Out of Bondage: A Group of Christians Attack Slavery by Putting a Price Tag on Freedom. but Does the Practice Stoke the Brutal Trade in Human Life?

By Mabry, Marcus | Newsweek International, May 3, 1999 | Go to article overview
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Out of Bondage: A Group of Christians Attack Slavery by Putting a Price Tag on Freedom. but Does the Practice Stoke the Brutal Trade in Human Life?


Mabry, Marcus, Newsweek International


Beneath a solitary tree in the sun-scorched village of Mulual Baai, more than 400 Dinka women and children sit passively in the 110-degree heat. Their clothes are filthy and tattered, and only a few wear shoes. Swarms of green flies cluster around their nostrils and eyes, but they are too exhausted to swat them away. Some of them have just walked hundred of kilometers from the north of Sudan, where they were slaves to Muslims. Their "retriever," a Muslim named Ahmed, has led them to their home region, the desolate southern province of Bahr el Ghazal, to sell them into freedom. As they rest in the shade, John Eibner of the human-rights group Christian Solidarity International (CSI) counts out the cash for their release $50 a head, paid in stacks of Sudanese pounds. Ahmed wearing sunglasses and flip-flops, gathers the bundles of bills in the lap of his white djellaba; they total $20,250, more than he can cram into his knapsack. Then Eibner walks over to the slaves and declares: "You are all free." In Sudan, freedom comes with a price. The Dinka slaves have escaped, at least for the moment, domination and often brutal treatment by their Muslim captors. But they are tortured souls, black animists and Christians who have been forced to speak Arabic and practice Islamic customs. And there is no guarantee now that they will find shelter or food or their families--or that they will stay free. After all, Sudan remains locked in Africa's longest-running civil war. For 32 of the country's 42 years of independence, the Islamic government in Khartoum has been battling the animist and Christian south in its quest to impose Sharia, or Islamic law, on the entire country. The U.S. Committee for Refugees estimates that almost 2 million Sudanese have died because of the war--more casualties than in Kosovo, Bosnia and Rwanda combined. Perhaps as many as 100,000 southerners may be enslaved in the Arab north.

Freeing Sudan's slaves may be one of the world's most compelling human- rights crusades. Church groups and classrooms of schoolchildren have joined fund-raising on behalf of the Zurich-based CSI and competing "redemption" groups. CSI, which is by far the most active, says it has "redeemed" almost 8,000 Africans in Sudan since 1995, including more than 1,700 during a recent trip, accompanied by NEWSWEEK. Anti-slave activists consider Eibner a saint. But many mainstream relief groups and U.N. officials see his tactics as misguided. They say war, not slavery, is the real enemy in Sudan, and that "redeeming" slaves with money only feeds the evil. "The traders make money in both directions," says a U.N. official. "This is not going to end slavery in Sudan."

It's not clear that anything could. Slavery, after all, has become an entrenched instrument of war in Sudan. International human-rights groups accuse the Islamic-fundamentalist regime in Khartoum of arming and financing local Arab militias that prey on blacks in the war zone. The government denies that it condones slavery. But Arab tribes on the northern side of the Kiir River, in Darfur and Kordofan provinces, have long claimed that the Koran gives them the right to make slaves out of blacks, whom they consider inferior. Indeed, many believe they are doing the Dinka a favor by "Islamicizing" them. With the Dinka men off fighting in the rebel Sudanese People's Liberation Army (SPLA)--and the government, at the very least, making no effort to intervene--Muslim raiders are free to sweep through southern villages, looting food and livestock and abducting women and children to use as domestic slaves.

The abduction is only the beginning of the nightmare for these slaves. Sitting in the shade in Mulual Baai is Nyanut Adwal Anei, a pretty young woman who was kidnapped by Arab raiders two years ago. Anei looks 16, but she cannot remember her age. Nevertheless, she'll never forget the day she was held in a cattle pen with hundreds of women, children and animals--the Arabs' booty--before being marched off on a two-week trek north.

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