For Sudan Slaves, Freedom at a Cost
The map of Majok’s life is carved on his body in scars. They trace the vicious beatings, his castration, the time he was left hanging by a rope around his neck. But grief and trauma have erased nearly every other scrap of his boyhood story.
He has no idea of his age or his family name. From his initiation marks and coloring, it is obvious he is a member of the dominant Dinka tribe of southern Sudan. But he says he is an Arab and that the man who kept him as a slave in northern Sudan is his father.
“I do not know whether I am an adult or a child,” he said, puzzled, as a small crowd of villagers here snickered at his confusion. Bereft of his identity, family or home, he can imagine nothing of his future except that, his manhood stolen from him, he can never marry. He hangs his head in silent distress at this thought.
“All I do is eat and sleep, eat and sleep,” said Majok, who was brought to southern Sudan in January by the Commission for the Eradication of Abduction of Women and Children, or CEAWC, an organization set up by the Sudanese government in 1999 after an international outcry over the enslavement of southerners by northerners, who speak Arabic and identify themselves as Arabs.
The deal signed in January ending a 21-year civil war between Sudan’s mainly Muslim north and predominantly animist and Christian south has opened the way for a surge in the return of slaves from the country’s north. CEAWC plans to bring back 7,000 abductees this year, almost 10 times the number it brought last year.
Sudan was notorious for slavery until it was conquered by Britain in the 19th century. But the practice was revived in the mid-1980s during the civil war when the Arab-dominated government armed militias known as murahaleen to fight the southern rebels, much as they more recently have armed militias against rebels in Darfur in the country’s west.
The murahaleen were given free rein to raid villages, steal cattle, kill men, rape women and abduct southerners, including thousands of children, as slaves.
Although personal accounts of slavery in Sudan have been emerging since the mid-1990s, the large-scale returns offer a broader insight into the magnitude of the murahaleen’s slavery operations.
The returnees arrive in the dusty heat, crammed atop trucks, some with terrible stories of the organized abduction, for years denied by the government, of southerners into slavery in the north.
But these homecomings defy easy definition. The jubilation of older returnees, delighted at their freedom after years of slavery, abuse and forced marriage, often contrasts with the dismay and shock of their children born in the north. In their teens or early 20s, they feel they are Arabs, speak only Arabic and miss their northern homes and Arab fathers.
They’ve returned, sometimes against their will, to a region where individual rights can be subsumed by family decisions or tribal traditions, where women and children are considered the property of their male relatives who believe they belong with them in the south.
Relief agencies such as UNICEF and Save the Children UK have questioned CEAWC’s methods, citing reports that the group has rounded people up without checking whether they are actually slaves, whether women and children want to leave the north or whether they even have homes and families to go back to. Some critics accuse CEAWC of luring people back with misleading promises that all their needs will be met in southern Sudan.
Many slaves and abductees return with unrealistic hopes. They do not know of the desperate shortage of services, water and food here in the dry and remote southern province of Bahr el Ghazal, hard hit by two decades of war. Some are shocked by the deprivation they find, and a few have even turned around and walked back to the north.
At the end of January, a convoy of about five big, old Ford trucks, decked with bunches of plastic water containers like garlands of bulbous flowers, pulled into the nearby trade town of Warawar, one of the main crossing points from the north. Hundreds of exhausted people clambered down.
Some admitted they were not former slaves but refugees who had hitched a free lift with the CEAWC trucks instead of walking home. But CEAWC spokesman James Aguer insisted that all 479 were former slaves and their children.
They spent a cold first night on the ground in a compound in Malual Kon.
“I was surprised because we were sleeping on the ground in the open,” said Achol Deng, 45, who returned with her father, Cuor Koot, and her three children after more than two decades in the north. Within a few days, most of the arrivals were sent home to their villages.
Aboc Awet, now 21, was a child when she was seized by Arab militias and stabbed in the face and back. They put her on the roof of a long, slow train to the north. She cried every day of the monthlong journey, missing her mother. A vast mob of dusty plundered cattle ambled alongside, she remembers.
“The train was very, very long. The whole train was full of abducted people, inside and on top. There were many, many people,” Awet said. The Arabs raided every village on the way, returning each time with more cattle and abducted people.
No one is sure how many people have been abducted into slavery, nor how many remain enslaved. A 2003 study by the Rift Valley Institute, based in London and Kenya, documented 12,000 abductions by name, 11,000 people still unaccounted for and 5,000 killings.
CEAWC says that 20,000 people were abducted, and estimates there also are at least 20,000 children born to slaves. Spokesman Aguer said CEAWC and the Dinka Committee, a group of activists in the north, had returned 4,000 slaves from 1989 to 2004.
But a Swiss-based religious group, Christian Solidarity International, frequently cites claims by southern community leaders that 200,000 people were abducted and says it has bought and freed 80,000 of them.
In the late 1990s, CSI was condemned by UNICEF and criticized by Human Rights Watch for its controversial decision to buy slaves in order to set them free. Critics say most of the people they bought freedom for were not abductees and the money was pocketed by unscrupulous middlemen who staged the events.
Christian Solidarity International spokesman Max-Peter Stussi said accusations that many of the people redeemed were not slaves were unfounded.
After her long train journey to the north, Awet says she was taken to a village called Dar el Afat, and became one of five slaves for her abductor, Ibrahim Salim. She endured harsh beatings as she worked from morning until night fetching water and firewood, cleaning and cooking. Three boys owned by Salim’s family shepherded the cattle and goats. She said all the families in the village had slaves.
“Some families had two slaves, some had three,” she said. “People bought them in the village, or sometimes slaves were brought to the houses and people could buy.”
After three years, Salim married her. She says she accepted because she was terrified he would kill her otherwise. Now she has his baby girl, but lost two babies when she gave birth after savage beatings by her father-in-law.
Awet is not sorry to be free of Salim and his violent father: She hopes to find a new husband in the south to look after her.
Cuor Koot, who says he is 60 or more, was abducted more than two decades ago when murahaleen raided his village of Amath.
Enslaved in the north for two years, he worked on a farm cultivating peanuts and millet with about 60 other slaves, guarded by Arab gunmen. He says he was beaten daily, once so brutally that he lost consciousness.
“They would tie your hands and tie your feet and cut your throat. That’s how they kill,” he said. After escaping one night, Koot spent the remaining years in paid work in the north.
Koot said that in the north, “they treated us badly, as if we were not even people, just slaves. We had no rights there.” But his happiness at returning home is tempered by the realization that it was easier to earn money in the north.
“I was shocked when I came here and saw the conditions. I don’t know how I’ll take care of these children here. I heard from people that I’d be helped by the U.N. They said, ‘If you go back to your village, you’ll be given everything.’ ”
He tries to be optimistic, hoping for seeds and tools and rain, so he can plant a crop.
His daughter, Achol Deng, wishes she were still in the north. After being abducted, she was taken as a wife by an Arab named Ali, who she says always treated her with love and respect. CEAWC took her away from her husband at her father’s request.
Her daughter, Sara Ali, 20, is horrified by the move, but as a young woman in this traditional society, she has no say in her future. Her grandfather plans to marry her off as soon as he can so he can get a bride price of cows, which would ease the family’s problems settling back.
“I’m Arab. I want to go back. It’s bad for me, this place,” said Sara Ali. “I feel like I can’t live here. This place is a long way away and I left my father alone.
“They won’t let me go back, but if it was my choice, I’d go.”
Deng said other Dinka people in the north had told her that if she returned to her village she would never have to do any heavy work again. But Deng, who says she never felt like a slave doing housework for her family, is not likely to have a lighter load here. Women in Bahr el Ghazal work long hours collecting firewood, cooking, caring for children, cultivating the fields and often walking many hours a day just to fetch water.
“I’m feeling upset that my children are uncomfortable here,” Deng said. “I’m worried, worried my children will starve. My children were used to eating good food there, bread and meat.”
Spokesman Aguer said many people enslaved as children had lost the Dinka language and many also had lost their parents. Some resisted CEAWC’s approaches to return to the south, but he put that down to fear.
“Even now, people are afraid,” he said. “When CEAWC comes to get them, they say, ‘No.’ They are afraid to be killed.”
Aguer denied the accusations that CEAWC drives around northern villages rounding up southerners, but the process he described -- negotiating releases with slave owners -- conflicted with the stories of returnees. Many of them described CEAWC vehicles arriving, and people jumping on board chaotically, often with angry Arab husbands in hot pursuit.
Majok, the youth scarred and castrated in boyhood, is glad he no longer has to work all day without pay, herding cattle for his Arab “father.” But he has no place and no meaningful role in Malual Kon, where his mental disturbance and confusion make him a figure of ridicule. No one here knows where to send him.
If he once knew love, he has forgotten it. “I do not know whether my father loved me or not,” he says sadly.