Africa's invisible slaves

By TIM SANDLER  |  November 14, 2006

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, they beat Dhum and her daughter; they 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 thread 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 nomads involved in abductions and the traders who market the slaves.

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