This article originally appeared in the June 30, 1995 issue of the Boston Phoenix.
From mass murder in Rwanda to mass starvation in Somalia, Africa’s horrors continue to shake the world’s sensibilities. Yet, despite heightened attention to Africa’s troubles, its largest country, Sudan, still harbors the continent’s darkest secret: the rebirth of slavery. In the last several years, pure chattel slavery — the use of people as property — has quietly re-emerged as a social institution in Sudan. And as a participant in this slave trade, Sudan’s government has good reason to make sure it remains a secret.
BAHR EL GHAZAL, Sudan — Slavery drains passion from the human spirit the same way hunger hollows the body. Dinka tribesman Malwal Akec is living testimony to that. Humans owning humans, he explains impassively, squinting his bloodshot eyes in the midday sun, is an unrelenting reality for the southern Sudanese. Akec was once abducted by a faction of Sudan’s government militia; he recounts his enslavement with no trace of anger.
In May 1994, Akec and his son set out on foot from the remote Dinka village of Turalei, where a shaman’s blessing is a sacred social occasion and even the most skeletal cows are valuable currency. Akec had planned to visit another son in Karthoum, the capital of Sudan, in the government-controlled north and, while there, seek treatment for his chronic stomach pain.
But on the first day of his more than 500-mile trek, as he crossed into the Muslim government-held area near the town of Abyei, Akec and his son were ambushed by two large bands of the Mujahedin, the heavily armed Islamic fundamentalists who are part of the Khartoum regime’s Popular Defense Force. Volunteers in the Islamic holy war against the southern resistance forces, the Mujahedin believe they will ascend directly to heaven if they die while attempting to kill infidels, which include the black Christians and animists of the south.
On this day, however, Akec’s life was spared. He was marched at gunpoint for four days to a farm in an obscure northern village. His son was taken to another farm. From sunrise to sunset, seven days a week, Akec was forced to cultivate the hard, parched soil where millet and other grains were grown.
At night, his captors tied his wrists and ankles with rope before leaving him to sleep. Early in his captivity, he was beaten and lashed with a leather whip. Later, however, the man who had originally claimed Akec as his slave upon his capture stepped in. Akec, already slowed by his advanced age, would be a better worker if he was not injured, his master argued. As it was, he subsisted on boiled sorghum and water.
One night last March, a violent rainstorm engulfed the farm. By now, Akec’s skin hung loosely around his bones. And, thinking he was too weak and disoriented to escape under such conditions, his captors left him to sleep untied. Akec fled into the vast savanna. By cover of night, he walked south. During the scorching daylight hours, he ducked into the bush to avoid recapture. A week after his escape, he returned to his family in Turalei. There, he learned that hi son had also escaped and was living somewhere near Khartoum.