Out of Africa

Memphian Craig Walzer gives voice to the displaced peoples of Sudan.

His name is Tarig, and he's been living in Cairo for years. Some say he's a leader of the Sudanese refugees there, but he denies it in an interview. Tarig admits, though, that he does what he can to help. All he asks is that he and his fellow refugees be granted some basic rights: access to education and health care, some dignity — "a life like any human being should have," he says. Title his interview in the words Tarig uses to describe himself: "A Good Actor in a Bad Movie."

Abuk, from South Sudan: She now lives in suburban Boston, and she serves tea during her interview. She remembers laughing and playing as a child. As she says, "We didn't have a lot, but we had a normal life." Then she remembers being abducted. Title her interview "The Only Word I Heard Was 'Abeeda.' That Means Slave."

Mathok: He remembers growing up among cows and huts, with views of the mountains in the Sudanese countryside. At the age of 5, he left Sudan with his family in order to escape the violence. Today, he's a member of a Sudanese street gang in the country's capital, Khartoum. Title his interview "We Live Angry Lives."

Nadia: She was born in Darfur in western Sudan, but she does not know where in Darfur. She knows, however, that it was a small village of "normal people" — people who went to their jobs and then came home again. She wants out of Egypt, where she lives. She wants to return to Darfur "no matter the danger." Title her interview "Life, Death, There's No Big Difference."

And then there's Gazafi: He's also from Darfur, and he now lives on the outskirts of Cairo. His father is a member of one Sudanese tribe; his mother is a member of another. But he's "more concerned that we are Sudanese and we are human beings." Title his interview "Now I Hate Something Called Sudan."

Now title the source of these moving interviews Out of Exile: The Abducted and Displaced People of Sudan. Some of the book's interviews were conducted by author and publisher Dave Eggers along with Sudanese refugee Valentino Achak Deng. Most of the interviews, however, are the work of the book's editor, Craig Walzer, who spent the summer of 2007 in Sudan, Egypt, Kenya, and the Boston area preparing this volume on the lives of the Sudanese who have been displaced by the long-standing civil war and tribal wars in their war-torn country in East Africa.

The book, a work of oral history and the latest in the "Voice of Witness" series published by McSweeney's, appeared this past November, and, according to Eggers and Deng in their foreword, it follows the aim of previous works in the series: "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."

Individuals, then, not mere statistics. And not faceless victims. Though, as Walzer's informants make clear, the scale of the victimization in Sudan has been enormous: murder and rape, poverty and disease, oppression and enslavement — all told over the decades, an estimated death count of over three million, with an additional eight million Sudanese forced to flee their country at one time or another.

Overwhelming numbers, to be sure, and as an eyewitness to the suffering, Walzer is in a position to write in his introduction: "The world doesn't really know what to make of Sudan."

One refugee he interviewed doesn't know what to make of the world's response.

"Until we can see with our own eyes in Sudan," she tells him, "maybe that's when we shall believe that you people are helping us in Sudan."

"There's no easy answer," Walzer tells her in reply. "I suppose that it's when one person goes to Sudan and sees and returns and tells family here."

Walzer may mean that generally, but by "here" he could be referring to Memphis and for "family" his own family: his father, Yair Walzer, a Memphis surgeon, and his mother, Gail, who moved to Memphis when Craig was 2 years old.

Now he's 27 and working toward a joint degree at Harvard Law School and Harvard's Kennedy School of Government after graduating from Memphis University School and Brown University. After, as an undergraduate and on a lark, he also helped to found a bookstore on the Greek island of Santorini — a bookstore, staffed by a rotating set of fellow travelers, that's gotten its share of press in The Times of London and The New York Times.

As Walzer explained in a phone interview, it was a reporter for The New York Times, the friend of a friend, who led him to first visit Khartoum and Cairo in 2006. There he did ad-hoc casework to benefit Sudanese refugees.

"I had no inkling of the gravity of the situation," Walzer admitted. But back in Boston, he met Dave Eggers, and he told Eggers he was planning on returning to Africa the following summer. "We hit off," Walzer said of his meeting with Eggers, who told him his interviews would make a welcome addition to McSweeney's "Voice of Witness" series. And as for those interviews:

"Not to be too clinical," Walzer said, "but we did have a checklist we wanted to meet: people who were compelling storytellers and people who'd experienced important features of the forced displacement of the Sudanese — people from various parts of the country; men and women; a mix of religions and social classes. We didn't in any way cover everything. Consider it a sliver of a cross-section."

But consider the experience a milestone in the education of Craig Walzer.

"I've spent my life writing papers for teachers — papers that are just going to be thrown in the wastebasket. This project is the first time I've written anything that's to any degree mattered.

"I don't know if the experience has done more to make me realize the value of human dignity. My family, to a person, has always been in favor of human rights and justice. But going to Africa . . . seeing, hearing these refugee stories, it makes sense: the fact that we in the U.S. ignore these things that are happening so far away. The situation in Sudan is complex, and giving voice to people who are generally voiceless, that's the raison d'etre for the book. And it can't hurt. It's got to be a step in the right direction.

"As for the future of the Sudanese: I don't mean to be nihilistic, but it's tough to know. It's tough to know if the political will ever reach a critical mass in a part of the world that seems way beyond our grasp."

And what of Walzer once he has a law degree in hand?

"I'm lucky to be privileged enough to leave the options and opportunities open," he said. "But Dave Eggers and Valentino Achak Deng . . . they've already returned to Sudan and delivered copies of Out of Exile into the hands of those they interviewed. I'd love to do that. Be useful. Any excuse to go back."

And that includes, if Walzer can, going back to Atlantis Books. That's the bookstore in the village of Oia on Santorini in the Aegean.

"I go when I get the chance, which isn't often," Walzer said. "The place is still ticking. It hasn't burned down," he added in good humor. "Yet." 

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