Slave trade thrives in Sudan

In 1994 Christian Solidarity International officials discovered a booming slave trade in Sudan. Here they tell the stories of some of the slaves for whom they bought freedom.


Since 1995, an organisation based in Switzerland, called Christian Solidarity International (CSI), has spent $1-million redeeming 20 000 Dinka slaves, captured in Southern Sudan, in the wake of the war the government of Sudan is waging against the south.

The slaves are captured in raids on their villages which may or may not form part of the Khartoum government's war effort. Freelance raiders, aware that the government won't ask too many questions about raids into the territory of the Dinka people -- from whom Khartoum's enemy, the Sudanese People's Liberation Army (SPLA), draws many of its recruits -- take advantage of the situation to capture slaves.

The slave raiders prefer women and boys. In order to catch them, they kill the men and burn down their villages. When the women and children run into the bush, they are chased and captured. They are made to carry the "spoils" of the raid, usually sacks of grain, to the north. They are then sold to wealthy Arab families.

Arab families with large farms and plantations in the Arab areas immediately to the north of Southern Sudan may buy between 50 and 100 slaves. Families buy women to be used as "concubines" who perform farm and household tasks in addition to providing sexual services. If the women are young enough, they are genitally mutilated as soon as they reach puberty, so as to make them acceptable to their Arab masters.

Boys are circumcised. In a bid to "Arabise" them thoroughly, the boys are taught to recite the Qur'an by heart. They are, however, not taught to read or write Arabic.

CSI uses networks of "retrievers" -- Arab traders who live just to the north of the Dinka, in Darfur and Kordofan, and who operate in secret -- to buy back the slaves. The organisation pays 50 000 Sudanese pounds, or $50, for each redeemed slave. At current market prices, that also happens to be the price of two goats.

In its last redemption trip, which occurred as recently as December 1999, CSI bought back 5 000 slaves from Bar-ez-Ghazal. They are now being reintegrated into their Dinka communities.

The Sudanese government denies that slavery goes on in its territory. It describes the slaves as "abducted persons" and says it puts them in "peace camps". But slaves are not only seized during village raids -- they are also taken from the camps. Most of those in the camps have been taken during government army operations in areas sympathetic to the SPLA.

The Sudanese government is very hostile towards CSI. Last year, it got the United Nations, two of whose rapporteurs are reported to have concluded that slavery does occur in Southern Sudan, to withdraw the observer status it had given CSI. This was because CSI asked SPLA leader John Garang to testify to a UN committee on slavery and Garang spoke in his own name, instead of in the name of CSI.

CSI operation raisees many moral issues. Organisations like the United Nations Children's Fund argue that it is morally wrong to pay for the slaves, because it condones or promotes slavery. I went to Zurich to put the question directly to CSI's president, Hans Stuckelberger, and his two operatives who actually pay the money to the redeemers and free the slaves.

Their answer was unequivocal: if your child, wife or sister had been captured in a slave raid and you heard you could buy him/her back for $50, would you be asking this question? They also emphasised that there was no evidence that buying back the slaves promoted the trade. They were careful to have each freed slave photographed, so that he/she could not be recaptured by the "retrievers" and sold. And only "retrievers" trusted by local communities were used. It would not be in the interest of well-known "retrievers" to play a double game, as they could easily come to harm at the hands of the Dinka.

CSI officials were at pains to explain that the system of slave redemption was evolved by the Southern Sudanese communities themselves.

Long-established trade relations exist between the Dinka chiefs and Arab traders, and the Arab traders, not all of whom approve of the Khartoum government's military, religious and social policies towards southerners, offer information and assistance to the raided communities. The "retrievers" hope that when the war ends and Southern Sudan opens up once more for trade, the good relations they have cultivated with the southern people will benefit them financially.

CSI is a small Christian organisation which grew out of smuggling Bibles behind the then Iron Curtain. It discovered slavery in Southern Sudan by accident, when it was the guest of the Khartoum government in 1994. The government wanted to show off its "peace camps", populated by southerners "displaced" by the war, to the international community. But CSI obtained information from a southerner working in the hotel where CSI officials lodged that his village had been burned down and that his mother had just managed to escape to Khartoum.

CSI was prompted to ask why the Sudanese government's "peace camps" were only populated by women and children. The government's answer was that the men worked in "fields far away" and would return by the time the CSI officers would have left the camps. This did not satisfy CSI and it carefully recruited collaborators from within the official party that accompanied the officials to the camps, from whom true translations of the stories told by the camp inmates were obtained. There were no men in the camps, they found, because the men had been killed or imprisoned as would-be recruits for the SPLA. The women and children could more easily be acquired when there were no men around.

Within one year, CSI had gone south, without the Khartoum government's permission, to investigate the matter further from the areas controlled by the SPLA. It stumbled upon the small-scale redemption of slaves that the Dinka chiefs were carrying out whenever they could raise the money. Having discovered that money could be useful, CSI launched an appeal for funds, the result of which has enabled it to redeem 20 000 slaves so far, at a cost of $1-million.

Africa's forgotten war

A forgotten civil war has raged in Sudan since 1983 between the Islamic government of Lieutenant General Omar Hassan Al-Bashir and the rebel Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) of leader John Garang.

In 37 years of independence, Sudan has known 26 years of war and suffering, more than 600 000 victims and five million displaced persons for a population in the south estimated at 6,3-million inhabitants.

The conflict is both of a racial nature and a religious one, between the Arabised black-skinned north and the negroid-Africans, Christians and animists, called by the Muslims the "abids", which means "slaves".

The civil war has eroded the social and economic infrastructure, resulting in cyclical hunger and chronic ill-health.

Displaced people, particularly women and children, are most at risk. More than 166 000 people are living in displaced ("peace") camps inside Southern Sudan and hundreds of thousands more have been forcibly integrated into new communities.

" We met a young woman called Deng. She was enslaved when she was 12 and hadn't yet reached puberty. It was while she was in the north that she reached puberty.

She was forcibly subjected to female genital mutilation, something that her own people didn't do. She was held down, an old lady came with a knife and cut her genitals.

After that, she was used by her master as a concubine. She had a baby when she was only 14. The baby was six months old when we redeemed her.

What struck us was how she loved this baby, although its light complexion served to remind her constantly of the raping to which she had been subjected. She cuddled her baby tenderly. She clearly demonstrated the spirit of a Dinka can overcome the enormous psychological torture that is a part of being a slave in Sudan.

We heard of another lady who was enslaved with her mother and her two sisters. The mother and the two sisters went to different masters. One day her mother and two sisters met at the well where they used to draw water, and were so excited at meeting together that they tried to flee. We don't know the circumstances. What we know is that she and 18 others -- they were altogether 21 -- were discovered and recaptured. They were publicly executed.

This woman witnessed the execution of her mother and two of her sisters. Usually such execution is done by cutting their throats."