AUTHOR’S NOTE: My first encounter with Guy, or Abdelhamid Yousif Ismail Adam, was at a function organized by the Harvard Hillel in mid-April. We talked and I was both shocked and mesmerized by his life story. The next day I met with Guy at Harvard Kennedy School, where I interviewed him for the first of three times. I wanted to write this not just to demonstrate the sheer diversity of Harvard’s student body, but also to bring to light violence that, despite no longer dominating news headlines, continues to rage on.
In order to survive the slaughter in Darfur, it was the promise of education — the bedrock of democracy and freedom — Abdelhamid Yousif Ismail Adam clung to throughout his turbulent youth.
U.N. Security Council estimates show that more than 2.7 million Darfuris have been displaced over the past 18 years. Many Sudanese have fled to neighboring countries — war-torn — to escape the violence and instability of their own.
Adam, who said he changed his name to Guy Josif Adam to honor the people who helped him, is currently studying international human rights law at Harvard’s Division of Continuing Education. This is his story.
Born on New Year’s Day
For Guy (who prefers to use his first name), a birthday celebration is a novel phenomenon. According to his Sudanese passport, his journey “from nowhere to somewhere,” as he puts it, began on Jan. 1, 1986. Yet he does not know the exact date of his birth and believes he is 24 to 26 years old. “The Fur tribe does not keep dates as Western cultures do,” he explained during our first meeting at the Kennedy School.
Sipping a cup of steaming vanilla coffee, Guy began weaving from his painful childhood to the present day in a meticulous, almost rehearsed fluency that made me certain this was not his first interview. His advice to Google “Guy Josif Adam Darfur” if I encountered any biographical questions confirmed this suspicion.
For bureaucratic and official documentation, most in Sudan follow a similar procedure. “If you ask most people in Sudan” Guy jokes, “they will tell you they were born on January 1. It would seem like an amazing coincidence that in the city of Darfur, with over 9 million inhabitants, almost everyone was born on the same day.”
Guy was born in the village of Mara. His parents were farmers who tended livestock and cultivated crops to provide for their seven children. His schooling ended in the fourth grade because his father could no longer afford the tuition fees, and needed Guy to help support the family by working in the fields.
Life in Mara changed forever in the summer of 2003 when 200 members of the government-backed Janjaweed — Arabic for “devils on horseback” — attacked the agrarian village of 2,000. The Janjaweed, rebranded as the Rapid Support Forces in 2013, were notorious for their indiscriminate violence, and were condemned by Human Rights Watch in 2004 for inflicting “a campaign of forcible displacement, murder, pillage, and rape on hundreds of thousands of civilians.” While no longer commanding headlines, Darfur continues to be the scene of horrific ethnic violence orchestrated by the regime in Khartoum and Arab militias like the Janjaweed.
As members of Darfur’s predominant non-Arab Fur tribe, considered ethnically inferior by the ruling National Congress Party and the Janjaweed, Guy and his family were targeted and savagely beaten.
“We were drinking tea,” Guy said. “My younger brothers were playing with our goats and scattering seeds to the doves in the yard when I suddenly heard gunshots. Several men appeared on horseback and began burning my family’s home.”
The men brandished Kalashnikovs, and Guy instantly knew they were members of the Janjaweed. “There was no time to say anything to anyone in my family. I was only thinking about how to get out of there.”
The image of a Janjaweed militant standing over his unconscious father, clenching a sharp wooden stick, would be Guy’s final memory of his home.
Fleeing his village with a broken arm and bloodied leg, Guy had no plan. As dusk approached, his chances of surviving the treacherous terrain dwindled. “As I was walking, I saw a car approaching. It was a medium-sized van with blue and white labels on the side.” Officials from the United Nations, who were posted at a nearby village, found Guy, wounded and distressed, and took him with them to Khartoum.
Living with Joseph, a British U.N. official in Khartoum, the capital of Sudan, Guy grew proficient in English and enrolled at the local Young Men’s Christian Association. It was Joseph’s altruism and the intimate rapport he developed with a local pastor named Guy, that prompted Abdelhamid Yousif Ismail to convert from Islam to Christianity and change his name. (Neither Joseph nor the pastor’s last names were disclosed as a protective measure.)
“I had seen what people in Sudan had done in the name of Islam,” Guy said. “Killing is a crime and is never justified by the Quran. I no longer trusted the Islamic religion and felt that I could no longer be a part of it.”
“I kept on running”
But Khartoum was far from a permanent safe haven, since apostasy there is a crime punishable by death. His close contact with U.N. official Joseph had fueled rumors that Guy was leaking information about the Janjaweed’s atrocities in Darfur to the wider international community.
Arrested and brutally tortured on three on occasions by National Congress Party (NCP) operatives, Guy was given a week to flee Sudan or be killed. During one detention, Guy said “they kicked me in the head,” leaving a protruding dent at the far-left corner of his forehead, and “stomped on me and spat on me. One interrogator used my body as an ashtray and burnt me on my arm with his cigarette. I spent a couple of hours standing alone in a cell. There were metal spikes coming out of the walls of the cell that prevented me from moving. I saw other prisoners who were hanging by their arms above their heads being pulled by rope.”
Escaping Sudan via Egypt and then Israel is a common but perilous route. This February, Israel’s Population and Immigration Authority reported that more than 15,400 people had fled from Sudan and sought asylum in the Jewish state between 2009 and 2017.
Guy’s dream refuge in Israel stemmed from his belief that the Jewish people and Darfuris had both been victims of intolerance, conflict, and violence. “I knew nothing about Judaism or Israel until I started learning from the people at the U.N.,” he said. “Israel’s origin story with the Holocaust and all the Jewish people’s suffering resonated with me deeply after seeing my people’s suffering in Darfur.”