A diverse group of activists, diaspora, and Congressional staff came together on Capitol Hill last week to draw attention to the marginalization of the Beja people of eastern Sudan by celebrating the group’s rich history and culture. The Beja have inhabited the northeastern lands of Sudan bordering the Red Sea for roughly 6,000 years but are now struggling to maintain not only their land, property, and freedoms but also their existence as a cultural group.
The Beja have survived the rise and fall of several imposing empires throughout the centuries but the current regime is threatening the security of this ethnic group, with little outside attention being drawn to Khartoum’s marginalization of the East. To publicize the plight of the Beja people, the Beja Congress, Beja Friends, and the Institute on Religion and Democracy hosted a Beja Cultural Day to bring to light the silenced atrocities occurring in eastern Sudan and to encourage lawmakers to actively engage on eastern Sudanese issues as well as provide assistance to the region.
While the afternoon was filled with festive traditional dancing and live music, a panel of representatives from Beja advocacy groups, prominent members of the Beja diaspora, and Congressman Frank Wolf (R-VA), a champion for Sudan issues in the House of Representatives, used the event to convey the desperate state of eastern Sudan and commemorate those who died in the January 2005 Port Sudan Massacre.
The challenges the Beja people face are similar to the struggles experienced by other cultural groups marginalized by the National Congress Party, NCP, throughout Sudan: The lucrative land of eastern Sudan is exploited at the expense of its inhabitants; the community is ostracized for their culture differences from the dominant Arab regime; the Beja have fallen victim to unimplemented “peace agreements;” and they are subjected to politically induced states of economic and physical desperation. These hardships, however, are exacerbated because their suffering is underreported and consequently under attended to in comparison to other marginalized groups in Sudan.
Much of the international community’s attention has been focused elsewhere: on the Khartoum regime’s campaign of displacement and genocide in Darfur, the South’s civil war and separation, and the ongoing conflict along the North-South border. What is not captured in the media is the Sudanese government’s exploitation of the East’s natural resources and strategic location along the Red Sea. Although the Beja live on some of the most valuable land in the country and host the lucrative Port Sudan, they have some of the lowest humanitarian indicators in the country. The eastern population is plagued by alarmingly high levels of poverty, malnutrition, infant and maternal mortality rates, poor health and education services, and treatable diseases. Omar Hammad Gimi of the Beja Congress asserts that the Khartoum regime has not only induced these intolerable conditions, it has maintained them by refusing entry to necessary humanitarian organizations.
Moreover, six years after the Port Sudan Massacre, the Beja people still live in fear of military targeting from the Khartoum regime. On January 25, 2005, 22 Beja were killed and hundreds more were injured at a peaceful protest calling upon the government to allocate more representation and resources to the region. Violent oppression of these pleas for better treatment and respect for human rights is still an unfortunate reality for the oppressed Beja people of eastern Sudan.
Beja advocacy groups used the opportunity of the cultural day not only to proudly display their rich history but also to call upon Congress to pass a resolution that recognizes the Beja people as a marginalized group within Sudan, prioritizes humanitarian assistance to the eastern region of Sudan, and pressures the regime in Khartoum to cease human rights abuses inflicted upon the Beja.
Photo: Beja advocates perform a traditional dance (Enough / Juliana Stebbins)