Out of Exile: The Abducted and Displaced People of Sudan (Voice of Witness)
by Dave Eggers
Reviewed by John Freeman
San Francisco Chronicle
Somewhere in San Diego, there is an African woman with one kidney, a family of five and an astonishing story tucked behind her eyes.
If you cared to hear it, she could tell how gunmen rode into her sleepy village in Sudan on horseback one day and shot all the men. She could describe how she escaped, only to be raped on her way to a refugee camp -- then raped again in the refugee camp.
She might also tell how she miraculously ran into her missing husband months later in Cairo and then nearly lost one of their infant children in a protest, where the child was placed on a pile of dead pickets.
The heartbreaking thing about Fatima Adbelrahman, though, is she can count herself one of the lucky ones. In the past 50 years, the Sudanese civil war and the conflict between the north and south has claimed more than 3 million lives and displaced 8 million people.
Many of those who do survive escape with nothing but their story, something this essential collection of oral testimony records and, in a realistic way, celebrates.
They are amazing tales, full of chance and happenstance that occur in a shadow world where Cairo operates as a kind of hub, boomeranging people away from Sudan, or, more often, keeping them trapped in stateless limbo.
Caroline Moorehead published an extraordinary book, Human Cargo, on how the world deals with such asylum seekers; it not only reported on Cairo, but proceeds from the sale of the book also went to a legal aid fund for asylum seekers in that city who needed help leaving.
Out of Exile tells the raw, unfiltered story of people who wind up in this purgatory and others. Some survivors manage to stay buoyed, in spite of constant setbacks, like Ahmed Ishag Yacoub, who fled Darfur for Cairo, and made the mistake of thinking he would be welcomed in Israel.
He wound up in a military jail for Palestinian fighters, where he befriended his guards, who taught him Hebrew. The men cried when he was sent back to Cairo. Ahmed was then jailed again, rescued by the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, and finally bribed his way into a job waiting tables in Sinai.
Time and again in this book, lives balance precariously between extraordinary acts of cruelty and lifesaving gestures of kindness. One man, displaced from the south when his village is bombed, makes $50 a month as a school principal in a refugee camp.
Whenever it rains heavily, the roof of his mud and plastic hut caves in. All the men then get together and spend several days rebuilding it. There is very little crime in the refugee camp. "I mean, even if someone wanted to commit robbery here, what is he going to steal?"
As in all war zones, women have it the hardest. Abuk Bak Bacham was abducted from her village in the south and turned into a slave. Achol Mayuol suffered a similar fate, only she was also kept as a concubine.
Out of Exile is the fourth book in Dave Eggers' Voice of Witness series, and it shows that McSweeney's admirable project has improved and evolved along the way.
Craig Walzer, this book's editor, has conducted a terrific range of interviews -- which are supplemented by some conducted by Eggers and Valentino Achak Deng, the hero of Eggers' 2006 nonfiction novel, What Is the What. They talk to teenagers, mothers, street-gang members and even aid workers.
Out of Exile is also one of the most thorough volumes in its back matter. The appendix includes a timeline of Sudanese history, descriptions of the size and location of Sudanese refugee camps, and a definition of legal terms.
The range of stories the book features points to the possibility of happy endings for many displaced people, if only other governments worked together to acknowledge their suffering. Not surprisingly, several of the survivors are working toward that very goal. Abuk Bak Bacham, for instance, found her way to Boston, where her husband drives an airport shuttle and she works at an assisted-living facility.
Another Boston resident -- Panther Alier -- who, like Deng, walked to safety -- is studying at Brandeis University and planning to return home to work in sustainable development.
They all know far too many people who were left behind, people like Mathok Aguek, who moved to Cairo and fell in with a Sudanese street gang for protection. He applied for resettlement to Australia, but was turned down. In the meantime, he spent his days attacking and being attacked by a rival Sudanese gang made up of men from his own tribe.
"Now there is peace in Sudan, but here in Cairo we are fighting," he said, sadly. "It's hard to believe."
Six weeks after his interview was conducted, Mathok Aguek was killed in a gang fight. He was buried in Khartoum.
John Freeman is completing a book on the tyranny of e-mail. E-mail him at email@example.com