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“I still believe there’s room to get it right, a culture of law instead of revenge”

“I still believe there’s room to get it right, a culture of law instead of revenge”

Photographer:Fotograaf: ifproductions

Theo van Boven lecture by South Sudanese lawyer Anuol Deng

After studying law in England, Anuol Deng decided to return to his native soil in South Sudan. He was determined that, as a lawyer, he could make a contribution in his war-ravaged country. The Dutch sisters Femke and Ilse van Velzen trailed him for months, filming a documentary called A Haunting History. This Thursday afternoon, Deng will deliver the Theo van Boven lecture at the law faculty. The film will also be screened.

The film crew finds itself somewhere in the countryside of South Sudan. A group of villagers are gathered under a large tree, with a few men at the front sitting on plastic chairs, the others on the dusty ground. Anuol Deng, looking smart in his suit, joins the local court where a number of ‘judges’ hear the case about the feud. One villager is alleging that another stole his bull. When the verdict is handed down, a man in a purple shirt gestures to the crowd: “We’re finished, you need to leave.” Next to him someone has dozed off.
Anuol Deng shakes hands with the men and talks about his studies, and how the administration of justice works very differently in the West. “Everything is written down there, and then the judge makes a decision.” And it all happens inside a building, not under a tree. “What do you do when it rains?” he asks the men. A listener with no front teeth calls out that the government never does anything. “Where is this country headed? Everything is corrupt.”

Blood bath

South Sudan has a long history of violence. The second civil war, which had lasted 22 years, didn’t end until 2005. Six years later – Deng calls it “a transition period” – the southern part of Sudan became autonomous, and thus independent of the government in Khartoum. During the war millions of people fled, were killed, or died from hunger or disease. At the age of 13, Anuol Deng (now 32) fled to Kenya. He tells his story in the documentary. For him the nightmare started with a mass slaughter by a rebel group in his village when he was just 7. “They had guns and rocket launchers. All we could hear was the whistling of bullets through the air. I turned around; my mother was holding me. We saw people dropping everywhere. It was almost like they were hunting people.” The vultures that lived off dead people and animals had “a feast”. The blood bath affected him personally, he sighs. All the more reason for his determination to bring the perpetrators to justice in a court of law.
The war drove his family apart. Deng ended up in a refugee camp in Kenya and moved to Nairobi to finish school. His dream of becoming a lawyer came true when he received a scholarship to study law in England. Afterwards, he decided to return to Africa. Did he have any idea what was waiting for him in the country he had left some fifteen years earlier? “I knew there was nothing here, no roads, no buildings”, he says in an interview in Maastricht two days before the lecture. “But it was a carefully taken decision. I feel responsible for my country, for people who haven’t had the same opportunities as I have. My country, more than any other, needs my knowledge.”

Locked up

But was South Sudan really waiting for the ideas he brought home with him? Did people even understand what he was talking about with "a legal system that guides society"? No – that much becomes clear in the film. What’s more, few felt any need to dig up the past; it would only rekindle violence.
Today, Deng says: "Most South Sudanese have their own mind set, beliefs, norms and values based on their own comfort zone. They’re locked up in their own traditional way of life. They don’t understand what I’m on about when I talk about justice, equality and honesty. They say my head is full of American ideas.” Deng shortly considered leaving, but eventually decided to stay.
In 2013, not long after the celebrations for the second Independence Day, the violence flared up again in a power struggle between political leaders. And nowadays the country is still bleeding, he says. "Young people walk around with guns. They see no other way out; they’re recruited by the government or by rebels. What do they have to lose? Nothing. Everyone takes power in their own hands. The worst thing is that people don’t even know what they’re fighting for any more. They’ve ended up in a useless war."
How different it could have been, he says, if important institutions had been set up: a decent police service, a solid justice system, a public prosecution service. If professionals had been appointed to important posts.
"They should have known better", he says of the United Nations, the United States and all the other countries that sent military personnel to join the peace mission in South Sudan during the transition period. "The country was led by our own people who came straight from the bush, from a civil war, with no education, no knowledge. The international community had to make the new South Sudanese government listen and advise them about civil servant positions and ethical values. South Sudanese, who have had a good education abroad, like himself, had to be send home again. But it all failed miserably.”
“With pain in my heart”, he has decided to let the past go. “If you want to trial all the people responsible for the war, you’d have to build the biggest jail in the world.” Still, he has hope. He believes the next generation can bring about change. “I still believe there’s room to get it right, a culture of law instead of revenge.”

Theo van Boven lecture, Thursday 23 November, 16:00, Statenzaal, Bouillonstraat 1-3.
Each year, the Maastricht Centre for Human Rights organizes a lecture to honor one of the Centre’s co-founders and former Director of the United Nations Division of Human Rights Theo van Boven. 

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