The Amplification of Seldom-Heard Voices
by Dave Eggers and Valentino Achak Deng

This is the fourth book in the Voice of Witness series, but it is the first book that the series contemplated. Giving voice to the victims of the civil wars in Sudan was the very reason that the Voice of Witness was conceived.

It started in 2003, when we traveled together to Valentino’s hometown of Marial Bai. It was the first time Valentino had been back home since he fled, as a young boy, almost seventeen years earlier. The town had survived many attacks by militias and the ­Government of Sudan both before Valentino fled, and in the years of war that ­remained. When we arrived in Marial Bai, there had been a year or so of ceasefire in place, and the town was beginning to recover.

During our time in the region, we sat down with three women who had been abducted by murahaleen raiders during the war, and had been brought to the North, where they were made to be slaves, serving as household servants and concubines. Save the Children and other agencies had recently helped rescue these women—and thousands like them—and had begun returning all such abductees (women, men, children) to their homes in Marial Bai and throughout South Sudan.

For the women we interviewed, the return was extremely difficult. The women spoke little or no Dinka—the language of Marial Bai and much of the South—because they had been abducted at a very young age and were made to speak Arabic. They knew little of the beliefs, lifestyle, or customs of the South. And most significantly, two of the three women we spoke to had left children in the North, with the men who had enslaved and impregnated them.(1) When they spoke of their struggles since coming back, they wept, and thus the interviews were fraught and relatively brief.

After we spoke to these women, we were determined that their voices should be heard. Though we were both aware of the practice of slavery during the war between the SPLA and the Government of Sudan, we had not read extensive reports or narratives of such women’s lives. So while we worked on telling Valentino’s story—in what became What Is the What—we also made plans for a book of oral histories of the lives of Sudanese women during the war. The Voice of Witness series was conceived as a forum where victims of gross human rights abuses could tell their stories not in brief sound bites, but from beginning to end, encompassing the full scope of their humanity. We wanted to make sure that a reader knew the narrators not just as victims or statistics, but as fully human. In this way a reader has a far better chance at empathy, and is more likely to be outraged when the narrators’ basic rights are trampled upon. When it comes to the lives of the Sudanese women we met and you’ll meet in this book, a bit more outrage is surely warranted.

A few years after our trip to Marial Bai, What Is the What was published, and we embarked on many months of touring throughout the United States, speaking to audiences about the book and the continuing struggles of the people of South Sudan. When we were invited by Samantha Power to speak at the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy in Cambridge, we met a man named Craig Walzer. He was studying for degrees at Harvard Law School and the Kennedy School of Government, and had spent the previous summer in Khartoum and the surrounding areas, using much of that time talking to the refugees who were living in the camps near the city. We were very interested in the stories that Craig told, and when he told us that he would be returning to Khartoum the following summer, the plan for Out of Exile took shape. Craig would conduct interviews with refugees in Khartoum, Cairo, Nairobi, and Kakuma, and we would ­interview women in Marial Bai the next time we traveled there. In this way, our original plan to record the voices of women who had suffered silently during the war gave way to a broader plan, to give voice to women, men, and children who had unwillingly become victims of war— displaced, endangered, exploited, enslaved, tortured.

The result is this book, Out of Exile. We had no idea that this chance meeting with Craig would produce a book of such scope and depth. He was able to foster such a warm and open atmosphere with the men and women he interviewed that the resulting narratives are stunning; each has novelistic scope and unparalleled candor. We feel that the narratives in Out of Exile are essential reading for anyone interested in contemporary issues in Sudan, and in the lives of refugees throughout Africa and indeed the world. When you read these stories, you will be moved, you will be enraged, and, we hope, you will never read a headline about Darfur or South Sudan, or indeed any member of the Sudanese diaspora, the same way again. There are as many stories, indelible and startling and tragic and inspiring, as there are Sudanese. As there are people. Let us keep our ears open to them.
­— Valentino Achak Deng, Marial Bai, June 2008
— Dave Eggers, San Francisco, June 2008

(1) One of our narrators, Achol Mayuol, provides a different outcome to this injustice.

We Shall See with Our Own Eyes
by Craig Walzer

In the course of compiling this book, only one person chose to cut off her interview before we had finished. A woman named Mary welcomed us into her corrugated-iron hut in the slums of Kawangware, on the outskirts of Nairobi, Kenya, in the summer of 2007. She made space for us to sit on her bed, her only piece of furniture. She swept away the muddy water streaming across the floor. She introduced us to her son, maybe six or seven years old, wearing a faded Green Bay Packers jersey.

The interview started normally. After fifteen minutes or so, we arrived at this point:

So who is the man that you married?

My husband is called Majok.

How did you meet him?

He came to my village and spoke with my parents. He said, “I want this woman to be my wife. I saw her and she looks beautiful.” And my parents agreed.

What did you think about this? Were you happy?

I love him, so that’s why we went together.

Did you have a conversation with him before you were married?

We talked.

Did you think he was handsome?

Yes, he was handsome.

Where was he from?

He was from a Dinka tribe.

From which city—do you know?

He is from Aweil.

And you were eighteen?

Yeah. I’m tired, I don’t want to do this anymore. You can continue for five minutes, then I’m finished.

Okay. If you had to describe the story of your life, what is the five-minute story of your life?

Even if I tell you my life, what will you do about it?

What we are doing with this is making a book. The idea is to educate people about the situation of the people of Sudan.

I have been asked these questions before and nobody has come to our help. We have never been helped. They say money will go to building schools and hospitals. We have been told about this all the time, and nothing ever happens.

I guess I can’t give you evidence, but I can tell you that I am coming from a faraway place, and there are many of us who think this is very important and are trying to help. I understand why you are skeptical, because it’s very difficult here, and nobody has been helping you, but we’re trying to change that. We’re trying to help.

I have been living this bad life, and many people come and say they will do everything, and nobody has been doing it. And not only are many people in Sudan living in these conditions, but all these people come here, and nothing has been happening for all this time.

Well, I will not lie to you. I can’t promise you everything, because the situation is very bad, and there is so much to do. We will not do everything, and we cannot fix everything, but we are just trying to do something small, because it’s a start.

We will not believe now. Until we can see with our own eyes in Sudan, maybe that’s when we shall believe that you people are helping us in Sudan.

What would you like to see? What would make you believe?

We would like to see that Sudan is in peace, and that Sudan is more like other countries. That’s when we will believe that changes have come to Sudan.

How long do you think that will take?

I don’t know. I don’t want to live in Kenya any longer. It’s very bad here. I want to live in Sudan.

But you realize it will take a lot. It’s a huge project, and it will take a very long time to do something like this.

How shall we know when change comes? How shall we know that? How will I know when changes have come to Sudan?

There’s no easy answer. I suppose that it’s when one person goes to Sudan and sees and returns and tells family here.

When these things come, then we shall see with our own eyes.

May I ask one more question? Have you ever told your life story to anyone before?

I have been telling many people about my life, and their lives are just like this one.

How many years have you been in this house now?

Fifteen years. All of my children were born here.

Do you think they will ever go back to Sudan?

If Sudan is in peace, then we’ll go back to Sudan. I was trying to settle in America, but it was not so easy, so that’s why I am living here. Americans come and say they will help, but those who have lost their families, those who have lost their parents know they are not helping. What you are doing now, if it is good, then will you be able to help me?

I think, indirectly, yes. I think these stories will be read by people in America and people in Europe, who will become more aware. And not just five-minute stories, but the story of a whole person, so they will feel more of a connection with the people. Very often, people in America or Europe see Sudanese people as victims, but not as people, and there’s a difference, because when they’re victims you can push them away. But when they’re people, then they become closer; they become more real.
[After a long pause] I’m sorry, I don’t know what to say. I wish that it was working better for you, and this is what we are trying to do to help. I hope that I have not offended you at all.

I will go and rest.

* * *


In the year since, I’ve listened to this exchange time and again. I wonder what would have been a better answer than, “I’m sorry, I don’t know what to say.” I wish I had had a better answer.

* * *

After more than a century of colonial rule, the country of Sudan declared independence on January 1, 1956. Sudan is geographically the largest country in Africa, and nearly twice the size of Alaska. The north of Sudan is the Sahara desert and the Nile valley. The west is in the heart of the Sahel savanna. The east runs from semiarid land over mountains to the coast of the Red Sea. In the center are fertile clay plains that stretch from the Nuba Mountains to the Ethiopian highlands. The south braces the Nile and covers jungles, plains, and a swamp the size of Belgium before meeting the Kenyan desert not far from the ridge of the Great Rift Valley. 

The peoples of Sudan speak 134 different languages—or more than 400 if one counts distinct dialects. The population is divided into 19 ethnic groups, with 597 subgroups. While Islam dominates the North and Christianity the South, indigenous religions and their legacies still pervade and shade the ritual practices of nearly every ethnic subgroup. 

The country of forty million shares no single common language, religion, skin color, economic agenda, cultural history, or political consensus. A light-skinned Arabic-speaking Muslim from the northern railroad hub of Atbara is in most ways a stranger (or worse, a media caricature) to a Christian Dinka from a pastoral village whose skin tone is the deepest black. Within Sudan’s borders, the diversity is at once mesmerizing and terrifying. 

Here is why it is terrifying:

Sudan’s first civil war, between the North and South, lasted seventeen years, from 1955 to 1972. Open war between North and South reignited in 1983 and lasted until 2005. The people and culture of the Nuba Mountains were nearly eradicated in the crossfire of a military campaign by the North’s Army that, in the words of scholar Alex de Waal, “was genocidal in intent and at one point appeared to be on the brink of success.” It is estimated that thousands were abducted into slavery during the height of the fighting, and even more were systematically raped as a tactic of war. In 1998 a combination of drought, war, and obstruction of humanitarian aid led to a famine in South Sudan that killed more than seventy thousand people. Low-level conflict in East Sudan began in the 1990s as the Beja Congress fought for a share in governmental power; a 2006 peace agreement between Khartoum and the Eastern Front currently stands on shaky ground. From approximately 1992 to 1996, Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda posted their headquarters in Sudan at the invitation of the Islamist political leader Hassan al-Turabi. The current Darfur conflict has raged since 2003, and there’s no end in sight. In 2004, the United Nations labeled Darfur the world’s “worst humanitarian crisis.” 


The death toll from these conflicts is over three million. Perhaps eight million Sudanese have been forced to flee their homes at one time or another because of war. Malnourishment, sexual violence, political oppression, and disease pervade more quietly. All told, it’s been enough to keep Sudan at the top of Foreign Policy’s Failed States Index, as the country narrowly edged out Iraq, Somalia, and Zimbabwe in 2007 to retain its spot. 

One could argue that during the brief life of the modern Sudanese state, the thread shared by the country’s myriad peoples is a living memory of violence.

This book is based on that tragic common thread. The unifying characteristic of the narrators in this book is forced displacement. Each person has been forced, by violence or the threat of violence, by ideological oppression, or by extreme economic injustice to leave his or her home. These displaced persons are at once the living testimony to their young country’s sorry bond of violence and  a critical human resource for rebuilding and reconciliation when that day comes.

The world doesn’t really know what to make of Sudan. We hear news reports of rebels fighting central commands, of warring factions breaking and turning, of starving children with flies in their eyes. We have Google Earth’s satellite photos of Darfur’s scorched earth. We have legal definitions of genocide and crimes against humanity. We have formal condemnations by the United Nations. We have a multibillion dollar humanitarian aid industry slowing the burn. We have prosecutors seeking justice, if not peace, through indictments by the International Criminal Court. But we do not take forceful action to change the existing order of Sudan. 

Perhaps it is wise not to intervene. Perhaps it is an excuse and the reason why so many feel free to condemn with such volume: the knowledge that the world will never go so far as to actually put ourselves on the line for this cause. Nor do we have to. Who will hold us accountable? We hear the sheer numbers, the thousands, the hundreds of thousands, the millions, and after wincing, we can safely categorize these stories under the rubrics of tribal conflict or African suffering. 

Or, like thousands are doing right now, we can plunge in head first and scratch and claw against the currents of bureaucratic inertia, scarce available resources, and tepid political will.

Or, resigned, we can back away and call ourselves prudent, reciting the catalog of interventions that have resulted in more harm than good. Harvard professor Samantha Power has often recounted that at the height of the debates over Darfur at the United Nations Security Council, Sudanese diplomats wandered the halls whispering warnings to their colleagues on the council: “If you like Iraq, you’ll love Darfur.”

* * *



The modern law pertaining to refugees was conceived in the wake of World War I and was truly born in 1951, with the ratification of the UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees. Currently 147 countries are signatories to the convention or its ancillary document, the 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees. A refugee is, by the convention’s definition:


A person who owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable, or owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; or who, not having a nation-ality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence as a result of such events, is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it.


Millions of lives have been protected under the current international regime of refugee protection. There have been successes brought about through the grace and tenacity of so many who have worked so hard. Yet a glance at global context shows another harsh truth: There are thirty-two million recognized refugees in the world according to the official count of the United Nations, and though we have no official tally of the number of people forcibly displaced within their own countries’ borders, there is no question that that number is in the tens of millions and maybe higher still. It is a truth that the stories in this book will confirm: For all our incantations of the “inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family,” the world does not adequately care for those without a country. 

More than half a century ago, the scholar and World War II refugee Hannah Arendt charged that “the concept of the Rights of man, based on the supposed existence of a human being as such, collapsed in ruins as soon as those who professed it found themselves for the first time before men who had truly lost every other specific quality and connection except for the mere fact of being humans.” Today, we still have yet to reach robust consensus on this, the purest of cases, those who ask for our consideration not as a citizen of a great country or as an owner of property, not with a paper trail or resources to barter, but merely as humans. 

The ongoing stalemate strikes at a central question of the New World Order. Two traditionally sacred values clash. One is the fundamental diplomatic principle of a nation’s sovereignty. The other is the mere human’s right—as stated in the United Nations Declaration—to “life, liberty, and the security of person.”

* * *


In this book, you will meet Marcy and Rose, young women who have lived their whole lives in a massive refugee camp in the desert of northwest Kenya. You will meet Alweel, who survived attempts on her life, rape, and gross, sick negligence at the hands of her own government. Alweel fled Sudan only to arrive in Cairo and be denied refugee protection, left to her own devices in a cruel, strange city that abused her further until she fought back in an act of epic courage. You will meet Tarig, whose political dissent against his government cost him a comfortable life in Khartoum and sentenced him to a self-described “purgatory” roaming the streets of Cairo. You will meet Abuk, a human spoil of war who escaped from a decade of slavery and now keeps a lovely home for her young family in a suburb of Boston, a world away from both her traumas and her people. You will meet Bob, who sought protection by smuggling himself into Israel, only to find that the Israelis did not know what to make of this dark-skinned Muslim from an enemy state. You will meet Nadia, who fled from war in Darfur as a child. She became a young mother in Cairo and after three years in exile has decided to return to Sudan no matter the peril, since, as she says, “It’s just better to die in my country, in my home.” As you meet these people and others, remember that this this is only a sliver, a section of a cross-section. There are hundreds of thousands of displaced Nubians you will not meet. Hundreds of thousands of marginalized people in East Sudan you will not meet. And those from Kordofan. And from the far north of the country. And those still silently enslaved in the caravans and the back rooms of nomadic traders and urban elites. We could not get to them all. 

It has been a privilege helping to build this book—meeting kind, gracious, strong people and conveying their stories. But like so much when it comes to Sudan—to what end comes this project undertaken with the best of intentions?

The answer still eludes me. 

Sudanese Dreams, Deferred Until When?
(Web-exclusive introduction)
by Daniel Deng

It was mid-March, 2001. I was in a dusty camp north of Abyei where a group of Missiriya nomads were addressing our delegation. The black loam clay was a hard grey under Sudan’s baking sun. The nomads sat motionless in their white gowns and turbans, staring at us—men on one side, women in the back, and children sitting on a plastic sheet, motionless like their parents. A tall, dark-skinned Missiriya man stepped forward to speak when it was his turn:

It was right here, from this camp, that the government armed us and sent us into Dinka land. Our women sang songs to our young men: “Don’t come back unless you have the ear of a Dinka man!” But now look at us. What did Khartoum’s promises bring us? Nothing! We men here, we are all illiterate. Our children on the ground there do not go to school. And our women still drink water from a filthy hand-dug well! War has brought us nothing. Khartoum’s promises brought us nothing. So we will now bring peace to Dinka Land! 

This testimonial by a member of the original janjaweed is evidence of the winds of change that are blowing across Sudan. Granted, these are hot winds, and they have ignited violent fires in all parts of the country. Yet, ironically, these same winds carry a great hope, which is reflected in the stories of the characters presented to us in Out of Exile.

Throughout history, visionaries have been hunted down, enslaved, humiliated, and despised—from Daniel, who was thrown into the lions’ den, to Jesus, crucified with a crown of thorns, to a host of modern visionaries, like Gandhi, King, and Mandela. The power of “seeing” future possibilities and committing oneself to seeing them through puts one in dangerous opposition to the establishment, which inevitably cringes when the writing is on the wall. 

The people we meet in Out of Exile have faced indignities so stirring they could fill scriptures. As much as they are individual stories, they are also the story of a nation dying to be born. Most importantly, each narrator still nurtures a love which is the basis of his or her dream. All that modern Sudan has known is war, and so, by necessity, we have become resilient people. The trials and tribulations described in this book are symptomatic of a new Sudan in the making. 

Admittedly, this characterization sees the proverbial cup as half full. It is easy to see the stories in this book as pointing to the collapse of a society, yet we will find more profit in the future if we see Sudan’s wars not as a series of regional conflicts taking their destructive toll, but rather as the birth pains of a new Sudan in the making. In this process, aspects of the old Sudan are being left behind in the annals of history, and a new chapter is beginning.

Abuk’s testimony sets the tone for the project, capturing our attention right from the start with a single word: slave. Slavery cast Abuk like a stone sculpture on her Arab master’s floor. In her resolute silence, she dreamed of freedom. Then, suddenly, movement came out of stillness, and rebellion out of submission. In an instant, Abuk began to run, and she kept running, not stopping until she reached America. There, she paused to enjoy her blackness once again, as she had as a child before she was enslaved. Now Abuk is silent no longer, spending her time advocating against slavery in Sudan. She has found that her personal freedom still lacks luster, and will only truly shine when all her people are free.

For Mutaz, the new Sudan will be a country where a working man can earn a decent day’s pay. More importantly, it will be a place where he will be able to provide for his mother instead of depending on her to take care of him. Since he found this impossible because of the lack of opportunities in Sudan today—which he blames on government policies—he left for Egypt. In Cairo, he paints a dreadful picture of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). The cold building snarls, appearing more like a fortress to keep refugees out than an institution mandated to protect them. Desperate and hungry, they stand in lines for days, only to be given yellow-and-blue protection cards which ultimately mean nothing. 

Benjamin chose flight over fight when his Dinka village became a field of corpses. Throughout the 1980s and ’90s, high-flying Antonov bombers peppered the once-serene countryside, leaving open-air cemeteries in their wake. While his brothers joined the rebel SPLA that was forming across the south, Benjamin fled north, to the sprawling outskirts of Khartoum, where millions of displaced live in the “Black Belt” zone to escape proliferating conflicts around the country. Chased from their homelands by their own governments, these refugees wait in a timeless suspension. Meanwhile, in Juba, those of Benjamin’s SPLA brothers and sisters who survived have now seen their rebel movement become a government. 

Gazafi is a Masaalit from Darfur, who fled to Cairo to escape National Islamic Front security forces who were trying to kill him in Khartoum. Gazafi’s baby son was murdered, bludgeoned out of his arms by an Egyptian police officer who took part in the savage beatings that left twenty-nine refugees dead in front of UNHCR. 

Mubtaga is an accomplished thirty-two-year-old woman from the Beja tribe of eastern Sudan. She has recently been forced to leave her work with USAID because she is being stalked by her brother, who wants to kill her for marrying a southerner. Mubtaga’s dream of a new Sudan where she is free to love whomever she chooses must be deferred as she struggles for her day-to-day survival.

Young Nadia’s memories are dominated by the massacre of her family in Darfur. Her brother was slain before her eyes by murderers in turbans as she crouched behind a tree. She searched for his breath but found it empty. Forced to marry at thirteen so that she could flee to Cairo, Nadia’s husband abandoned her with a sick child once they got there. Destitute and on the streets, her final disgrace came when an Egyptian security guard in front of the UNHCR fortress kicked her in the face for asking the UN to help her dying baby. Nadia, who has been robbed of everything but her very life, is now returning to Darfur.

In Margaret’s rural village in south Sudan, people were free to produce and drink alcohol. But when the war started, her quiet, happy life evaporated before her eyes. She fled to Khartoum in a military plane loaded with dead and wounded soldiers. The screams of the wounded were her rite of passage as she flew out of the south, into the hinterland slums surrounding Khartoum. When she got there, she found that Sudanese women were beaten mercilessly and imprisoned—not for drinking alcohol, but for selling it to buy food that the National Islamic Front denies them the ability to grow. In Margaret’s dream, she will one day return to her homeland and be free to farm, grow dates, and make local brew. 

Tarig is an Arab, but by American standards, he would be black. For some in Sudan, like Mubtaga’s family, the thought that Tarig is black would be an insult. Yet Tarig’s father, who was ahead of his time, taught Tarig that a new Sudan was on the horizon. From his father, Tarig learned how to fight for the rights of all people. When he was beaten in Khartoum by an Arab police officer, Tarig’s simple admonishment spoke volumes about his vision for a new Sudan: “Islam is a good thing, and you give it a bad image!” After that, extremists put a religious ordinance out to kill Tarig, and he too had to flee to Egypt. 

Tarig’s dream of a peaceful life for all peoples was conferred unto him by his slain father. I was particularly gratified that Tarig cited my own father, Francis Mading Deng, and my grandfather, Chief Deng Majok, as men he associates with a new Sudan. The Ngok Dinka of Abyei have been on the front lines for a long time, and this has taught them to strive for peaceful coexistence—which anyone who has a difficult neighbor can perhaps understand. Yet in May 2008, the Ngok were once again chased from their land, this time not by the Missiriya who I opened this introduction by quoting, but by the infamous 31st Brigade of the Sudanese government.

I hope you have noted in this introduction the consistent reference to a few key ideas: vision, dreaming, hope, and change. With these concepts framing our understanding of a new Sudan, it is not impossible to see the woods through the trees in these Sudanese stories. The fundamental problem of today’s Sudan is stitched across each of these stories: the denial of equal citizenship to all Sudanese, and the appalling human rights abuses that result from the ensuing conflicts. 

The stinging slaps and jarring affronts that you will see in these stories have not broken the will of their heroic narrators and characters, people whom time and struggle have made resilient. When seen in this way, even these most harsh cruelties are turned into precision tools with which to sculpt the new Sudanese identity, after exposing its flaws under a light of scrutiny, homing in on them and cutting them out, polishing the rough exteriors to bring back the luster, and hopefully reinforcing that which is best about us when all is said and done. 

Out of Sudan’s tragedy, something new has appeared on the horizon, brought to fruition over the last two decades by a latticework of old ideas woven into an inclusive concept of a new Sudan. This has been consecrated in the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA), which was achieved with much suffering and bloodshed. Arising out of this violent history, the hope of the new Sudan rests on liberty, justice, freedom, and equality for all Sudanese. 

The tensions at the heart of this book pull to the forefront the aspects of our nation that must be addressed. Through the trials and tribulations of eight displaced, exiled, or abducted Sudanese, we see the vision of a new Sudan. It is a vision of conflict transformed, where dreams conferred by ancestors and martyrs are no longer deferred to an uncertain tomorrow, but are built today. Out of Exile is the story of a nation that is dying to be born.