Cover Story

The Road to Damascus

Fleeing persecution from the Islamic regime in Sudan, Christian refugees flood Syria. There, they languish without protection either from the United Nations or the United States and live in constant fear of being sent back

Issue: "The Road to Damascus," Sept. 21, 2002

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.

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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.


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