The Burdin family has a lot to be thankful for this year.
Like millions of Americans on Thanksgiving, the Burdins celebrated food, family and freedom — but especially freedom.
Judith Burdin Asuni, a peace and conflict resolution worker in the Niger Delta, was released from prison in Nigeria only three weeks ago after more than a month in solitary confinement. This week she’s home in Central New York, celebrating Thanksgiving with a house full of extended family in Interlaken.
Asuni was arrested Sept. 26, supposedly on espionage charges, but after a month of holding her, local authorities could find no evidence to try her and Nigerian president Umaru Yar’Adua eventually intervened on her behalf to have her released and all charges against her dropped.
Lena Burdin talks with her daughter, Judith Burdin Asuni, during a family Thanksgiving celebration Thursday afternoon near Interlaken. Asuni who runs a non-governmental organization in Nigeria was recently released from jail there
Nigerian officials claimed that Asuni had aided two Germany documentary filmmakers in filming without government clearance. Asuni said this was simply an “excuse to pick me up and try to clip my wings.”
In her more than 30 years living in Nigeria and working toward inter-ethnic, religious and political conflict resolution, Asuni said she has been witness to “a very high level of corruption everywhere,” in all levels of government.
Asuni said she regularly reported on this corruption directly to Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo, who stepped down from office in May 2007.
When President Yar’Adua came to power, Asuni said she found herself caught in “a power struggle between various groups in the government.” She had been working on an extensive report on corruption among local officials only a week before her false arrest.
“Vested interests benefit tremendously from the conflict in the delta,” Asuni said. “People don’t want to solve the problems because they’re making so much money.”
She was denied access to a U.S. embassy official for 48 hours and was never allowed to see a lawyer until the day she appeared in court, almost a week after her arrest. By Nigerian law, people can only be detained 48 hours without charges, but Asuni was held without charges for six days.
“I was actually told that this happens to Nigerians a lot and my reaction was, ‘Does that make it right?’” she said.
Asuni said that in the prison she “had the VIP suite,” with “a fairly good bed” and a private bathroom.
“The major thing is that I was in solitary confinement so except when I went out for interrogation or to receive visitors, I was alone,” she said.
“Sometimes, for lack of anything else, I would ask to go down and talk to my interrogators and give them lectures on the Niger Delta,” Asuni said, laughing. “I had a couple of very intelligent ones who were very interested and a couple of them said to me, ‘You’re doing a great job for this country.’”
Carol Bergin, Judith Asuni’s sister, talks about working in fair trade goods during an interview Thursday afternoon near Interlaken.
Lena Burdin, Asuni’s mother, said she and her husband had been afraid something like this might happen for years, because of where her daughter lives and the work that she does there.
“When Judy was being interrogated, some days she had three hours of interrogation,” Burdin said. Burdin said that interrogators who expected Asuni to “crack” underestimated her strong will and sense of humor.
Asuni demonstrated this humor by introducing herself to distant relatives and unfamiliar guests at the Interlaken celebration with, “Hi, I’m the ex-convict.”
Faith at home
Burdin said the interrogators also didn’t “know how many hundred people she had praying for her to keep her strong.”
Burdin said members of the Ovid Federated Church, the Interlaken Reform Church, and friends and relatives in New York, Oregon, Arizona, Tennessee and New Zealand all prayed for Asuni while she was being held.
“One of the women at Ovid said, ‘I’ve gone to this church for 50 years but I have never seen as many people pray as fervently as they have for Judy,’” Burdin said. “I feel that the prayers have done a lot.”
Having been raised on a farm outside Lodi, Asuni said her parents “don’t know how they managed to get a couple of daughters who decided to tour the world.”
Asuni’s oldest sister, Carol Bergin, also works internationally to help farmers establish fair trade deals.
Bergin is working to establish an internationally recognizable fair trade symbol that can appear on products that are certified fair trade by uniform, enforceable standards.
Asuni said she was astonished and appreciative of the help she received from friends and strangers all over the world, who pressured Nigeria to release her, ranging from “ex-ambassadors to professors to warlords.”
Work will continue
Asuni has worked to encourage armed militants to give up their weapons and refuse to participate in the violence that cripples the Niger Delta.
She participated in a ceremony where roughly 900 militants gave up their weapons.
Asuni told of one man in particular who she helped to turn away from drugs and violence.
Gospel Tamuno was a militant and clearly on drugs when Asuni first met him.
She invited him, along with others, to participate in an “outward bound” camp where she remembers, he especially enjoyed rappelling down a cliff.
“I’ll always remember him leaving the camp when he rolled down the window of the bus and he said, ‘Bye bye, mom, I’ll see you in Port Harcourt,” and threw me a kiss and his eyes were bright and sparkling. And although I’m sure he probably used drugs somewhat after that, it helped to break that cycle,” Asuni said. “And now he’s dropped out of his armed group, he’s a community liaison officer for an oil servicing company, he has another new baby whose name is Judith, and he’s a whole different guy.”
“When you see that happening over and over and over again, helping to reform their lives, it’s a very satisfying job.”
Asuni said her immediate plans include going to London for “grandma duty” for her first grandchild, expected next month. But she said she does plan to return to Nigeria eventually to continue her work.
– Courtesy of The Ithaca Journal