Africa's invisible slaves

By TIM SANDLER  |  November 14, 2006

Akec pauses in his story as the crowd of men who have gathered ere murmurs 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 tree escaped.

And there’s the 15-year-old Dinka boy who was among scores of woman 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 1989owns 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 slave 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 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. 

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