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

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