Africa's Invisible Slaves

BAHR EL GHAZAL, Sudan - Slavery drains passion from the human spirit the same way hunger hollows the body. Dinka tribesman Malwal Akec is living testimony to that. Humans owning humans, he explains impassively, squinting his bloodshot eyes in the midday sun, is an unrelenting reality for the southern Sudanese. Having once been abducted by a faction of Sudan's government militia, he recounts his enslavement with no trace of anger. In May 1994, Akec and his son set out on foot from the remote Dinka village of Turalei, where a witch doctor's blessing is a social event and even the most skeletal cows are valuable currency. Akec had planned to visit another son in Khartoum, the capital of Sudan in the government-controlled north and, while there, seek treatment for his chronic stomach pain. But on the first day of his more than 500-mile trek, as he crossed into the Muslim government-held area near the town of Abyei, Akec and his son were ambushed by two large bands of the Mujahedin, the heavily armed Islamic fundamentalists who are part of the Khartoum regime's Popular Defense Force. Volunteers in the Islamic holy war against the southern resistance forces, the Mujahedin believe they will ascend directly to heaven if they die while attempting to kill infidels, which include the black Christians and animists of the south. On this day, however, Akec's life was spared. Instead, he was marched at gunpoint for four days to a farm in an obscure northern village. His son was taken to another farm. From sunrise to sunset, seven days a week, Akec was forced to cultivate the hard, parched soil where millet and other grains were grown. At night, his captors tied his wrists and ankles with rope before leaving him to sleep. Early in his captivity, he was beaten and lashed with a leather whip. Later, however, the man who had originally claimed Akec as his slave upon his capture stepped in. Akec, already slowed by his advanced age, would be a better worker if he was not injured, his master argued. As it was, he subsisted on boiled sorghum and water. One night last March, a violent rainstorm engulfed the farm. By now, his skin hung loosely around his bones. And, thinking Akec was too weak and disoriented to escape under such conditions, his captors left him to sleep untied. Akec fled into the vast savanna. By cover of night, he walked south. During the scorching daylight hours, he ducked into the bush to avoid recapture. A week after his escape, he returned to his family in Turalei. There, he learned that his son had also escaped and was living somewhere near Khartoum. Akec pauses in his story as the crowd of men who have gathered here murmur acknowledgment. Most have heard similar stories, which now pervade the conversations under the large shade trees and in the mud and grass tukuls, or huts. There are the nine children and three women, relatives of a Dinka tribal chief, who were abducted, beaten, and forced to cultivate a farm field. One woman served as her captor's concubine. A family member ultimately located them, and villagers chipped in enough money and animals to buy their neighbors' freedom. There's the man who was taken as a slave but injured so badly after he was hog-tied and hung from a tree that he couldn't do the work for which he was captured. Six of the nine held in his group starved to death. The other three escaped. And there's the 15-year-old Dinka boy who was among scores of women and children seized during a raid by armed Arabs, who burned the village and divvied up their captives. The boy, who was regularly beaten, tended cattle for six years before he was found and freed. Here, in the territory that Sudan's Muslim fundamentalist government has declared off-limits to outsiders, stories of modern-day slavery are rampant. But despite the current military regime's complicity in reviving the slave trade as a social institution, the government has been successful in deflecting international attention, in part by dismissing as fabricated blasphemies the reports of human bondage that have trickled out via relief workers and human-rights activists. "This is not true. There is no slavery in Sudan," protests Safwat Saddig, a spokesman for the Sudanese embassy in Washington, DC. "There is nothing like it. Slavery was abolished by law a long time ago." Asked to explain the numerous accounts by freed and escaped slaves in southern Sudan, Saddig replied: "Who are these people? These are simple, primitive people. If you tell them to say this, they say it. They might have been paid to say these things." Undermining Saddig's objections, however, are reports that General Omar Hassan al-Bashir, who seized power in a bloodless coup in 1989, owns several slaves. Earlier this year, Bashir, now president, denied the accusations. He told local reporters that he simply had four "students" living with him and his wife. All of their expenses were paid, he assured the press. Despite the government's denials, throughout this vast southern region of Sudan, where the Arab world meets black Africa, the resurgence of systematic slavery is as evident as the bloated stomachs of the malnourished children. Lashing marks, branding scars, and permanent injuries on freed and escaped slaves offer vivid corroboration of their accounts of human bondage. Baroness Caroline Cox, a ranking member of the British House of Lords with a special interest in human rights, says her latest trip to southern Sudan several weeks ago left her no doubt for the first time that the Old World shadows of the African slave trade are again looming large. "The frequency of the slave raids, the numbers involved, and the whole system for selling them back made me realize it is clearly institutionalized and appears to be sanctioned by the government in Khartoum," she said in a recent interview.Kidnappings and round-ups Ever since Sudan declared its independence from Egypt and England nearly 40 years ago, the brutal repression of the southern Sudanese at the hands of various government forces has been well documented, from torture to mutilation to mass murder. It's a brief but turbulent political history, marked by military dictatorships and a short-lived stab at democracy. Now Bashir's Muslim fundamentalist regime has been in place for six years, and the civil war that has divided and ravaged this country since 1983 has metamorphosed into a government-sponsored jihad against Christians, animists, and even moderate Muslims. The government's newfound extremism has left Sudan an international pariah. But international observers say that hasn't deterred government forces from perpetrating human-rights abuses on an unprecedented scale. Christians and traditional tribes of the south, they say, have been exposed to vintage 1980s El Salvador-style ruthlessness, imposed with the religious zeal of Islamic extremism as practiced in Libya and Iran - countries whose governments are among the few who support Bashir's regime. Sudan is now high on the US State Department's list of terrorist governments, and the motivation for the State Department's warning against travel in Sudan by foreigners is clear. For instance: * Since 1989, at least three Protestant pastors in the Nuba Mountains region have been murdered, reportedly by government forces. * In 1992, two Sudanese employees of the USAID humanitarian organization were executed by the regime, allegedly for assisting rebels. * And just last month, government forces kidnapped two physicians - one Sudanese, one Italian - who were performing humanitarian work in southern Sudan, an act that renewed discussion of suspending humanitarian aid to the beleaguered country out of concern for workers delivering the goods. Negotiations for the release of the doctors are reportedly ongoing. The renaissance of slavery appears to be yet another byproduct of the civil war between the north and the south. The number of slaves in Sudan is easily in the thousands, but a more precise figure is difficult to calculate. A UN special investigator reported in 1993 that in the last several years tens of thousands of black Christians and animists had been abducted from southern Sudan and the Nuba Mountains and brought to the north. Some were executed; others escaped and sought refuge in neighboring countries, such as Uganda and Kenya, according to the investigator. Thousands of young boys are routinely rounded up by government forces and taken to cultural-cleansing camps, or, as the Khartoum government calls them, "vocational-training camps." There, witnesses say, the youths are beaten, renamed, forced to convert to Islam, and often compelled to fight on the front lines against their own people in the south. Further impeding any accurate estimate of the number of slaves in Sudan are the government's own severe limitations on travel into the country. Officially sanctioned travel outside the Khartoum area is rare, and all foreigners are supposed to register with police. Permits for taking photographs are mandatory. Even humanitarian-aid deliveries must be pre-approved by the government in Khartoum. Living freight In the once-thriving southwestern village of Nyamlell, the dry grass field that serves as a landing strip hasn't been used for months. Close to the field are the shells of brick buildings that once served as schools, hospitals, and local government offices. The charred remains of huts in the area stand as grim reminders of the most recent raids by government militias and the Arab traders allied with them. Nyamlell is located about 15 miles from the railroad that runs from southern to northern Sudan and about 60 miles from government-held positions in the north. And because of this accident of geography, like the tens of thousands of people living in this region, the villagers of Nyamlell have become a primary target of the slave trade. In the last five years, local officials estimate that about a thousand women and children from Nyamlell have been taken into slavery. Nyamlell is also about eight miles from an active slave market, in Manyiel. Scores of abit, as slaves are generally called, are brought by Arab Muslim traders to sell or trade to outsiders or families looking for their abducted relatives. The railway that passes near Nyamlell plays a major role in facilitating the slave trade. It is used by the Khartoum government to supply troops in the south, a fact well known to the Sudan People's Liberation Army and the Southern Sudan Independence Army, the two groups fighting against the military government. Because the railway supply route is prone to sabotage, government troops bolster their forces by hiring and arming Arab Muslim traders, often nomads, to help protect their cargo. Known as the Murahaleen, they are ad hoc militias made up of members of nomadic Arab tribes, or baggara, who accompany the government's Popular Defense Force on foot, horse, and camel. As compensation for their protective services, they are permitted to join government forces in raids of nearby towns, where they capture women, children, and livestock. Government soldiers who participate in the pillaging load their empty northbound trains with captives; the Murahaleen keep or sell theirs. Sudanese embassy spokesman Saddig denies that Arab tribes are enlisted to protect trains, or, for that matter, that the government colludes with Arab tribespeople in the slave trade. "The government has nothing to do with that," he says.Death march Most tribal villagers in Nyamlell and throughout the south have only a vague idea of their own ages. Time, for many of them, is measured by periods between raids and famine, not by hours or days. The last great famine was in 1988, when about 250,000 in this region starved to death. The last raid was March 25. On that day, 80 men and two women were shot to death, says Aleu Akechak Jok, a lawyer and the English-speaking commissioner of the county in which Nyamlell sits. In that same raid, 282 women, children, and elderly villagers were tied up and taken at gunpoint by Arab traders and government militia, Jok says. "Some of the children are taken to government-held garrisons," he explains. "Some are taken to northern Sudan. Most are sold into slavery. Once in slavery, they cultivate, they look after cattle, they are kept as domestic servants. The younger ones are sometimes converted to Islam and kept as children in the house. Some are sold to faraway places [such as Libya, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia], where they cannot escape. Only the lucky ones escape." Two of the lucky ones from that March 25 raid are Arkek Tong Dhum and her daughter, Abuk Marou Keer. Dhum tells the story under the shade of a oversized mango tree. She was sweeping the steps of an administrative building when alarmed neighbors told her that the government troops and the Murahaleen were moving into the village. Dhum rushed back to her tukul to get Keer, blinded by disease eight years ago, so they could flee into the bush together. With Keer's baby on her hip, Dhum led her own daughter by the arm. Four other children from her family followed. As if to punctuate Dhum's words, a powerful rainstorm envelops the village and forces her to scurry from under the mango tree to the dark shelter of an abandoned brick building that was once a health clinic. Dhum continues her tale. She and her family were quickly captured along the winding Lol River, which runs through the village. Their hands tied, they were held at gunpoint while the roundup continued. Most of the men captured, including Dhum's nephew, were killed immediately. On the outskirts of the village, a mass grave stands as another monument to the continuing massacres. (The mass grave is essential: in Sudan's heat, corpses decompose too quickly to allow time for numerous plots to be dug in the unforgiving soil.) Dhum and her relatives were marched north 18 miles, she says, to a government camp in the town of Ariath, also near the railway. Along the way, two women in Dhum's group were raped. Two boys and four men were shot to death. At the camp, Dhum and her daughter were forced to pound grain. Their nourishment: the chaff left from their work. With the butts of their guns, their captors beat Dhum and her daughter; their captors also routinely lashed them with whips. After more than two months of slave labor, Dhum, Keer, and Keer's baby managed to slip out of the camp after convincing a guard they needed privacy in the bush surrounding the camp. Security at the camp was apparently lax; most of the rest of Dhum's family also escaped. Late last month, rather than becoming one of millions of displaced southerners, they returned to Nyamlell, where they again face the daily threat of being abducted into slavery. Later in the evening, after Dhum returns to her tukul, fighting is reported along the nearby railway. Flashes of lightning and gunfire are almost indistinguishable as they shake the night sky. The next morning in Nyamlell, with the rains passed, two other young women cuddling infants tell similar stories of their captivity. One says she was freed in May, after relatives gave her military captors two boxes of semiautomatic weapons. The other sneaked out one night with the aid of local police, friends of her family stationed near the militia's camp.Human markets For every slave who has escaped forced labor by government militias, there is another seized by Arab Muslim traders during raids, sold to them by soldiers, or given to them as gifts. Prized possessions, slaves of Arab masters are guarded avariciously and their releases are often contingent on a lucrative return - as much as two cows for a physically fit specimen. Slaves in southern Sudan are sometimes sold openly in "cattle markets," a term that illustrates the value Arab traders place on the humans exchanged there. And since some of the slaves are brought back to the regions from which they were snatched to sell to despondent relatives or sympathetic villagers, some who have watched the enterprise at work suspect collusion between the Arab traders involved in abductions and those who market the slaves. Agawai Akot was about seven years old when she was taken at gunpoint by an Arab trader named Abmaden during a raid of her Dinka village in Marial Bai, near Nyamlell. Now in her mid teens, she is wary and soft-spoken. She fixes her gaze on the ground as she recalls her seven years as Abmaden's slave. Akot's father was already dead when Marial Bai was raided in the late 1980s. Akot was living with her mother and two brothers when Arab traders stormed the village in an attack that left one brother dead. As her mother looked on, Akot was seized. That was the last time she saw her mother, who died while Akot was in captivity. Akot lived with Abmaden's family in a northern village held by the government, and was given the Muslim name Awau. Routinely beaten with a stick, she says she was fed only millet and milk. Her job was tending cattle. Escape was impossible; Akot was too young to know where she was. But in the years after the raid of her hometown, Akot's surviving brother struck out to search for her. He eventually found the village in which she was being held, but could not come up with enough money or trade goods to win his sister's freedom. Indeed, it became evident to Abmaden that Akot was a valuable commodity. Unlike many of the undernourished, stick-thin Dinkas, Akot was solidly built. And apparently because of her sturdy physique and strong work ethic, she became a sought-after slave among her master's acquaintances. She says they continually offered up to 10,000 Sudanese pounds for her, the equivalent of one healthy cow. Her master refused to sell her, saying Akot was his and he had no interest in parting with her. But that changed. And last May, Akot was brought from the north to be sold at a "cattle market" in the region in which she was born, the same market where about 150 other children were sold in May 1994. Though none of her family members attended the sale, a commander for the rebel forces was there. From her round facial features and dark coloring, he recognized Akot as a Dinka and decided to try to buy her freedom. Akot was returned to her home village after the commander exchanged her for an AKM rifle and a cow.Burned alive Human life is significantly cheaper in the rocky, green Nuba Mountains, to the north, another slave mecca where women and children are sold for as little as 200 to 300 Sudanese pounds, the equivalent of about one American dollar. The government militia's penchant for terror is even more evident in the heavily populated 50,000-square-mile Nuba Mountain region than in the south. The region is home to some 3 million people; about three-quarters of the population are Christians, the rest are animists and moderate Muslims. For their predominantly black-African complexion and rapidly growing Christian community, residents of the Nuba Mountains region suffer. "They [government militias] have slaughtered our priests like cows," says Amir al Nur, a pastor who represents the Nuba Mountains for the New Sudan Council of Churches, a religious coalition. "When they capture a place in the Nuba Mountains, they destroy the churches, follow the people as they flee, and kill them one by one. Women, they either kill them or take them as slaves. The government takes the children over eight years old and sells them to baggara [Arab nomads]. Younger than eight, they kill them; they are burned alive in tukuls. They are of no use." In a March 1 raid of the southeast village of Dere, one of several southeast Nuba villages attacked by government forces in the last few months, Nur says more than 300 women and children were abducted. Some were taken to Khartoum. Many of the children, he says, were herded to a slave market in El Lagowa, a village also perilously close to the government militias' train route. Recognizing that exchanging money, guns, or livestock for slaves is the only certain way to retrieve their people, a loose coalition of Sudanese churches has formed to buy back slaves from the militia and traders; they then return the captives to their families or find homes for them. The Reverend Macram Gassis, an exiled Catholic bishop from Sudan who has covertly returned there three times in the last two years, has used such buy-back programs to help liberate more than 50 children abducted by the military government and Arab traders. "Slavery is not something of the past," Gassis says. "It is a reality that we are experiencing in the Sudan. And, unfortunately, the civilized world is either horrified and they don't want to hear about it, or they are ashamed and they choose to ignore it, or they have insufficient information. But I think any person who hears about slavery should be touched. It is a sin against humanity. And the government's hands are dripping with the blood of innocent people." The vitriol in Gassis's voice amplifies the gentle desperation felt by many of the weary, yet patient, villagers here in southern Sudan. For now, the rainy season has given some residents respite; torrential downpours often leave the roads and trails into villages impassable. But sure as the dry season will return, so too will the raids and abductions. And if, as it is said, slavery is the shadow in man's soul, Sudan will endure as Africa's heart of darkness.SIDEBAR 1: Sudan At A GlancePOPULATION: 25 million (according to 1989 estimate); as many as 6 million Sudanese in the south alone.GEOGRAPHY: 967,500 square miles (Africa's largest country, about one-third the size of the continental US). Generally flat, with mountains in the east and west.CLIMATE: desert in the north; tropical in the south.ETHNIC COMPOSITION: 56 classified ethnic groups, the majority Arab-African and black African; at least 572 tribes and more than 400 languages and dialects.LITERACY: approximately 30 percent.LIFE EXPECTANCY: 49 years.INFANT MORTALITY: 112 deaths for every 1000 births.RELIGIONS: Islam, indigenous faiths, Christianity.GOVERNMENT: military dictatorship; all political parties banned after the 1989 coup led by General Omar Hassan Ahmad al-Bashir and members of the National Islamic Front.NATURAL RESOURCES: modest reserves of oil, iron ore, copper, chrome, and other industrial metals.AGRICULTURAL PRODUCTS: cotton, sorghum, peanuts, sesame seeds, livestock, gum arabic, sugarcane.US ASSISTANCE: military aid terminated after 1989 coup; humanitarian aid $1.6 billion since 1983, $29.5 million in fiscal year 1995 (as of April 28), primarily via the United Nation's Operation Lifeline Sudan.RESIDENTS DEPENDENT ON HUMANITARIAN AID: 800,000.SUDANESE REFUGEES IN NEIGHBORING COUNTRIES: 553,000.SIDEBAR 2: The War You Don't See On CnnIn the last 10 years, the cost in human life from fighting and famine in Sudan has risen to about 1.5 million, greater than the death tolls of Somalia, Bosnia, and Haiti combined. Add to that figure another 5 million southern Sudanese who have been forced to flee their homes by war and starvation, and the scope of the crisis in Africa's largest country is evident. But whether from compassion fatigue or a lack of information, the response from the international community to Sudan's strife has been relatively faint. Longevity often breeds acceptance, and it may well be that a protracted civil war such as Sudan's has exhausted international interest. Fighting began in 1983 between the predominantly Muslim/Arab north and the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA). Largely made up of southern Christian and animist rebels resisting the government's efforts to Islamize the south, the SPLA is demanding the right to self-determination. (In 1991, a split within the SPLA resulted in the rebel faction known as the Southern Sudan Independence Army/Movement, leaving the country even more fragmented.) The war has continued in spite of several changes of power, the most recent being in 1989, when a military junta tied to the National Islamic Front staged a bloodless coup that toppled a democratically elected government. Even before the coup, spearheaded by General Omar Hassan Ahmad al-Bashir, Sudan's military wielded a disproportionate control over government affairs and Sudan's population. Under Bashir's strident and intolerant regime, international observers say, an already volatile situation has reached a flashpoint. One of Bashir's first official acts was to broaden the application of Islamic law, or sharia, which, since its implementation in the early 1980s, has polarized this heterogeneous country more than any single issue. The Sudanese sharia is infamous for its harsh punitive measures. Heretics are stoned to death; thieves' limbs are amputated. Flogging is a common punishment for numerous other offenses. And, on occasion, children as young as seven are crucified. Upon seizing power, Bashir, who is now president, also suspended the constitution, dissolved all opposition political institutions, imprisoned trade unionists, and substantially increased the size of the government's Popular Defense Force, which is responsible for a significant share of Sudan's human-rights abuses today. But it is the Khartoum government's sponsorship and support of international terrorism that the US State Department says warranted Sudan's inclusion on its list of terrorist states. Last year, special United Nations investigator Gaspar Biro presented a 42-page report to the UN's Commission on Human Rights in Geneva that chronicled with startling force "grave and widespread" abuses perpetrated by the Bashir regime and, in some instances, SPLA factions. Biro condemned the government for its role in "large numbers of extrajudicial killings, summary executions, enforced or involuntary disappearances, systematic torture, and widespread arbitrary arrest of suspected opponents." Moreover, he said, the rape of women and abduction of children by government security forces and their Arab-trader allies are widespread. Despite the Bashir regime's professed desire to curb human-rights abuses, Biro concluded that its practices continue and that "the government has failed to give a consistent explanation of the reported violations brought to its attention." Amnesty International echoed Biro's findings in a report issued last January: "[T]he coming to power of the military government ushered in a new era of human-rights violations characterized by a range and scale of abuse unprecedented in Sudan's history."

Understand the importance of honest news ?

So do we.

The past year has been the most arduous of our lives. The Covid-19 pandemic continues to be catastrophic not only to our health - mental and physical - but also to the stability of millions of people. For all of us independent news organizations, it’s no exception.

We’ve covered everything thrown at us this past year and will continue to do so with your support. We’ve always understood the importance of calling out corruption, regardless of political affiliation.

We need your support in this difficult time. Every reader contribution, no matter the amount, makes a difference in allowing our newsroom to bring you the stories that matter, at a time when being informed is more important than ever. Invest with us.

Make a one-time contribution to Alternet All Access, or click here to become a subscriber. Thank you.

Click to donate by check.

DonateDonate by credit card
Donate by Paypal
{{ }}
@2022 - AlterNet Media Inc. All Rights Reserved. - "Poynter" fonts provided by