Africa's invisible slaves

By TIM SANDLER  |  November 14, 2006

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 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, and act that renewed discussion of suspending humanitarian aid to the beleaguered country out of concern for the workers delivering the goods.  Negotiations for the release of the doctors are reportedly continuing.

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 1994 that in the past 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 impending any accurate estimation 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.

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