Freedom Watch: Speak no evil

Why are African-American leaders silent about slavery in Sudan?
By TIM SANDLER  |  May 20, 2010

FLASHBACK-sudan-main

This story was originally published in the May 19, 1995 issue of the Boston Phoenix

It wasn’t the first time members of the Congressional Black Caucus had heard – and done nothing about – Sudan’s dirty secret. Even before a recent House international-relations subcommittee hearing on human-rights violations in Sudan, they knew that kidnapping and slavery had become a barbarous byproduct of Sudan’s bloody holy war.

Reports from escaped slaves, exiles, and human-rights activists have documented, in the past few years, a disturbing demographic feature not found in any Central Africa travel guide: the going rate for black child slaves is between $15 and $200, depending on physical condition and the region in which their Arab Muslim masters buy them. Sometimes they’re branded. Sometimes they’re traded for chickens or given as gifts.

But some influential Muslim leaders in the US dismiss the stories of slavery as fiction. And that’s why, critics say, the Caucus has been reluctant to speak out. Still, as Black Caucus members remain mum, accounts of Sudan’s slavery continue to emerge.

For instance, two recent reports, one by the State Department and another by the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, have informed US leaders how the Sudanese militia conducts its notorious sweeps of black Christian areas in the south and Nuba Mountain region. Women and children are kidnapped and brought north, where they are sold or given away, the reports state. Many captives are used in the fields by day, and in their masters’ beds at night.

And when the Reverend Macram Max Gassis, an exiled Catholic bishop from Sudan, testified before the international-relations subcommittee on Africa last March, he gave House members what was perhaps the most vivid and compelling account they had yet heard.

“I was personally instrumental in the liberation of over 50 children who were abducted by the regime,” he said solemnly, citing a litany of recently documented instances of slavery.

At least two Black Caucus members, New Jersey Democrat Donald Payne (who is also chairman of the Caucus) and Florida Democrat Alcee Hastings, listened as the bishop pleaded with them to initiate something: an arms and oil embargo, economic sanctions, a UN resolution. Something.

“How can the international community tolerate this?” he asked. “How can your committee be satisfied to do nothing other than review, annually, the horrific reports that come regularly…about the situation in Sudan?”

It was an appeal that the human-rights activists who brought Gassis to the hearing had hoped would resonate deeply with the legislators. At the very least, they hoped, it would set off an alarm among Black Caucus members. Who would be better to voice moral outrage about Sudanese servitude, they thought, than the descendants of American slaves?

Fear of Muslim groups?

But the most noticeable silence after the hearing came from those same Black Caucus members, who did not so much as issue a press release. And now, under fire from human-rights activists and a growing number of African-American journalists, Black Caucus members are squirming.

Payne’s foreign-affairs advisor, Frank Kiehne, offers this explanation for the chairman’s inaction: “We have limited resources. We’re stretched 15 different ways. We can’t solve every problem in the world. It doesn’t mean we’re not concerned.”

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