It is hard to reconcile the joyful, optimistic smile on the face of Hawa Abdallah Mohammed Salih as she stood in the Pittsburgh City Council chamber Tuesday morning, accepting praise and a standing ovation from council.
Not when you know that this 28-year-old Darfur activist's recent history when, for two months last year, she was held in a state prison in Sudan's capital, Khartoum, and repeatedly beaten and raped so often that her captors asked her why she was not yet dead.
Not when you know that from the beating and burns from electric shocks that government security forces used to torture her, much of her chocolate-colored skin turned pitch black. Then, it turned red when she was left in a hot and humid jail cell for so long that she suffered from horrifically painful and blistering heat rash that swelled her bruised and battered body even more.
And certainly not when you know that because of her tireless work reporting abuses of women and children, in particular, in the Darfur region of Sudan, the government had done much the same to her on four prior occasions, arresting and kidnapping her because she refused to stop her activism.
"They said, 'Will you still talk about women and children?' And I said, 'Yes. Until the last day of my life I will talk about this,' " she said in an interview. "And they said, 'You are a crazy lady,' " and they promised her she would be executed.
Yet, there she was Tuesday, beaming as she told her story on part of a two-day tour of the city thanking some of the people who had written letters in support of her release last year, from city council, to U.S. Rep. Mike Doyle, D-Forest Hills, and U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa.
"Sometimes I say, 'Hawa is here?' Because I am surprised, too," she said in her thick Sudanese accent.
Her release seemed unlikely for much of the two months she spent in prison starting May 7, 2011, and more likely to end in her death after the Sudanese government branded her a traitor to Islam for allegedly trying to convert Muslims to Christianity, a charge she repeatedly denied. But pressure from the U.S. and the international community eventually led to her release on July 13.
Councilman Bill Peduto told the council audience that no one thinks she was freed because of the city council's letter alone, but, perhaps it was like "a snowflake that causes an avalanche."
The Pittsburgh Darfur Emergency Coalition, which had trumpeted her cause last year and rallied support for her, flew her here Monday from her current home in Washington, D.C., where she is staying on a two-year visa while applying for refugee status.
She visited Pittsburgh in March as part of 2012 International Women of Courage award presented by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.
"But she didn't have time to get around and thank everyone she wanted to," said David Rosenberg, coordinator for PDEC. "We wanted to make sure she had that chance."
She visited Monday night with the Darfurian immigrant, Ismail Omar, who first brought her case to the attention of PDEC after reading about it in an Arabic-language newspaper a friend had sent him.
"I am very happy, because she still has her life," said Mr. Omar, 55, a Castle Shannon resident who fled Darfur during some of the early fighting there in 1985.
His happiness was tempered by hearing her story of torture, at the hands of the government -- stories Mr. Omar, who lost family in the fighting, had no trouble believing. "I know what these people do," he said solemnly. "I have seen it."
Later Tuesday, she was to meet with Mr. Doyle and a staff member from Mr. Casey's office, followed by a dinner hosted by the Sudanese immigrant community, before returning to Washington today.
It was a lot to take in for Ms. Salih, who confesses she had never even heard about Pittsburgh before she came to the United States earlier this year.
"No, I don't know anything" about the city before then, she said standing outside of city hall. "But now I know I love the people of Pittsburgh because they have humanity."
Sean D. Hamill: email@example.com or 412-263-2579 First Published May 23, 2012 4:00 AM