We learnt about Sharif Barko, victim of the Darfur genocide, by speaking to those who knew him.
Sadly we were not able to speak to Sharif Barko in person about his life. Tragically, he was murdered in Darfur. Yet, we wanted to tell everyone about this remarkable human being and also to raise awareness of the horrific situation that he faced in Sudan both before and after he came to our country. We were fortunate to be able to put a few questions to his friends Lucy , Sonja and Mohamed who we are so grateful to for sharing their memories of Sharif.
Please can you tell us a little bit about Sharif as a person? What was he like as a character?
Sharif had a very open, warm, humble, charismatic, and dignified personality. He left a strong, positive impression on anyone who met him. Sharif was a big person in every sense, big in person, big in personality, and big in courage. The first thing that would strike you about him was his amazingly big smile which was so characteristic of him as a warm, friendly generous human being!
As well as being very easy-going—and despite having had little education – he was extremely smart. He had moral cour- age, deep commitment to his community, and was a loyal friend.
I saw him go through some unbelievably tough experiences and his extraordinary resilience, lack of cynicism, and capacity to hope never failed to amaze me.
What was Sharif’s early life like in Darfur?
Sharif was born in the village of Sandikoru in Western Darfur State. In his early life, he studied in traditional schools (called Khalwa) to learn the Quran. He also practiced some farming and grazing in childhood. He had some amazing anecdotes, such as the technique he and his friends used to hunt py- thons! He grew up in quite a harsh rural environment, but it was stable and peaceful, and at that time there were enough resources and food to go round. The strength of his personality and his high intelligence was such, that at some point he was elected as one of the village leaders called ‘warnangs’.
What happened to Sharif when the genocide began in 2002- 03?
By that time Sharif was married with two young sons, and he was also an important representative of his village. As such, he was targeted by security forces who pressured him to divulge information about people in his tribe who were de- fending their community from attacks by the Janjaweed. He refused. He was arrested, repeatedly tortured, held in detention for several months, and eventually transferred to a prison in the Sudanese capital, Khartoum. Whilst there, he was aware of other inmates being killed in the prison.
How did Sharif make it to Britain after he was forced to leave Darfur?
Sharif’s uncle managed to bribe prison officers to get him released. He then told Sharif that he wasn’t safe to stay in Sudan, and paid a smuggler to get Sharif out of the country. The smuggler arranged to fly Sharif to Britain, but when he arrived, Sharif had no idea which country he was in. He was eventually taken to immigration officers at the airport, and claimed asylum.
Sharif’s time in Britain after he arrived sounds really tough. How did he manage to keep going?
It is shameful to me that Sharif was made to suffer some of the worst experiences of his life only after arriving in the UK. He was put in a hostel and with help he filled out an applica- tion for asylum. He was given somewhere to live and £36 a week to live on. When his asylum claim was refused, he was in shock. He was immediately turned out of his accommodation and no longer given his living allowance. He became very desperate and would eat leftover bananas he found after a food market closed, and slept in telephone boxes.
Sharif’s mental and physical health deteriorated significantly over the years he struggled to gain a foothold in this country. He wrestled continually with ‘survivor guilt’ after finding out that his wife and children had been killed, which was of course not his fault. Had the British authorities granted his refugee status more quickly, it is possible they could have survived and joined him in the UK.
He kept going through sheer grit and determination, and his extraordinary resilience. He was also helped a lot by friends, a good lawyer, kind people, and organisations who support refugees and migrants.
Why was it that Sharif was treated so poorly by the British system when he arrived?
Sharif is just one example from many thousands whose claims have been disbelieved, who find themselves stuck in the system for months or years, and who have received inad- equate support in accessing services to help them build new lives in the UK. These are political choices made by governments, but I and many others believe they are immoral, cruel, and unjust calculations that have grave human rights con- sequences, and ironically that cost the British economy a huge amount.
Why was Sharif killed when he returned to Darfur?
Sharif had taken steps to make it safer for him to return to Darfur. After getting his British citizenship he had changed his name to Majed Hassan in order not to be recognised by the authorities when entering Sudan. Despite this, he was probably deliberately targeted as a foreign national when he was killed, as this information would have got around, several other foreign nationals were targeted at the same time, and his killers sought him out.
At the time of his visit there had been huge concern amongst people in Darfur about the imminent pull out of the UN mis- sion in Darfur, UNAMID. Many had anticipated an upsurge in violence and killings of civilians as different groups vied for control. This was indeed the context of the Janjaweed attacks that took place against the IDP camps in Geneina on January 16-18, during which Sharif was killed.
How should we remember Sharif…and what can we do to help ensure that others don’t suffer awful experiences like he did?
Plant a tree in his name. Tell his story. The newspaper you are producing now,
telling Sharif’s story, and raising awareness of genocide, is so important. If people aren’t told what is happening and aren’t invited to empathise with the plight of people caught up in conflict, perpetrators of war crimes and crimes against humanity will never be held accountable.
I would add that it is really important to show solidarity with asylum seekers and refugees in Britain, to listen to their stories and experiences and do all we can to be welcoming.