Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Ghosts of Slavery in Sudan

Officially, slave trade ended 200 years ago after abolitionists in Britain and the US banned the oppressive enterprise. Before the end of that dark era, millions of Africans had been ferried across the Atlantic and sold into servitude across the Americas.

But history has a way of repeating itself, and it is doing just that in Sudan, where thousands of black Africans from the south are abducted and sold as slaves in the Arab north.

According to reports from non-governmental organisations and human rights agencies, a black slave goes for between $10 and $100 (Sh800 and Sh8,000), and various sources claim there are more than 10,000 people living in slavery and servitude in Sudan today, most of them abducted from their villages by government-backed Arab militia.

The motivation for this, the sources say, is a desire for the northern rulers to terrorise their southern subjects and, in the process, distract rebel forces from attacking government targets.

Arek Anyiel Deng, seized from her village at the age of 10 by Arab militia, remembers the events of that fateful day vividly. After many of her fellow villagers were mowed down by bullets fired from the automatic rifles of the marauding Arabs on horseback, the surviving adults fled the melee, leaving behind children and cattle. After a five-day north-bound journey, the young captives were divided out as spoils of war between members of the raiding party.

“My abductor told me I was his slave, and that I had to do all the work he told me to do; fetching water and firewood, looking after his animals and farming,” Deng says. “When I clocked 12 years, he said he wanted to sleep with me, and I could not refuse because I was a slave.... I had to do everything he wanted, otherwise he would have me killed.”

Forced conversion to Islam

A study by the Rift Valley Institute indicates that some 11,000 boys and girls were seized in such raids in the last one decade alone. The captives were then taken to areas like Kordofan, South Darfur and Bahr-el Ghazal, where they are still being subjected to hard labour, beatings and forced conversion to Islam.
Other atrocities include ritual gang-rapes, genital mutilation, sexual servitude and “marrying off” girls as young as 12 years old.

But despite overwhelming evidence by white-shoe institutions like the US State Department, UN Special Rapporteurs and Amnesty International, Khartoum has always denied the existence of chattel slavery, saying such claims are lies meant to tarnish the reputation of the Government of Sudan.

“President Omar Bashir reaffirmed the commitment of Sudan to laws and rules respecting human rights, and he denied the existence of any form of slavery in the land,” said a government statement during the visit to the country by a US delegation led by Martin Luther King Junior, the son of the late black civil rights leader Martin Luther King.

However, apart from institutional and international condemnation, few individuals have dared speak out against this atrocious crime against humanity, and among these is the controversial Sudanese female writer, rebel and human rights activist Kola Boof.

“I cannot, for a minute, be quiet about the fact that slavery is alive and well in my homeland, Sudan,” Boof says. “Before my parents were murdered, I saw it with my own eyes. Black African Christians rounded up, kidnapped, beaten, raped and routinely chained and put into trucks, never to be seen again”.

Ms Boof, whose parents were butchered for speaking against slavery and discrimination, lives in exile in the United States and has penned several books, among them Flesh and the Devil, Virgins in the Beehive and her autobiography, Diary of a Lost Girl.

Moved by the plight of these condemned souls, local and foreign non-governmental bodies and volunteers have established mechanisms through which slaves find their way back to freedom.

Pioneered and spearheaded by non-governmental organisations like the Swiss-based human rights group Christian Solidarity International (CSI) and the American Anti-Slavery Group, the redemption scheme involves purchasing slaves from their owners for between $50 and $100 (Sh4,000-Sh8,000) and reconnecting them with their families.

The lobby groups, which raise ‘redemption funds’ from well-wishers and donors in their home countries, estimate that around 40,000 slaves have been redeemed this way in a period spanning 15 years.

The repatriation programme has been hugely facilitated by a Dinka-Arab peace agreement signed in 1991 which established mutually agreed local channels of returning captured people. The Dinka tradition of intricate clan divisions has also been very important in helping returnees trace their families.

However, critics claim this buy-out scheme has upped the profitability of this hideous trade since slavers catch more slaves in the hope of reselling them back. In the past, the UN has decreed that it is ethically wrong to buy human beings, and argued that the system can encourage desperate people to sell their children or the militia to capture more slaves. And the same sentiments have been echoed by several other organisations.

“Our objectives — and, I believe, the sincere objectives of others — was to carefully investigate legitimate claims, redeem on a case-by-case basis, report our findings and seek international pressure to end the hideous practice of slavery,” explains Jim Jacobson of CFI, which was involved in slave redemption.

“But what started as an act of mercy has turned into a debacle. Selling slaves is now more profitable in Sudan than narcotics. Slave redemptions are now enriching slave traders, slave dealers and slave masters.”

Mr Jacobson also added that money generated through the slave buy-back scheme is used to purchase guns and hire people to conduct more slave raids in southern villages.

Tell their tales

But, regardless of whether they are bought back to freedom or they manage to escape by their own, many freed Southern Sudan slaves are grateful for living through their ordeals to tell their tales.

Nyamut Aruop Buoi left her village to go to the market sometimes around 1996 (she is unclear about dates) when she was caught in a crossfire between raiders and locals.

“When I heard the gunshots, I tried to run. My friend was killed, shot while running. Their faces were covered. They were on horseback. I was surrounded by a group of Arabs,” she told the Washington Post.

While debating whether to kill her or not, one raider decided to take her as a wife.

“They tied both my legs and hands,” she recalls. “In the process, I was thrown down and lost a tooth. The first night, many houses were set on fire and people were killed in a Dinka village. I was so frightened I could not sleep.” That night, Nyamut says, she was raped by five men.

Marko Akot Deng, whose limbs were paralysed after a severe beating by his master, told the BBC his harrowing story tinged with bitter emotions.

“In 1987, the Arab militia came and attacked our village and took me. My niece was also abducted but she was taken by a different man and I have not seen her since. I had to look after the cattle, goats and sheep. For food, I was only given left-overs, and sometimes nothing at all. One day, a cow went missing and I was beaten so badly that my right arm and leg paralysed.”

Captured in 2004, Abuk Garang Theip (camp doctors estimate her age to be around 12) is terrified and traumatized as she retells the way she was plucked from comforts the simple of childhood and plunged into the vagaries of servitude.

“As we marched along, they would sometimes killed a person or two on the way. Some were shot. They told me: ‘If you don’t stop crying, we’ll kill you also.’”

Things were never easy during her stay in bondage.

“They wanted me to pray with them,” Abuk says. “When I refused, the wife cut my leg with a knife. She said she intended to amputate my leg.”
Asked why she paid such a high price for resisting conversion, she explains. “I’m Dinka. I have nothing to do with their religion.”

Although she successfully resisted conversion, she was forcefully circumcised.

Apart from those who have escaped or been liberated, there are thousands of others trying to trace their families, abducted years ago. Although they know chances of ever being reunited with their loved ones are slim, a glimmer of hope still lingers.

“My wife Abuk Deng Rual and son Deng Aketch Arol were both abducted in 1988. I have been to the north but could not find them,” says a distraught Akech Arol Deng. “I feel so sad because I miss them so much. I really hope that one day they will come back. If my wife has been taken as a wife by an Arab man and comes back with children, I will gladly accept them as my own.”

Under the cover of conflict

While the dehumanizing trade has subsided in the south since the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) in 2005, abductions and slavery continues to thrive in western Sudan under the cover of the ongoing conflict in Darfur.

This explosive subject has been explored in detailed in the book War and Slavery in Sudan. Written by Prof Jok Madut Jok, a member of the Dinka community, the book brings an insider’s perspective through vivid descriptions of the methods of capture and the heinous experiences of captivity.

The plight of Sudanese slaves has also been articulated in the film I am a Slave. The movie tells the real-life experiences of Mende Nazer, who was abducted in Nuba and held in bondage in Khartoum and London. The British drama, which was partly shot in Kenya, claims that an estimated 5,000 people work as trafficked slaves in the United Kingdom.

Published in the Daily Nation 11/10/2010.

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