Echoes in Darfur of the Enslavement of Sudan's Dinka Women and Children
BYLINE: Paul Vallely
LONDON: When James Aguer was 20, the slave-masters raided his village in the south of Sudan. They seized many children and killed his mother when she refused to give up her little daughter. Aguer and his siblings were lucky. They escaped and made a laborious journey north to a refugee camp near the capital, Khartoum.
That was 20 years ago, and James has spent the past two decades looking for the missing children, and thousands more taken since. This month, he was honoured in London with an award by the charity Anti-Slavery International for tracking down and freeing 4 500 abductees. But this week he returned to Sudan where, as he said, "there are a further 35 000 children yet to be freed".
The civil war in the south of Sudan - between the predominantly Arab and Muslim government forces from the north and the black, largely Christian peoples of the south - ended last year. But its legacy persists, not least in the huge numbers of southerners who were seized by government militia and taken into slavery in Darfur and Kordofan in the north and west.
The largest number were from the Dinka tribe, of which Aguer is a chief. The abductions continued unabated until 2002 when progress was made at peace talks to end the war.
For three years, Aguer lived in the Khartoum shelter. Today, a broad man, two metres tall, dressed in a grey suit and a smart tie, it seems impossible to imagine him in the camp where, as the months passed, he gradually pieced together information about those who had been kidnapped. Reports came that the children were being forced to work for Arab families without pay. They slaved from sunrise to sunset, slept outdoors with the animals and ate leftovers. They were beaten and abused. The girls were raped or forced into marriage.
One night, Aguer called a secret gathering in the camp to discuss what could be done. He and five other chiefs were mandated to act. "We set out for Kordofan and Darfur, disguised in long, white Arab gelabiahs," he said. The men sat in different coaches on the train so no one would suspect they were together.
"When we arrived, we went in different directions, each to a village where we knew Dinka children were held as slaves. We pretended we were looking for agricultural work.
"Whenever we saw a dark-skinned child tending goats or cows or fetching water near an Arab village, we asked the child their name, where they came from and what they were doing there. …