Africa's invisible slaves

By TIM SANDLER  |  November 14, 2006

Agawai Akot was about seven years old when she was taken at gunpoint by an Arab trader named Abmaden during a raid of her Dinka village in Marial Bai, near Nyamlell.  Now in her mid teens she is wary and soft-spoken.  She fixes her gaze on the ground as she recalls her seven years as Abmaden’s slave.

Akot’s father was already dead when Marial Bai was raided in the late 1980s; Akot was living with her mother and two brothers.  Arab traders stormed the village in an attack that left one brother dead.  As her mother looked on, Akot was seized.  That was the last time she saw her mother, who died while Akot was in captivity.

Akot lived with Abmaden’s family in a northern village held by the government, and was given the Muslim name Awau.  Routinely beaten with a stick, she says she was fed only millet and milk.  Her job was tending cattle.

Escape was impossible; Akot was too young to know where she was.  But in the years after the raid of her hometown, Akot’s surviving brother struck out to search for her.  He eventually found the village in which she was being held, but could not come up with enough money or trade goods to win his sister’s freedom.

Indeed, it because evident to Abmaden that Akot was a valuable commodity.  Unlike many of the undernourished, stick-thin Dinkas, Akot was solidly built.  And apparently because of her sturdy physique and strong work ethic, she became a sought-after slave among her master’s acquaintances.  He says they continually offered up to 10,000 Sudanese pounds for her, the equivalent of one healthy cow.  Her master refused to sell her, saying Akot was his and he had no interest in parting with her. 

But that changed.  And last May, Akot was brought from the north to be sold at a “cattle market” in the region in which she was born, the same market where about 150 other children were sold in May 1994.

Though none of her family members attended the sale, a commanded for the rebel forces was there.  From her round facial features and dark coloring, he recognized Akot as a Dinka and decided to try to buy her freedom.  Akot was returned to her home village after the commander paid for her with an AKM rifle and a cow.

Burned Alive
Human life is significantly cheaper in the rocky, green Nuba Mountains, to the north, another slave mecca where women and children are sold for as little as 200 to 300 Sudanese pounds, the equivalent of about one American dollar. 

The government militia’s penchant for terror is even more evident in the heavily populated 50,000-square-mile Nuba Mountain region than in the south.  The region is home to some three million people; about three-quarters of the population are Christians, the rest are animists and moderate Muslims.

For their predominantly black-African complexion and rapidly growing Christian community, residents of the Nuba Mountains region suffer.

“They [government militias] have slaughtered our priests like cows,” says Amir al Nur, a pastor who represents the Nuba Mountains for the New Sudan Council of Churches, a religious coalition.  “When they capture a place in the Nuba Mountains, they destroy the churches, follow the people as they flee, and kill them one by one.  Women, they either kill them or take them as slaves.  The government takes the children over eight years old and sells them to baggara [Arab nomads].  Younger than eight, they kill; they are burned alive in tukuls.  They are of no use.”

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