected by UNHCR, they have no protection," said U.S. Committee for Refugees policy analyst Steve Edminster. "They are at the mercy of whatever the police want to do."
The refugee bureaucracy would like to deny its responsibility to Sudanese like William and Mary. Mr. Adel acknowledged that 90 percent of UNHCR's Sudanese applicants are from the south. But he claimed that the caseload includes no torture victims ferried to Damascus without choice. "All left Sudan voluntarily and with passports," he argued. "Most have jobs on the outskirts of the city in agriculture. But they say they cannot get the Sudanese embassy to renew their passports."
Officers at the International Office of Migration, the contract agency to resettle Damascus refugees in the United States and other third countries, would not speak for the record but said they are not aware of Sudanese with legitimate claims for protection being denied refugee status.
At the U.S. State Department, officials say privately that the U.S. embassy could issue "P1" or Priority 1 status to a select group of needy refugees, thus bypassing the UNHCR bureaucracy altogether. But with the United States already applying closer scrutiny to immigrants from Arab nations, it is a hard sell for any refugees from Syria.
Private groups are raising concern about UNHCR procedures in Syria. "We uncovered enough problems with refugee status determination procedures that make the quality of those decisions suspect," said Mr. Edminster. "The lack of training and experienced staff has led to erratic decision-making." After a monitoring trip to the region earlier this year, his organization, along with an independent European group, plans to issue a report on its findings later this month.
On the part of the Sudanese "there is a lot of fear about the intentions of the Syrian government, a lot of fear about being sent back," said Mr. Edminster. "The South Sudanese stick out more because they are darker skinned, and Christians."
Church groups in Damascus are trying to help. Several churches in the city assist Sudanese families with food and other necessities. The Order of Franciscan Monks provides jobs to some of the refugees at the religious tour sites run by the group. A few, like Hakim, are grateful to find menial work. He cleans bathrooms and the kitchen at a restaurant down an alley just off the Street Called Straight. For a 10-hour shift he is paid 100 Syrian pounds-about two dollars. And he is waiting in Damascus, he says, just like the Apostle Paul.