Activists Decry Slave Redemption in Africa's Sudan

Article excerpt

Human rights and humanitarian groups have questioned the growing practice in Sudan of slave redemption by foreign Christian groups, expressing fears that Western money will fuel the country's slave market.

They have been joined in their criticism by a Catholic missionary priest and journalist who has said that the organizations involved in redeeming slaves may fall victim to "an operation organized by unscrupulous people for financial benefit."

Families and chiefs of the southern Sudanese Dinka tribe have long attempted to redeem abducted women and children from slavery. Most of the victims of slave trade have been women and children from the Dinka tribe who were taken captive by militia groups from the predominantly Muslim North. The captives are considered war booty in the country's ongoing civil conflict.

Since 1995, Dinka leaders engaged in redeeming slaves have increasingly received assistance from foreign Christian groups, allowing the redemption of hundreds of people at one time.

UNICEF spokesperson Marie Heuze in early February called these tactics "absolutely intolerable," arguing that slave redemption implicitly supports human trafficking.

But groups carrying out redemption operations said that there is no evidence that large-scale redemption efforts contribute to the cycle of abductions and slavery. "What is intolerable is to leave these women and children in the hands of brutal captors," said Charles Jacobs, head of the Boston-based American Anti-Slavery Group, which raises money for Christian Solidarity International.

Swiss-based Christian Solidarity International says it has redeemed more than 6,000 people since 1995, paying about $50 for each slave. Other groups, such as Christian Solidarity Worldwide, have subsequently carried out their own redemption efforts. The organizations have drawn support from U.S. schools and church congregations.

According to Human Rights Watch, abducted women and children are often physically and sexually abused, and are coerced into renouncing their Christian and animist beliefs and adopting Islam. The organization has noted that the militia carrying on the slave trade "diligently avoid any attacks on military targets.... Their purpose is to abduct and loot, not to risk themselves in combat."

The missionary priest and journalist, Comboni Fr. Renato Kizito Sesana, said that the "first culprit" in Sudan's slave trade is the country's government, which is "encouraging the popular militia and similar groups to loot property and people from areas under the control of the Sudan People's Liberation Army." Sesana is an Italian missionary who has worked in Africa for 22 years.

In a March 12 statement, Carol Bellamy, director of UNICEF, emphasized, "As a matter of principle, UNICEF does not engage in or encourage the buying and selling of human beings."

UNICEF said that while redemption efforts are well-intentioned, "the sobering troth is that these efforts will not end the enslavement of human beings. …