Apr. 14, 2009
Sudanese scholar finds freedom to write at Cornell
Ushari Khalil has seen the effects of violence on children in Sudan and the inside of a Darfur prison for his efforts to expose their suffering.
A visiting scholar from Sudan based at Cornell's Africana Studies and Research Center this year, Khalil is writing about his more than 20 years of advocacy and documenting human rights abuses -- work that has put him at risk in his home country.
"The work was mostly on 'sensitive issues' -- abduction of children, slavery, children recruited as soldiers, children in situations of prostitution, children living in the street, and children in institutions," Khalil said. "These are all issues that governments don't want talked about. That itself involves all sorts of challenges."
Khalil and his daughter, Zawan, 13, arrived in Ithaca in January. He is writing and doing research on campus this semester and plans to give lectures in the fall. "I can't remember any time in Sudan when I was writing and not thinking that I would be rudely interrupted by security agents at any moment," he said. "That actually puts a strain on the writing process itself, and what you write about. And here, of course, it is very different."
Khalil, who has a Ph.D. in sociolinguistics from Georgetown University, co-authored a 1987 report exposing slavery in Sudan and documenting a massacre in southern Darfur where 1,500 displaced Dinka civilians were killed. He concluded that the Khartoum government -- at the time, a democratically elected one -- was complicit in the massacre, and that it encouraged slavery as a war strategy against southern Sudanese rebels.
He was imprisoned in Khartoum and in Darfur for two years following the report, and upon his release, the government banned him from travel for seven years.
Human Rights Watch gave Khalil its 1990 Human Rights Monitor Award, and French director Claire Denis devoted a segment of the 1991 film "Contre l'oubli (Against Oblivion)" to Khalil's efforts.
He later worked for UNICEF for almost nine years (1996-2004) on child protection in Sudan, Kenya, Burundi, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates; and on second-tier ethnic conflicts and peace building in Sudan. He advocated for internally displaced populations and children affected by armed conflict, from military recruitment to incarceration in juvenile camps.
"The situation hasn't really changed for many of the children that [were helped]," he said. "For child soldiers, once they are demobilized [and] sent home, sometimes they are recruited again. Sometimes because of lack of jobs, they resort to banditry -- they themselves become perpetrators. That happens a lot in war situations." He said the environment, a lack of resources and the "sheer numbers" are all to blame: "We are talking about tens of thousands of children."
He is now working on a book, "Taunting Danger," documenting his experiences writing about slavery in Sudan and confronting corruption in the Sudan judiciary. He is also writing a textbook on child protection for practitioners and preparing articles for publication on topics from domestic violence and child trafficking to Islamic custody and visitation laws.
He notes that some change in the situation for children has come slowly to Sudan.
"Policies have changed, and they are changing," he said. "Especially in the last seven or eight years in Sudan, things have been moving in terms of child policies to the better, even in the legal setup now. But community attitudes have not really changed at the same pace."
Khalil said he remains an optimist "because always with interventions, even when you are dealing with some of the worst violators, you do get some work done by persuasion, by helping, by working with communities -- and you get many children rescued, actually."
Khalil is at Cornell thanks to an initiative supported by President David Skorton and the Offices of the Provost and the Vice Provost for International Relations. Cornell joined the Scholars at Risk Network in 2007 in conjunction with the university's Africa Initiative and its response to the crisis in Darfur. The global network of colleges and universities responds to attacks on scholars, provides sanctuary to them and advocates on their behalf.
"It provides people like [Khalil] the time and peace of mind to write what they could not have done otherwise, and most important, to document their extraordinarily rich experiences," said Africana Center director Salah Hassan. "Our campus will benefit a great deal from his presence."