Africa's invisible slaves

By TIM SANDLER  |  November 14, 2006

Nyamlell is located about 15 miles from the railroad that runs from southern to northern Sudan and about 60 miles from government-held positions fin the north.  And because of this accident of geography, like the other tens of thousands of people living in this region, the villages of Nyamlell have become a primary target of the slave trade.  In the last five years, local officials estimate, 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 abet, 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 stoops 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, the yare permitted to join government forces in raids of nearby towns, when 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 villages 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 famines, 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 or 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 Arket Tong Dhum and her daughter, Abuk Marou Keer.  Dhum tells the story under the shade of an oversized mango tree.

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