Saturday, March 17, 2012

10 Questions for the Creator of “10 questions that every intelligent Christian must answer”

This overlong video, which has now been viewed almost six and a half million times, is directed at “educated Christians with college degrees.”

Hysterically, the video creator seems to think that having a college degree means, “You are a smart person. You know how the world works. You know how to think critically.”

Then he drops the hammer: “Have you ever thought about using your college education to think about your faith?”

The video proceeds to ask ten questions about God and the universe – questions which, the video author claims, can only be answered by atheism.

His conclusion: “Our world only makes sense when we understand that God is imaginary.”

Thank heaven – speaking colloquially, of course – that someone has finally succeeded in making sense of the world!

Since you have triumphed where so many before you have failed, Mr. Video Man, I’d like you to use your comprehensive theory of existence to answer ten more questions.

If you answer “it’s self-evident” to any of these questions, you lose the philosophy game, and your college degree will be henceforth revoked.

1. How can Young's experiment be explained?
2. Why does the Theory of Relativity explain phenomena on very large scales but not on very small scales?
3. What is gravity?
4. What is the nature of human consciousness?
5. Are there minds outside your own? How can you verify their existence?
6. Do you have free will? How do you know?
7. What makes an action ethical or unethical?
8. Are your sense observations trustworthy? How do you know?
9. Is human logic an accurate guide to reality? How do you know?
10. Have you ever been mistaken before? If so, how do you know you’re not mistaken this time?

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

My Trip to South Sudan, Part 3: Endings

There are some happy endings here. One of the first people we met after arriving in NBG is a woman named Abook, a woman with tightly-braided hair wearing a bright green dress. She screamed “John!” and threw her arms around Dr. Eibner in greeting. Abook, Dr. Eibner explained, came out of slavery several years ago. When she was interviewed, she asked Dr. Eibner to help find her two children still being held in the North. Dr. Eibner took their names, and passed them along to the slave retrievers. By God’s grace, the retrievers managed to find them, and brought them home to their overjoyed mother. “So we know her well, and she is always happy to see us,” Dr. Eibner concluded.

Dr. Eibner and Abook.

For me, one of the most exciting parts of the trip is getting to meet and talk to the Arab slave retrievers, who I’ve decided to call Ahmed al-Darfuri and Adam Yousef in this piece. They are figures right out of 20th-century cinema: sweeping white robes, ornamental prayer caps, and proud, intimidating faces. They carry themselves like chieftains from the Peninsula. Their skin is just as dark as that of the Dinka ex-captives; but their facial features make them instantly recognizable as Arabs. They cover their faces before they allow themselves to be photographed - for obvious reasons, the government of Sudan does not like what they do. One of CSI’s other retrievers was once arrested and tortured by government forces. His house was burned down, and his family is now in hiding.

I am the only Westerner on this trip who speaks Arabic (using “speak” in the broadest sense). Arabic is a kind of lingua franca in the South. There are so many different tribal languages that the language of colonialism and oppression has become the common tongue. (The new official language of South Sudan is English, but not very many people speak it yet.) Sudanese Arabic, of course, is very different from Syrian Arabic, and it’s difficult to bridge the gap, especially if Arabic is also a second language for the person I’m speaking with.

The slave retrievers, however, speak Arabic as a mother tongue, and presumably are well-versed in Standard Arabic as well. They are able to accommodate my Syrian accent, and to my delight, they do so happily.

Adam is from northern Darfur. His slave rescue missions sometimes take him around six months to complete. He travels by foot across the expanse of Western Sudan, searching for captives and masters willing to part with them. He has four children back home.

Ahmed also has children. I ask him if he thinks there will ever be a Sudan Spring. He replies, “Feeh!” There is! Hassan al-Turabi, Sudan’s deposed Islamist strongman, is making a comeback in the name of democracy and human rights, and Ahmed thinks he will succeed.

Many of the slavery survivors we interviewed couldn’t stop talking about how well they were treated by the slave retrievers on the journey back to the South, before they quite realized that they were being set free. The slave retrievers give them good food, medicine and new clothes. To go from years – maybe a lifetime – of incessant abuse and fear, years without medicine, of digging clothes out of the trash and eating leftovers, into the care of someone who is actually concerned for your well-being, must be an unbelievable shock.

Last October, a former slave who was set free through CSI’s programs, named Ker Deng, testified before the House Africa Subcommittee about his experiences in slavery. Ker, now eighteen, lived for most of his life in slavery with his mother, who taught him to speak the Dinka language. Once, when one of the master’s goats wandered off, Ker’s master, a man named Zachariah, rubbed chili peppers into his eyes, hung him upside down from a tree, and built a fire under his head so that the smoke would waft into his burning eyes. Ker was eventually rescued by one of his master’s neighbors, a local imam, but not before he lost nearly all his eyesight.

Ker Deng testifying before Congress.

While in the U.S., Ker received treatment at the Wills Eye Institute in Philadelphia to partially restore vision in one of his eyes. He is now learning English and Braille at Perkins School for the Blind, the same school that Helen Keller attended. A woman named Ellen, a journalist, therapist and humanitarian who has accompanied CSI to South Sudan many times, is financing Ker’s treatment and education.

As far as anyone knows, his mother is still in slavery. On this visit, Ellen huddles over maps with Ahmed and Adam, trying to figure out, based on Ker’s descriptions, where the retrievers might be able to locate his mother. Ellen also asks both groups of freed slaves if any of them have met Ker’s mother or her master, Zachariah. So far, no one has.

The interviews with the freed captives take four days at the two sites. At the end of our second visit at each site, the local village slaughters a bull to celebrate the captives’ return, and we hand out what we call “Sacks of Hope” – white plastic sacks branded with the CSI logo, containing grain, a tarpaulin, a blanket, a mosquito net, a cooking pan, a water canister, a hand-held sickle, and fishing hooks. We also distribute female goats to each of the slavery survivors, a task that’s a little chaotic, but adds a lot of fun and joy to the work. Female goats eat grass, produce milk, cheese, and other goats, and are relatively easy to keep. We hope that they will be a starter source of income for the returnees, most of whom are overwhelmed at having the chance to own something that they were forced to take care of for somebody else for so many years.

Me, pretending to like animals for my job.

One person we interview on our second visit is a tiny boy who goes by the Arab name Mahmoud Ali. His tattered clothing hangs loosely from his thin frame, and he wears an Islamic prayer cap, decorated with stitched olive branches and flowers to represent paradise. He was born into slavery, and was never told where he came from. He was left to his own devices to figure out that his master wasn’t really his father, and his master’s children weren’t really his brothers.

Mahmoud has only nine fingers. He tells us the master cut one of them off in a rage after he failed to wash the dishes properly. His voice is steady as he tells Akuei his story, but silent, angry tears brim in his eyes and run down his cheeks.

Later, after the Sacks of Hope have been distributed, I run into Mahmoud. His demeanor is completely changed. He’s grinning from ear to ear, and when I pull out my camera, he poses and gives me the “surf’s up” gesture with his hand. Where he learned that, I have no idea.

The goats we distribute to the slavery survivors are Ellen's brainchild. Part of her fundraising plan is to take a photo of every goat and goat recipient holding a piece of paper with the name of a donor, and then deliver the photo to that donor.

Getting people whose language we don’t speak to line up and pose for a seemingly pointless “kowaja” (white person) exercise is a bit of a challenge, and I use my meager Arabic to help as much as I can. To each person who poses, I say, “Ayoonak 3ala il-kamera” – put your eyes on the camera. (I think?)

Towards the end of this process, a very elderly, slow-moving woman poses for the shot. I tell her, “Eyes on the camera.” Hearing the phrase “your eyes,” she starts talking about her eyes. I take a closer look. Her pupils are glassy. I wave my hand inches in front of her face. No response. This woman is completely blind.

On my boss’ instruction, I take her hand and guide her to a secluded shade tree so we can get her story later on. I take her picture using flash, inches away from her face. I get no reaction.

Her story, when we get it, is depressingly predictable. She was captured in 1998 in Nymalell, probably in the same raid as Malachi’s wife. She lost her vision when her master beat her eyes with a wooden stick, after she failed to get up quickly enough when ordered to fetch something. The same man who blinded her repeatedly raped her.

Now she has returned from the North in old age, with no vision and no family. Dr. Eibner introduces her to the local chiefs, who assure him that they will look after her. There’s really nothing else we can do.

Before we depart, we gather all the slavery survivors together one last time, and Ellen teaches the group some exercises for dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder. One of the techniques is slow, deliberate breathing. Another is waving one’s arms backward above one’s head, as if to throw slavery behind you, she explains. This exercise provokes gales of laughter from the crowd.

Then Pastor Mary, a local Dinka Anglican evangelist, steps forward to teach the group a Christian song of praise. The song is a hit. Several young boys and girls who learn the song quickly step forward to take turns leading the group, and after a few minutes, the entire group – most of whom are still wearing Islamic veils and prayer caps – are singing, clapping, laughing, ululating and dancing along.

There are few better sights in the world, I think.

In Mabok, Dr. Eibner goes to meet the gathered local Dinka chiefs, to thank them for hosting the returnees and ask them to make sure they use their connections with other chiefs to find homes for them. Then he asks if they would like to share a song about the war with us.

On the spot, the chiefs, an elderly group of men wearing a wide assortment of hats (baseball caps, fedoras, prayer caps) to distinguish themselves from other Dinka, respond with a multi-part, foot-stomping, fist-pumping, choreographed battle anthem. The sound, even coming from this relatively unintimidating collection of senior citizens, is enough to either chill the blood or make you want to pick up a rifle for Dinkaland. It’s full of rage, pride and determination. Arab nationalism, eat your heart out.

For the past two years, a group of fifteen women in the village where the CSI clinic is located have been training with Ellen to learn a technique called “Coherent Breathing” to deal with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder arising from their experiences in the war. Every woman in the group has, at a minimum, seen a person killed in front of them.

On this visit, Ellen attempts to evaluate the progress the women are making, to see if there has been any improvement in their symptoms. One of the questions she uses in the evaluation is, “In the last month, have you been having frequent thoughts about the war?” She means, of course, the North-South civil war of 1983-2005.

When the question is translated, several of the women raise their hand. Ellen asks our translator to ask them for details. One says, “Yes – when my cousin was killed in the fighting in Abyei a few weeks ago.”

Another woman just lost a son in Abyei; another, an uncle.

Abyei is a border region claimed by both North and South Sudan. Its status was to have been determined by a local referendum, but disputes over the logistics of the vote and fighting between local government and SPLA forces led the North to forcibly occupy Abyei in May 2011, ahead of the South’s independence. Fighting has continued at varying levels there ever since.

Our flights back to Juba will take us to a city called Agok, which is quite close to Abyei. The airstrip where we land is surrounded by tanks and Ethiopian soldiers in blue helmets – forces belonging to the United Nations International Mission in Sudan.

Even if war has gone from NBG, Sudan’s war is far from over. The governments of North and South are constantly rattling sabers over issues ranging from the status of Abyei to oil-sharing. In the South, a hopelessly corrupt, institution-less government struggles to keep the peace between rival tribes. The day we left South Sudan , 37 people were killed in nearby Unity State – at an intertribal peace conference organized by the UN. In North Sudan, the central government wages war against insurgencies in Darfur, the Nuba mountains, Blue Nile State, and the eastern regions bordering the Red Sea. Millions of people in Darfur are unable to leave the refugee camps where they have lived since the government’s attack in 2003. The central government has been bombing the Nuba Mountain region, home to a mix of African Muslims and Christians, for months now, killing thousands, causing half a million people to flee, and preventing the people from planting crops. The government has also banned journalists and aid workers from the area, leading the United Nations to warn that hundreds of thousands of people are at risk of starvation.

Sudan has been at war with itself for nearly sixty years. The depressing reality is, there’s really no reason the war can’t continue for another sixty.


There’s no reason it can’t, but no reason it should, either.

We must never lose sight of this relatively simple truth: war is something we make. It is not a natural phenomenon, or the product of the great sweep of history. Nothing – not class struggle, not identity politics, not global warming – dictates what people will do, on their own or en masse. We are free to kill or heal, to forgive or take revenge, to enslave or set free. Every war is a war of choice, and the choice belongs to all of us.

The LORD will march out like a champion, like a warrior he will stir up his zeal.

With a shout he will raise the battle cry and will triumph over his enemies:

“For a long time I have kept silent.

“I have been quiet and held myself back.

“But now, like a woman in childbirth, I cry out, I gasp and pant.

“I will lay waste the mountains and hills and dry up all their vegetation.

“I will turn rivers into islands and dry up the pools.

“I will lead the blind by ways they have not known, along unfamiliar paths I will guide them.

“I will turn the darkness into light before them and make the rough places smooth.

“These are the things I will do.

“I will not forsake them.”

- Isaiah 42:13-16

If you feel so led, you can contribute to CSI’s slave liberation efforts by donating at

Monday, March 5, 2012

My Trip to South Sudan, Part 2: "In the North"

When Sudan’s civil war reignited in 1983, the northern government was quick to frame the conflict in Islamic terms. Idolatrous, hut-dwelling Christians and animists – supported by the Zionists no less (for real this time) – were trying to destroy Sudan. The war was a jihad, a holy war to protect the Muslim world.

In order to isolate and break down the southern resistance, Khartoum recruited Arab tribes living along the border with the south, gave them money and weapons, told them they were fighting for Islam, and sent them to raid their southern neighbors. With the normal balance of power between the Arab and African tribes upset, these raids turned into wholesale destruction. The raiders would come to a town, seize everything they could carry, and burn the rest.

In keeping with one of the more horrifying traditions of east Africa, often these raiders would seize people and carry them into the north as slaves.

In 1995, my boss, Dr. Eibner, was invited to visit a town in NBG that had been raided six weeks earlier. The area had been declared a “no-go zone” for NGOs by Khartoum. Accordingly, the UN and the Red Cross stayed away, and Dr. Eibner went.

The town, he says, had been completely burnt down. The survivors were walking around in a daze, “like zombies.” It was there that he first met people who had been in slavery in the north. One of them, a fifteen-year-old girl, had been in slavery for eight years. (At this point, the war was twelve years new.) Her mother had died in slavery. At one point, two of her brothers had traveled to the North and found her living with her master. Her master shot one of her brothers dead, and sent the other home alone. Finally, a Dinka (the name of the dominant tribe in NBG) trader traded a cow and a Kalashnikov rifle for her release, and took her home.

Since that visit, Christian Solidarity International, using donations from people across the developed world, has secured the freedom of over 80,000 people enslaved in Sudan’s war. CSI finds these people through a network that was set up early in the war by Dinka chiefs and peace-minded Arabs in the North. On one end of the network, Arab traders travel throughout the North, dodging government forces and negotiating with Arab slaveowners for the release of African slaves (usually by offering cattle vaccine provided by CSI). These traders then travel with the liberated captives on foot across hundreds of miles back to the South, where CSI teams meet them, give them food and medical treatment, and try to reconnect them with their families and home villages.

Usually, the goods CSI exchanges for these people’s freedom amount to less than $50. If that sounds like not very much, you’re right – it’s far less than the price of a goat or a cow. This war slavery is a political, religious and cultural phenomenon, not an economic one. There is no large agricultural or labor demand for slaves; the slaves are more trophies of war and symbols of religious triumph than labor assets.

The 2005 peace treaty put an end to the slave raids. But having never admitted the existence of slavery in their country, Khartoum showed remarkably little interest in freeing the slaves captured during the war. The U.S., UN and the government of South Sudan did not press the point.

It’s now 2012. Every Dinka person in slavery has been a slave for at least seven years. Some of them have been enslaved for twenty-five years, or more. Many of them were born into slavery. They are the forgotten relics of one of history’s most horrifying wars, living tragedies whom the powers-that-be have decided to ignore, for the sake of peace and stability.

UNICEF, which at the request of the government of Sudan uses the word “abduction” as a euphemism for “slavery” when speaking about the problem, has called my organization’s practice of paying for people’s freedom “intolerable.” I will leave it to my readers to judge what in this story should and should not be tolerated.

One of our purposes in South Sudan is to record the stories of these formerly-enslaved people. Over the course of about a week and a half, I listen to about twenty-five people tell the story of their life in captivity. We ask for volunteers from the larger group to share their stories with us, then set up plastic chairs and wooden benches underneath a shade tree, pull out our notebooks and cameras, and listen.

Most of the stories have the same basic shape. I was at the well when the raiders came. I was in my house when the raiders came. I was hiding in the bush and the raiders found me. They made us walk to the North. Those who couldn’t keep up or tried to escape were killed. The women were raped, usually by four men at a time. In the North, the raiders divided us up or sold us. I was circumcised (both men and women said this.) I was raped (both men and women said this.) I was beaten. I was forced to convert to Islam. I was not given enough food to eat. I had to watch the goats or cows, and sleep outside with them. When I made mistakes in my work, I was tortured or maimed. I don’t know where my family is; they were sold and I never saw them again.

But some stories are more difficult.

Nibol Wol Mel, an elderly woman in a pink shirt and a black shawl with yellow floral print, tells us that she’s having lots of nightmares about the north. She remembers too many awful things.

“What’s the worst thing you remember?” Dr. Eibner asks.

She says, My three children were killed by my master. He told me, I want you to be my wife. You don’t need these dirty children. I will give you children I can control. He killed them when I was away getting water. I saw them lying on the floor, swollen everywhere on their bodies. I think they were beaten to death. I gave birth to three of the master’s children. All three were taken away from me as soon as they were weaned. I don’t know where they are.

Garang Makwach Makwach is an elderly man, captured in 1987, a year before I was born. His wife had already been enslaved. He hasn’t heard from her in twenty-five years. Two old men in the group he was captured with were beaten to death. The raiders said, If you say you are tired again, you will end up like them. In his group was a woman with a young boy who could not walk because he was so thirsty. They beat him and cut off his penis. He died immediately. He was eight years old. Six people in all died on the way to the North. They walked for seven days.

The next day, we drive to a different site, where another group of about two hundred recently-liberated people is waiting for us.

The second group of freed people is different. Most of the women are wearing Islamic headscarves; many of them have their faces completely covered. Many of the men and the boys wear Muslim prayer caps and jalabiyyas, or traditional Arab robes.

Dr. Eibner asks Franco and Akuei which language they should address the group in. Franco puts the question to the freed slaves, and they tell him only a few speak Arabic, so it would be best to speak in Dinka.

About halfway through Dr. Eibner’s speech, Franco will interrupt his translation to ask if the group would prefer Arabic. They would, and Franco switches over seamlessly.

My boss, Dr. Eibner, addresses a group of freed slaves.

“We’re happy to see you,” Dr. Eibner begins. “Do any of you know why we’re here?”

Only Ahmed al-Darfuri [the slave retriever] knows why we’re here, comes the response.

“Where did you come from?”

We were in the North.

“Were you happy there?”

No, none of us were happy.

“Does anyone want to go back to the North?”

A man in the back of the crowd shoots his hand up. Dr. Eibner points to him and says, “Yes?” The man stands up and starts speaking loudly and gesticulating.

Akuei says, “He said, I want to go back because there is no mosque here.”

Dr. Eibner says, “Tell them that anybody who wants to go back can of course go back.”

The crowd murmurs.

Dr. Eibner adds, “Tell them there’s a mosque in Aweil Town [a South Sudanese town a few hours away] if they want to go there.”

Who will show this mosque to us, the man says.

“Everybody in Aweil Town knows where it is, and can show him,” Dr. Eibner says. As Akuei translates, Dr. Eibner chuckles at the man’s determination. A tough customer.

“Here,” Dr. Eibner tells the group, “people are free to pray the way they want to. And if you want to worship in the traditional way, you can go with the spearmen and pray with them.”

Akuei translates. Many in the group laugh.

“If you want to go to the church to pray, our friend Pastor Mary will help you find one. And if you want to pray in a mosque, you can go to Aweil Town and you will find one there. But in the north, there was only one way to pray, and that was at the mosque. So here you can pray the way you want to.”

Satisfied at last, the man sits down. But now others are curious – who will take us to Aweil Town? When will we go? The idea that they are free to go wherever they want – by themselves or in groups – still has not sunk in.

“First of all, the idea is not that you all go to Aweil town,” Dr. Eibner says. “Let me tell you why you’re here and what will happen.”

“How many of you were insulted in the North?” Dr. Eibner asks.

Everyone raises their hand.

“How many of you were beaten in the North?” Dr. Eibner asks.

Nearly everyone raises their hand.

“How many of you were ever told you would be killed if you didn’t obey?”

About half of the people raise their hands.

“Well, while all of these bad things were happening to you, God could see what was happening. And he saw your tears and he heard your cries, and because God loves his people, he found a way to bring you out of that terrible situation, back to your homeland. And now that you’re back here, I’m sure that He will not abandon you. And let me tell you what will happen now that you’re back. We will come back in two days’ time with some food and kits and more visitors. And the chiefs will help find where you belong, find your families. And then you will be free to live your own life as Dinka boys and girls and men and women.”

The group doesn’t react much. It’s a lot to absorb.

“Tell me,” Dr. Eibner continues, “when you came back with Ahmed al-Darfuri and his people, were you well-treated? Everyone who is happy with Ahmed al-Darfuri should raise their hand.”

This question gets a bigger response than anything he’s said yet. Everyone in the crowd raises their hand. Many start yelling and clapping their hands. One woman in the back shouts, “Allahu akbar! Ahmed al-Darfuri, howa sa’adna!” God is great! Ahmed al-Darfuri, he helped us!

It is Mousa, the man who told us he wanted to go back to the north to find a mosque, who tells us about the slave train.

In the war days, the Sudanese government recruited Arab tribesmen to escort its military supply trains through the South and defend them from SPLA attacks. The train would travel slowly so that the jihadists on horseback could keep up. The train line ran deep into South Sudan, to the fortified city of Wau. Along this line, the raiders would fan out and attack villages within a fifty-mile radius, capture Dinka slaves, bring them back to the train, load them into train cars and take them back to the north.

Mousa was captured in 1989. He was walking on the road with his mother when the train came. They heard the shots, and then they were set upon by men on horseback. Some of them were dressed in military uniforms. Mousa’s mother escaped, but he was captured with seven other boys. All of them were put on the train.

The grown-ups held on the train were tied up. The children on the train cried all night. The raiders tied up two particularly noisy children and threw them out the window while the train was moving. The train ride took two days.

Mousa’s master in the north, Mohammad Gadallah, sometimes promised to give him a camel if he worked hard. Every year, though, he was told, Not this camel, I will find you another one. Gadallah also promised him girls, but as each girl in turn reached maturity, Gadallah would say, Not that one, another. He never got a camel or a wife.

Gadallah sent Mousa to a special Qur’an-learning school. There, he learned about jihad. The teachers told the boys, If you are a Muslim, you must go to the South to fight. If Mousa refused to go to the school, he was not given food. When he failed in his lessons at the school, the instructors would force him to drink “miyya.” This is the Egyptian-Arabic word for “water,” but in this context, it means the water that the instructors used to wash the holy words of the Qur’an off the chalkboard. Drinking the words, he was told, would help him understand the lessons better. The instructors told him, You have taken the miyya. Never abandon praying as a Muslim. – as if the chalky water were some kind of storybook curse.

Mousa seems committed to continuing in Islam. He believes that praying like a Muslim is the only way into heaven. He does hint, however, that if he stays here a long time, and no one compels him, he may think about becoming a Christian.

Me in Aweil Town, by some abandoned train cars on the tracks that used to carry the slave train.

We interview a teenage boy, Mawel Garang Awach, who was also sent to Qur’an school. Mawel has thin horizontal burn scars, evenly spaced, running up and down both of his forearms. These, he tells us, are from when he didn’t learn the Qur’an well enough at the school. It was the job of the older students to discipline him this way.

Mawel has a defiant spirit. He was captured with his father and immediately separated from him. Early on in his captivity, he refused to do any work until he saw his father again. His master told him, Fine, go to the mosque instead. Mawel refused, so the master broke his leg with a stick. The fracture healed improperly. It still hurts when the weather is bad, he tells us, and he cannot do the things other young people do.

Once, he ran away from the Qur’an school. They found him after he had made it six hours away on foot. We ask why he ran away. His answer is simple: I don’t like the Qur’an.

When he reached the border of South Sudan with the other returnees, he says, Ahmed al-Darfuri told them they had come to a country where the majority of people are Christians. Mawel knew nothing about Christianity before, but he has met a local evangelist, and now, he proudly tells us, he will be a Christian.

We ask him if he has any questions for us. He’s all business. Where can I get food? Where will I stay? Where can I get an education?

We interview a woman named Alwel Tiab Deng. She hasn’t seen her children for fourteen years. They were separated from her when she was captured. Her husband was shot in front of her. She can’t have any more children, because of a beating she received when she tried to resist rape by the master’s brothers.

At the end of this interview, Professor Michele has her picture taken with her, and puts her arm around her for the photo. Alwel reaches out to her and pulls her in close. For a full minute, she does not let go. She’s shared all her grief with us, and now she just needs someone to hang on to.

Once, Dr. Eibner met a man who was still in slavery. He and his partner Gunnar had gone to the Arab cattle camps in the north, to buy back some slaves directly. The masters released most of the slaves to them, but they refused to release one of them, a boy named Majok. “There he was, squatting in the dirt, making tea for his master,” Dr. Eibner says. “He was there, we were there, and they wouldn’t let him come.” Suddenly, he gets very quiet.


If you feel so led, you can contribute to CSI’s slave liberation efforts by donating at

Sunday, March 4, 2012

My Trip to South Sudan, Part 1: "During the war"

Note: The disclaimer to the right applies to this post, only more so. This is my personal blog, and these are my personal reflections on my trip to South Sudan with the organization I work for, Christian Solidarity International, and nothing more.

“You made us retreat before the enemy,
and our adversaries have plundered us.
“You gave us up to be devoured like sheep
and have scattered us among the nations.
“You sold your people for a pittance,
gaining nothing from their sale.”

- Psalm 44:10-12

During the war, Akuei says, children had to stop sleeping outside and start sleeping in the tikulas, the huts on stilts that normally serve as storage space. Dead human bodies had become so plentiful that the hyenas had lost their fear of humans, and started trying to eat the children they found sleeping outside. The lions and elephants all left during the war; the hyenas grew in number.

To this day, Akuei says, if you shoot a gun into the air, all the hyenas in the area will come running, eager to feast on the flesh of the person who’s just been killed.

“During the war” is a phrase you will hear over and over again in South Sudan. It is the universal tragedy, twenty-three years of hell that everyone in the country experienced. About ten million people live in South Sudan. Two and a half million South Sudanese were killed in the war.

Gabriel, the young, skinny, overly-cheerful man I sit next to on the tiny Cessna flight from our compound in North Bahr el-Ghazal State back to Juba, tells me he is thirty-two years old. He was three years old when the war started. He was a soldier, he tells me proudly. Everyone fought during the war. If a family had four sons, three of them joined the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army (SPLA). Moreover, his father gave his life valiantly on the front lines.

“I’m sorry,” I say. “How is the rest of your family?”

“What do you mean?”

“Are they all safe?”

“No, of course not. My mother was killed as well.”

Sudan’s very name embodies its contradictions. “Al-Sudan” literally means “the land of the blacks.” Of course, it means “land of the blacks” in Arabic, and Arabs do not usually think of themselves as black.

During the period of Islamic expansionism, the region that is now North Sudan became almost completely Islamicized, and, to a lesser degree, Arabized. Nearly all the tribes converted to Islam, and Egyptian Arab settlers ruled from the central city of Khartoum.

South Sudan, on the other hand, remained outside of Islam’s zone of influence. Political structures remained tribal, religion remained animist or Christian, and economics remained cow-centered. (Seriously. The creation story of the southern Dinka tribe revolves around a dispute over a particularly beautiful cow. It’s a big deal.)

The division between Sudan’s two halves is startlingly evident in satellite photographs of the country. North Sudan is almost completely desert. South Sudan is lush and green. This is not one country, but two.

The division was only reinforced during the British colonial period, when North Sudan was administered by Egyptian Arabs (Egypt was itself a British colony at this time), and South Sudan was run by British administrators who deliberately discouraged Islam and Arabic and promoted the spread of Christianity and English, in order to create a Christian buffer region between the Islamic world and British colonies in East Africa.

The British turned this policy of separate development on its head in 1946, when they decided that all of Sudan, north and south, would be turned over to the Arab rulers in Khartoum post-colonization. Whatever the motives for this reversal, it meant that Sudan was a country virtually born into civil war.

The first civil war lasted from Sudan’s independence in 1956 until a peace treaty in 1972 granted the South autonomy in its own affairs while retaining it as part of Sudan as a whole. The man who negotiated the treaty, Sudanese President Jafar Numeiri, quickly became an African folk hero. On visits to South Sudan, he was regularly mobbed by throngs of southern admirers chanting in Arabic, “Who is your father? Numeiri! Who is your brother? Numeiri!”

The dream ended after just eleven years. The Middle East was drifting closer to political Islam. The secular Arab nationalists had failed to liberate Palestine, and when the leading Arab state, Egypt, made peace with Israel, its president was assassinated by Islamic radicals. Islamists came to power in a bloody revolution in Iran, and Numeiri himself was nearly overthrown in an Islamist coup. Faced with this growing pressure, Numeiri decided to become more Muslim than the Islamists. In 1983, Numeiri overturned the peace agreement, ended southern autonomy, and introduced the “September Laws” – the imposition of Islamic sharia law throughout all of Sudan, north and south.

Needless to say, the civil war reignited almost immediately.

On January 30, 2012, I step off the plane into the world’s newest country. I follow my first instinct and whip out my camera to take a picture of Juba International Airport. Immediately, an official approaches me and orders me to put my camera away.

Sometimes, I disobey.

The official justification for the photography ban is, of course, security. I’ve encountered similar bans before in Israel, Syria and Egypt. In this case, though, I’m pretty sure the real reason is to avoid embarrassment. Juba International Airport has one arrivals hall, one departure desk, one departure gate, and that’s it. Security consists of shoving all your bags through a non-functional metal detector at the airport entrance, while young men in blue camouflage uniforms (into what environment they are hoping to disappear, I do not know. Hoth? Atlantis?) with machine guns slung over their shoulders mill around the entrance, drinking juice or smoking, and paying little to no attention to the hundreds of potential terrorists pushing past them into the terminal.

If there is one country in the whole world whose people the South Sudanese government would want to be able to visit easily, it’s the U.S. Right? Superpower and aid supplier and all that? The immigration officials at the airport do not recognize the travel permits the South Sudanese Embassy in Washington DC issues as valid. Thankfully, one of our organization’s old contacts, a man I’ll call Malachi, is in Juba, and comes to talk to the immigration officials. Because of this, we are allowed to buy new visas and enter the country. Otherwise, we would have been stranded.

(By the way: “we” is my boss, Dr. John Eibner, the CEO of the USA branch of Christian Solidarity International, Michele, a human trafficking specialist, and me. Later we will be joined by Dr. Eibner’s German partner Gunnar, a journalist and humanitarian named Ellen, and an American businessman.)

Malachi is a gruff, stout man dressed in loose black clothing and sandals. He never seems to smile. He peers at me disapprovingly over the tops of his eyeglasses. “You are too young, I think,” he says.

My boss later tells me that in 1998, Malachi’s young wife was captured by northern slave raiders in an attack on the southern city of Nyamlell. This was one of the biggest slave raids in the entire war. Thousands of people were taken.

As a politically well-connected individual, Malachi was able to use his contacts to find his wife and buy her back.

Malachi’s wife was captured with their three-month-old baby. On the forced march north, the captives were given only what water and food they needed to survive. The raiders had to move the group quickly while in southern territory to escape the SPLA. There was no time to wait for the weak. Their baby died of dehydration on the march north.

On July 9, 2011, South Sudan officially seceded from Sudan and became an independent republic.

When President Bush entered office in 2001, he made peace in Sudan one of his foreign policy priorities. During the 1990s, a powerful movement of Jewish and right-wing Christian groups in the United States had sprung up to support the South Sudanese, and in the days before 9/11, these groups held powerful sway with the new born-again president.

President Bush’s initiative culminated in a second peace agreement between North and South in 2005. This Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) provided for a referendum on independence to be held in the South in 2011. During the intervening six years, the Government of Sudan would have the chance to entice Southerners into remaining a part of unified Sudan, through aid and development projects. (One of the few paved roads in the South is called “Unity Road.”)

The referendum was held on January 9, 2011. It passed with 99% support.

A pro-separation poster in South Sudan.
At the time, I was in Damascus, Syria, working as an English tutor at a youth seminary in the Greek Catholic Patriarchate. The groundskeeper of the Patriarchate was a black South Sudanese man. I told him congratulations. He replied, “We’ll see.”

In fifty years of war, the most the South Sudanese had been able to get from the rulers in Khartoum was limited autonomy, and Khartoum had reneged even on that. Arab nationalism holds that all the land “from the gulf to the [Atlantic] Ocean” – including South Sudan – is eternally Arab. After decades of war, millions of casualties, and billions lost to sanctions and international opprobrium, would the Arabs really just let the oil-rich southern half of Sudan go? As the groundskeeper well knew, this was an open question.

On January 14, 2011, after weeks of street protests, Tunisian President Zine el Abidine Ben Ali fled to Saudi Arabia, becoming the first Arab ruler to cede power due to popular pressure since approximately forever. The Arab Spring had begun, and Khartoum, facing homegrown protests from Islamists and already engaged in wars with rebels in Darfur, Beja, Kordofan and Blue Nile State, was in no position to ask for favors from the Arab states.

South Sudan is independent. The president of Sudan, Omar al-Bashir, indicted for genocide and war crimes in Darfur, attended the first flag-raising ceremony in Juba. As one of my colleagues told me, “I can’t hardly believe it.”

Northern Bahr el-Ghazal state is a land seemingly devoid of landmarks or reference points. Unlike Juba, where rocky cliffs rise up above the capital, the borderlands are completely flat. In the dry season, there are no rivers and no lakes. Trees are scattered across the land in ones, groves and forests, distributed according to some random fractal algorithm. In no place is it possible to see into the distance – it’s blocked by trees and the curvature of the earth. This is the land of nightmares. I mean that literally, not metaphorically. You know how in the dreams where you’re being chased by monsters, you always seem to be in a place where you have no idea where you’re going, or how far behind you the monsters are? That place is Northern Bahr el-Ghazal.

Warfare here must have been horrifying. Enemy forces, on foot or horseback, could approach through the forests completely undetected. Their targets would have no warning before the assault. There are no ridges or passes to defend, no bridges to control. There are simply the villages. Northern Bahr el-Ghazal is right on the border with Arab Sudan.

We get to NBG (as I’ll call it from now on) the only way we can – by booking flights on UN airplanes that fly to dirt-paved airstrips across Sudan and South Sudan. The first flight we take is on a plane slightly smaller than a standard 747. The second flight is on a Cessna, and we have to spread out so that our body weight isn’t unbalanced. Through the plane windows, I watch the vast, mind-bending expanse of NBG unfold beneath us.

There is no electricity in NBG. There is no running water. There is no internet.  There are no phonelines. The only roads are dirt, and most of them are so serpentine and bumpy that we can only crawl along at 15 mph in our Land Cruisers.

A few years ago, the Government of Southern Sudan (GOSS) built elevated, level, straight dirt roads across NBG state to connect the main towns. They never got around to paving them, or even sealing them properly. Today, erosion has so badly damaged these roads that they are impassable, and people drive on ad hoc dirt places running alongside them.

What’s more, these roads were built without the necessary drainage systems. In the summer of 2010, the annual rains accumulated on one side of the useless road, resulting in massive flooding that displaced over ten thousand people.

Welcome to free South Sudan.

We stay at the compound of Dr. Luka, a physician who works for Christian Solidarity International and runs a free clinic in NBG – the only such clinic for one hundred and fifty miles. By “compound,” I mean a collection of mud huts with thatched roofs, two latrines, and a well, all surrounded by a fence woven from the dry grasses of NBG. For the duration of our stay, we will sleep in tents and eat one meal a day. (Don’t worry, the meals are very good – rice, a rubbery bread called keeshra, pumpkin sauce, goat meat, Ugandan beer.)

Dr. Luka's compound.

On our first full day in NBG, we pile into a Land Cruiser with our translator, Akuei (one of my new personal heroes) and make the twenty-mile, hour-long trip to Mabok, a tiny village in eastern NBG state.

We park across a large field from a primitive church building and a sprawling fruit tree. Seated under the tree are over two hundred men, women and children, arranged by gender.

Ten days ago, all of these people were in slavery.