My Career Redeeming Slaves
By John Eibner
Middle East Quarterly
DECEMBER 1999 • VOLUME VI: NUMBER 4, pp. 3-16

Danish translation: Min karriere som slaveindløser
Source: Middle East Forum
Published on February 24, 2012

John Eibner is a historian and human rights specialist who, since 1990, has served as assistant to the international president of Christian Solidarity International. He has lead over twenty fact-finding visits to Sudan and neighboring countries and has pioneered CSI's antislavery program.

Nur Muhammad al-Hasan emerges from the Sudanese bush. His loose, once-bright white jalabiya flutters as he strides towards me. I in turn step through the long, dry grass towards him, stooping slightly as I walk under the weight of a U.S. army kit bag full of grimy Sudanese bank notes. It is April 1999 and the midday sun is oppressive. Nur and I greet each other with a handshake and "Salam ‘alaykum." We slip under the shade of an enormous mango tree where we have some important business to discuss: The liberation of slaves, mainly women and children.

Our enterprise is not to everyone's liking. Last spring, Sudan's government, the radical Islamist regime of the National Islamic Front (NIF) headed by Hasan at-Turabi and Gen. ‘Umar al-Bashir, protested to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights about our work. The regime claims that my organization, Christian Solidarity International (CSI), is the main source of the abduction and kidnapping of children in southern Sudan. [1] In April, the Khartoum regime also initiated proceedings to deny CSI its consultative status at the United Nations (U.N.), alleging that we act contrary to the purposes and principles of the U.N. charter. [2]

About the same time, the world's richest and most influential child welfare organization, the United Nations International Children's Emergency Fund (UNICEF), ended its long silence on the enslavement of Sudanese woman and children. Instead of condemning the slavers, UNICEF—whose mandate requires it to work in partnership with the government of Sudan—echoed Khartoum by calling our liberation of slaves "absolutely intolerable," and by accusing us of violating the Slavery Convention. [3] Others, with agendas of their own, perhaps working with the Sudanese regime or trying to salvage their own tarnished reputations, have spread rumours of fraud about these activities. [4]

Then in late October, the U.N. Economic and Social Council voted by a tally of 26 to 14 (with 12 abstentions) to withdraw our consultative status, thus effectively excluding CSI from the U.N. system.

Yet if anything is "absolutely intolerable," it is that the international community has allowed slavery and other crimes against humanity to be institutionalized by a member state of the United Nations.

Freeing the Slaves

Nur heads one of four networks of Arab Muslim retrievers of slaves; CSI pays for the slaves he acquires and then frees them. Over the previous two months (mid-February to mid-April), he had trekked through the woods and scrubland of southern Darfur and Kordofan (provinces in the central region of Sudan), visiting the cattle camps and farms of the nomadic Baqqara Arabs in search of black African slaves. In most cases, he gains custody of the slaves by posing as a slave owner who wants to add to his stock of concubines, domestics, and agricultural laborers. Sometimes, he is able to arrange for the release of slaves through Arab chiefs. In rare cases, he is able to whisk an unattended slave away to freedom, without payment, or he finds a jealous wife only too happy secretly to hand over her husband's sex slave.

This time, Nur has brought back 316 slaves to their homeland in northern Bahr al-Ghazal Province; another 1,467 slaves returned via three other retrieval networks. Virtually all of these 1,783 individuals are women and children of the Dinkas, a Nilotic, black African tribe, with approximately three million members concentrated mainly in Bahr al-Ghazal. They sit fifty yards away from Nur and me under another huge shade tree. They sit there bewildered, not knowing what might happen next. Will mothers and children be separated? Will children be sold to work the fields? I greet them, talking through my Dinka translator, Joseph Garang, and introduce both my CSI colleague, Gunnar Wiebalck, and journalists who have accompanied us (from Newsweek and The New York Times). [5] We reassure them not to be afraid. Gunnar and I then count the slaves and do a random spot check of the names on the list of returnees. Everything is in good order. Nur then confirms our long-standing agreement: he will take 50,000 Sudanese pounds (currently the equivalent of two goats or $50) for every slave we buy from him.

Under the scrutiny of Nur and the journalists, I carefully count out 15,800,000 Sudanese pounds, then announce to the slaves that the money to redeem them has been paid. "You are all free to return to your homes," I tell them. A handful of newly-liberated slaves are met right there by loved ones but most rise slowly and drift gradually away, knowing they may have to walk for several days before they reach their families. All the now ex-slaves share one thing in common, though: a deep relief at being far away from their former masters and happy to be back with their own people.

CSI began redeeming slaves in October 1995; as of October 1999, it has freed 15,447. An impressive number, perhaps, but it pales in comparison with the total number of slaves in Sudan. Our own estimate, based on the pattern of slave raiding over the past fifteen years and the observations of Western and Arab travelers in southern Darfur and Kordofan, conservatively puts the number of chattel slaves [6] close to or over 100,000. There are many more in state-owned concentration camps, euphemistically called "peace camps" by the government of Sudan, and in militant Qur'anic schools, where boys train to become mujahidun (warriors of jihad). [7]

Nur and his colleagues have established retrieval networks that are the Sudanese equivalent of the "underground railroad" in pre-Civil War America. They emerged and grew within the context of local peace agreements signed in the early 1990s when some Baqqara Arabs of southern Darfur and Kordofan came to the conclusion that the long-term interests of their people are irrevocably bound to peace with their neighbors, the black African Dinkas of northern Bahr al-Ghazal. These agreements benefit both sides: Arab signatories have the right to graze cattle during the dry season in the well-watered land south of the Bahr al-Arab River and trade unmolested in specified Dinka markets. In return, they agree both to resist Khartoum's jihad against the Dinka and to help retrieve Dinka slaves. Dinka community leaders invited CSI to support this initiative in 1995. In this way, CSI found itself in the slave-redeeming "business."

On his own, Nur cannot retrieve hundreds of slaves. To acquire such numbers, he depends on a broad array of friends and relatives who assist him, especially with logistics and security. His work is dangerous and must be executed covertly. He tells of having been arrested and tortured in 1995 on suspicion of retrieving slaves. A year later, he says, Khartoum's security agents ransacked and burned down his house. His family now lives in hiding. He can no longer travel to the towns in his region in daylight. In such places the government's brutal and ever-present security apparatus lies in wait for him.

Slave Stories

I always interview at length some of the redeemed slaves. Here are four stories:

Adior Ajang Jongkor, a 35-year-old woman, was enslaved for two years by ‘Ali in the village of Shetef. He changed her name to Huwa, Arabic for "Eve," had her perform domestic labor, repeatedly raped her, and slashed her with a knife when she resisted his advances. Her body now bears the many scars that resulted from her resistance.

Achol Tong Nyan, a Christian wife and mother in her mid-20s, was enslaved in March 1998. During a two-week forced march to the north she had to carry on her head a heavy load of tea and clothing—her captor's inanimate booty. At night, she was beaten and repeatedly gang-raped. Her master, Isma‘il ‘Ali Mahdi, gave her the name Howeva, forced her to perform Islamic rituals, and used her as a concubine. As a result of sexual relations with her master, she now has a baby girl, Paulina.

Wol Dut Deng, a boy in his mid-teens, was captured by the government of Sudan's Popular Defence Force (PDF) in the spring of 1996. On the forced march to Matarik, he witnessed the execution of his two brothers, Kak Deng Aguer and Deng Deng Aguer. His master, Hamdan, routinely beat and insulted him. After Deng tried to run away, Hamdan threatened to kill him and tied him up with a rope, leaving scars on his legs.

Nyanut Adwal Anei, a teenage girl, was enslaved by PDF troops in 1997. She was forced to live as the concubine of her master, Mahmud, who had her genitals excised.

Such dehumanizing abuse is not exceptional. Severe physical and psychological torture is the norm for the contemporary chattel slaves of Sudan, as are forced labor, forced conversion to Islam, death threats, beatings, and exemplary executions (usually by cutting the throat). Women endure rape and, in some cases, genital excision. Boys are sometimes trained as mujahidun and then sent to fight against their own people.

Note the absence of adult males: able-bodied men do not make passive, reliable slaves. Better able than women and children to resist cultural assimilation, more difficult to control physically, they are normally spared the humiliation of enslavement and are shot dead on sight during slave raids or are executed after carrying heavy booty to the north. Testimony from some redeemed slaves contain scores of grizzly eyewitness reports of many boy slaves unsuccessfully assimilated into servitude whose throats are cut just as they become physically strong.

Historical Roots

Slavery, an ancient institution, has been practiced in most parts of the world. In the territory that makes up the present Sudan, a deadly combination of intertribal warfare, despotic rulers, and commercial greed, meant slavery was an established institution in the pre-Islamic kingdoms of Nobatia, Makuria, and Alwa. With the coming of Islam in the mid-seventh century, a new political dynamic entered the region: jihad. It added a new dimension to the institution of slavery, for Islamic law gave religious legitimacy to the enslavement of non-Muslims captured in the course of jihad. As the scholar Majid Khadduri explains, the Shari‘a (sacred law of Islam) had quite precise rules for non-Muslims captured in jihad:

the Imam [ruler] may condemn the population of the conquered countries, in case they do not accept Islam and the Imam does not demand that they shall work and pay the tribute, to be slaves and be divided among the Jihadists as ghanimah (the spoils of war). The owner of a slave had the liberty to treat him any way he liked. If the slave were a woman, he was allowed to have sexual connection with her without marriage. [8]

Nor were slaves confined to war: the first truce between the Christian king of Makuria and the Muslim colonizers of Egypt, in 653 A.D., required him to deliver annually 360 slaves as tribute to the "Treasury of the Muslims" and forty slaves to the governor of Egypt. [9] Soon, Sudanese slaves became a valuable commodity throughout the Middle East. According to Bernard Lewis:

From early Islamic times there are reports of gangs of black slaves employed in draining the salt flats of southern Iraq. Poor conditions led to a series of slave uprisings. Other black slaves were employed in the gold mines of upper Egypt and the Sudan, and in the salt mines of the Sahara. [10]

By the ninth century, Sudanese and Turkic slaves, known as the jihadiya, made up the bulk of the mighty army of the Arab Muslim empire. [11]

Throughout subsequent centuries, slave raiding and trading continued in Sudan, reaching its apogee in the nineteenth century. About 5,000 captives passed annually through the great slave market at Shendi in 1814, according to the Swiss scholar-explorer, John Lewis Burckhardt [12] —a trickle compared to what was to come. The ruler of Egypt, Muhammad ‘Ali (r. 1804-49) seeking a huge slave-based army but unable to import from the usual sources, used the power of his modernizing state to expand the slave trade in Sudan, which now reached near-industrial proportions. The great slave traders established zaribas (primitive camps enclosed by thorn branches) throughout southern Sudan, devastated huge tracts of land, and transported slaves by the hundreds and thousands to the north by caravan and steamer. Slaves not absorbed into the army or domestic economy of Egypt were exported and sold to masters abroad, mainly in the Middle East. In 1833, the London-based Anti-Slavery Society estimated that his troops annually exported 20,000 slaves out of Sudan. [13]

The Mahdist jihad of 1881-98 disrupted this lucrative export of Sudanese slaves but the slave trade lived on. Domestic servitude continued unabated in the Mahdist state, while the Mahdi and his successor, the Khalifa, required ever more slave soldiers to sustain their jihad. Military expeditions went south—using "fire and sword" in the words of eyewitness Rudolf Slatin Pasha, the ex-governor of Darfur—to subjugate southern tribes and capture fresh black African troops to fight for the Mahdi against the infidel (kafir)—meaning Egyptian Muslims and their European Christian allies. [14]

So devastating were the slave raids and plundering by Egyptian and Mahdist forces that the nineteenth century became known as "the time when the world was spoiled" in the collective consciousness of the Dinka of northern Bahr al-Ghazal. [15] More: the historical experience of slavery was so brutally powerful, it has left a deep scar on the communal psyche of the Sudanese. Echoes of the master-slave relationship continue to reverberate in Sudan and to stimulate contemporary racism. [16] Oliver Albino, a southern Sudanese intellectual, notes that it is a delusion to think, as is commonplace among northern Sudanese, that Western missionaries were responsible for instilling in the southerners a strong consciousness of slavery and the role of Arabs in the slave trade, for this awareness was passed on from generation to generation primarily within southern families. [17]

Serious efforts by the European abolitionist movement to end the Sudanese slave trade began in the mid-nineteenth century. In imperial Britain, the Anti-Slavery Society was a mighty influence and although Sudan was under Egyptian, not British control, after the death in 1849 of Muhammad ‘Ali, the British role in Egypt increased to the point of occupying the country in 1882. The British pressured Egyptian authorities to combat vigorously the commercial slave trade; the famous general Charles Gordon (along with other Europeans) was enlisted by the Egyptian government to lead the campaign against slavery. Their success was limited, however. After Sir Herbert Kitchener defeated the Mahdists in 1898, the ensuing Anglo-Egyptian condominium, which governed Sudan until independence in 1955, resumed the abolitionist struggle. The condominium had great success in repressing the slave trade but failed to eliminate it. According to a former governor of Darfur, K.D.D. Henderson: "Up till the middle-twenties the Baqqara were still lifting slaves ... and disposing of them to inaccessible markets far to the north." [18] As late as 1947, a memorandum prepared by British civil servants noted that

The educated northerner has dismissed the idea of slavery from his mind ... but the Arab tribesman has not. In the late twenties an extensive trade in slaves from Ethiopia was unmasked and even today there are occasional kidnappings, and the victims are hurried into the hands of the desert nomads of the far north. [19]

Independence did nothing to change fundamentally this assessment. During the 1970s Sudanese sociologists noted the lingering existence of domestic slavery behind closed doors in some northern provincial towns; the same was undoubtedly true on remote farms.

The Baqqara nomadic cattlemen are among the poorest Arab tribes of northern Sudan; they have a long tradition of raiding the cows and goats of their sedentary neighbors. According to J. Spencer Trimingham, author of the classic Islam in the Sudan,

They found still another livestock in the sedentary black population of these lands, which they also raided to perform the menial tasks of home and field and plain, and whose women also served to keep their own diminishing social body restocked. [20]

Trimingham observed in 1949 that the Baqqara, whose economy and life style were cramped by the suppression of slavery, "still hanker after the practice." [21]

Looking over this long history, while there have been instances of Arabs being enslaved by blacks, the latter have been overwhelmingly the principal victims; for example, there has never been state-sponsored or commercial enslavement of Arabs by blacks. In all, 95 percent or more of Sudanese slaves have been non-Arab. [22]

The Revival of Slavery After 1983

Slavery is found today in many parts of the world, including Mauritania, Pakistan, India, Burma, and Saudi Arabia. But Sudan is the only place where chattel slavery is not just surviving but experiencing a great revival. This renascence of the slave trade began in the mid-1980s and resulted directly from an upsurge of Islamism in Sudan at that time, and especially from the Islamist emphasis on the renewal of jihad. After gaining the upper-hand in Khartoum by about 1983, the Islamists' immediate goal was to transform the multi-ethnic, multi-religious population of Sudan into an Arab-dominated Muslim state, and to do so through jihad. Under Turabi's powerful influence, the ruler of the time, Ja‘far an-Numayri, declared himself to be (sounding like a caliph of old), the "rightly guided" leader of an Islamic state. Numayri then abrogated the autonomy agreement he had earlier reached with southern Sudan and imposed the Shari‘a on the whole country. Armed resistance to these changes also began in 1983 with the formation of the Sudan People's Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A) under the leadership of Colonel John Garang.

Numayri responded militarily, initiating a process that has since assumed genocidal proportions. At least 1.9 million black Africans, out of an initial population of no more than 6 million people in the southern and central war zone, have died as a direct result of government policy. Over 4 million incidents of displacement have occurred, with some being temporary and some individuals experiencing multiple displacements. [23] In 1983-84, Numayri initiated a policy of arming some Baqqara tribal militias (of the Riziqat and Misiriyiah tribes of southern Darfur and Kordofan) and unleashing them on the Dinkas of northern Bahr al-Ghazal. [24] Indeed, slave raids against the Dinka became an instrument in Khartoum's war effort. When the Baqqara won access to automatic weapons from the state at that time, the balance of power between them and the Dinka was fundamentally changed. Bands of Baqqara militiamen, known as murahhilin (resettlers) began to attack Dinka villages and cattle camps, stealing cows, goats, grain, women and children, removing them as booty, killing adult males, and burning in their wake the huts and property they could not carry away.

The overthrow of Numayri in 1985 resulted in a suspension of this policy, only to find it resumed again after the election of Sadiq al-Mahdi as prime minister in 1986. The murahhilin raids were again accompanied by the "deliberate killing of tens of thousands of civilians; [and] the abduction of women and children, who were forced into slavery." [25] Atrocities of all sorts accompanied the slave raids. In one horrifying incident in 1987, over a thousand Dinka civilians were roasted alive in railway box cars by Riziqat murahhilin in the town of El Diein. [26] The great famine in northern Bahr al-Ghazal of 1987-89, during which more than 150,000 Dinkas starved to death, or died as a result of famine-related disease, saw no letup in the raiding. Dinkas fleeing the famine ran the risk of attack by the murahhilin as they trekked northwards in search of aid.

Murahhilin raiding became yet more widespread and institutionalized following the military coup of 1989 and the coming to power of a junta composed mainly of hard-line Islamist army officers headed by an NIF loyalist, General ‘Umar al-Bashir. This seizure of power permitted the NIF, headed by Turabi, to gain complete control of the Sudanese state, something it had failed to do through electoral politics. The NIF's raison d'être is the Islamization and Arabization of Sudan (and the rest of Africa) by means of jihad. For the first time since the nineteenth century, slavery in Sudan has become an instrument of a state-sponsored jihad.

Bernard Levin, the British columnist, has described Sudan under the NIF regime as "a slave state of our time," [27] and this is the case not only in practice but also in law. Although the government of Sudan is a signatory to the major international instruments prohibiting slavery, the creation of an Islamic state and the imposition of Shari‘a law superimposed a new universal legal system on the country, one that the authorities view as paramount. [28] The conflict between Shari‘a norms and international instruments regarding the legality of slavery was made explicit by former prime minister Sadiq al-Mahdi, imam of the Ansar movement:

The traditional concept of JIHAD ... is based upon a division of the world into two zones: one the zone of Peace, the other the zone of War. It requires initiating hostilities for religious purposes ... It is true that the [NIF] regime has not enacted a law to realize slavery in Sudan. But the traditional concept of JIHAD does allow slavery as a by-product [of jihad]. [29]

During mass jihad rallies in towns (Muglad, Mieriam, El Diein, Babanusa) to mobilize Baqqara boys and men to join the jihad against the Dinka, senior NIF officials explicitly call for the killing and enslavement of "infidels." [30]

Slave Raiding

Shortly after coming to power, the NIF regime promulgated the Popular Defence Act, which established the Popular Defence Force as a branch of the Sudanese armed forces. In contrast to the regular army, with its non-political, career officers, the PDF leadership embraces the NIF's objectives and thinks of itself as a force of mujahadun. In southern Darfur and Kordofan, the PDF has largely incorporated the tribal murahhilin militias. [31] By 1991, the PDF had become an effective fighting force that the NIF used consistently to spearhead its declared jihad against the SPLA and those black African communities sympathetic to it.

The principal victims have been the Dinkas of northern Bahr al-Ghazal, together with the black African Nuba tribes of southern Kordofan. Some of the Nubas joined the SPLA's armed resistance in 1991. In response, the NIF unleashed the full fury of its jihad on them. So far, the jihad in the Nuba mountains has been, if anything, more ferocious than that in northern Bahr al-Ghazal, due to the mountains' political and strategic importance in northern Sudan. The fact that many Nubas, perhaps a majority, are Muslims, has not deterred the vigorous prosecution of jihad against them. In April 1992, imams loyal to the NIF issued a remarkable fatwa (edict) against the Nuba Muslims, reading them out of the religion:

An insurgent who was previously a Muslim is now an apostate; and a non-Muslim is a nonbeliever standing as a bulwark against the spread of Islam, and Islam has granted the freedom of killing both of them. [32]

Some Nuba captives end up as chattel slaves but the overwhelming majority are deported to concentration camps elsewhere in Sudan, where they serve in slave-like conditions. The children are sent to militant Qur'anic schools, while the women are sent out to work without pay as day laborers on farms and in private homes. Sexual abuse is rife.

The most devastating recorded slave raids against the Dinka of Bahr al-Ghazal took place in the spring of 1998. The PDF, supported by the regular army, swept through Aweil West County, and penetrated deep inside Aweil West, Twic, and Abyei counties. Over 300,000 persons were displaced; the total number killed and enslaved is still not known. Slaves captured in this offensive and subsequently redeemed testified that thousands of women were placed in a pen, stripped of their clothing and video taped by ‘Abd ar-Rahman Qidr, the government's commissioner in El Diein.

Following this onslaught, Santino Deng, a Dinka political advisor to the governor of northern Bahr al-Ghazal State, broke ranks with the government in defense of his own people when he stated that the Islamic militias were holding 50,000 Dinka children captive in Babanusa, Western Kordofan. "Some of our children," he declared with exceptionally rare candor for a government official, "are taken as slaves and sent to Qur'anic schools in Djibouti, Mauritania, Gabon, and Cameroon, the kingdom of Saudi Arabia, and Libya." [33]

Slave raids continue to the present time. The UNICEF rapid assessment team in northern Bahr al-Ghazal found that the PDF enslaved 2,064 people and killed 181 others in raids between December 1998 and February 1999 (during a U.N.-brokered "humanitarian" cease-fire, no less). The U.N. investigators reported that, after having been gang-raped by PDF members, a woman was forced to drink her own urine to survive; another woman had part of her breast bitten off by a sexual assailant. [34] In 1999, there have been markedly fewer slave raids and women and children taken into bondage than in the previous year, thanks largely to improved SPLA defenses in northern Bahr al-Ghazal. [35]

Modern Abolitionism

Last spring, the leader of the Sudan Peoples Liberation Movement/Army, John Garang, posed concisely the key theoretical question facing the international community regarding the revival of slavery in Sudan at the United Nations in Geneva: "Is the call for jihad against a particular people a religious right by those calling for it, or is it a human rights violation against the people on which jihad is declared and waged?" [36] This question touches the heart of relations between the Muslim and the non-Muslim world; it needs to be addressed forthrightly by academics and diplomats.

International law has a clear answer, for it defines slavery as a "crime against humanity." Slavery directly contravenes the Slavery Convention of 1926 and Article II (e) of the Genocide Convention of 1948. [37]

The first protests against the revival of slavery in Sudan came from the Sudanese themselves. In 1987, Bona Malwal, a Dinka leader and former government minister, then editor of The Sudan Times in Khartoum, published a series of articles exposing the resurgence of slavery and the El Diein massacre. For this, the prime minister of the day branded him "public enemy number one." Then two young Muslim academics, Ushar Mahmoud and Süleyman Ali Baldo, set out for western Sudan to investigate. They found that Malwal was right and published their findings as a report. [38] For revealing the truth, Mahmoud and Baldo served time in a Sudanese prison. Also in 1987, the Catholic bishop of Al-Obeid, Macram Max Gassis, who had personally redeemed members of his flock from bondage, testified about slavery before a congressional committee in Washington. Detained by the authorities in 1990, the bishop left the country after his release and was subsequently warned not to return to Sudan.

An important milestone towards abolition was reached in November 1995 when leaders of Sudan's banned northern opposition parties and movements joined together with the southern parties and movements to condemn "the sustained, systematic and grave violations of human rights committed or encouraged by the government of the Sudan, especially the kidnapping of children, the practice of slavery, and the forcible conscription of minors, as reported by the then-U.N. special rapporteur on Sudan, Gaspar Biro." [39] Hitherto, they had regarded slavery as a taboo subject, thereby keeping the issue off the national political agenda. A great debate on slavery among northern Sudanese was ignited in the spring of 1999 when Hamouda Fathelrahman and Abdon Agaw of the Sudan Human Rights Organization (based in Cairo) traveled on a fact-finding visit to Bahr al-Ghazal and issued a report which confirmed the irrefutable evidence on slavery published by the U.N. special rapporteurs and CSI. [40]

Some non-Sudanese human rights groups and activists have also responded energetically to the plight of the Sudanese slaves. An antislavery movement is growing in North America and Europe; prominent campaigners include Charles Jacobs of the American Anti-Slavery Group, Sam Cotton and Sebit Alley of the Coalition against Slavery in Mauritania and Sudan (CASMAS), Colorado school teacher Barbara Vogel, and the Reverend Charles Singleton. Their efforts, together with those of CSI, have resulted in a dynamic program combining the liberation of slaves with moral and material support for the victimized Dinka communities; the documentation of slave raids and cases of slavery; international media exposure; campaigning at the United Nations, in Washington, and other Western capitals; and support for local, national and international peace initiatives.

The rising tide of abolitionism is reflected in stirrings on Capitol Hill. Last July, Senators Sam Brownback (Republican of Kansas), Russell Feingold (Democrat of Wisconsin), William Frist (Republican of Tennessee), and Joseph Lieberman (Democrat of Connecticut) introduced the "Sudan Peace Act." It condemns

the ongoing slave trade in Sudan and the role of the Government of Sudan in abetting and tolerating the practice; and the Government of Sudan's increasing use and organization of ‘Murahalliin, Popular Defence Forces (PDF), and regular Sudanese Army units into organized and coordinated raiding and slaving parties in Bahr al-Ghazal, Nuba Mountains, Upper Nile and southern Blue Nile regions. [41]

Efforts against slavery in Sudan are slowly making progress, especially in the United States where the neo-abolitionist movement has been making steady headway. The momentum appears unstoppable. To give this movement an additional boost, a great international statesman or religious or business leader needs to devote his or her time and resources single-mindedly to this cause, much as William Wilberforce did two centuries ago. If anything, such a person needs to summon even more bravery than did Wilberforce, for the threat of terrorist attacks by the NIF and its doctrinal ally Usama bin Ladin cannot be dismissed.

U.N. Agencies and Western Governments

All of this campaigning has had some effect, making the "out of sight, out of mind" attitude less tenable. In February 1999, soon after Dan Rather of CBS News highlighted the plight of Sudanese slaves and CSI's role in freeing them, UNICEF broke its silence and admitted: "Slavery in Sudan exists." [42]

Even as it said this, however, UNICEF appeased the Khartoum regime by condemning the redemption of slaves as "absolutely intolerable." UNICEF had good reason to be concerned about the wrath of the government of Sudan. Shortly after UNICEF's admission of slavery, Sudan's deputy foreign minister, Hasan ‘Abdin, threatened to disrupt UNICEF's work in Sudan unless it retracted its statement. [43] This kind of threat against the United Nations works. Although UNICEF has not denied and will not now deny that there is slavery in Sudan, it will (together with other U.N. agencies), for the sake of "operationality," cooperate with those who are waging a genocidal jihad and taking slaves in the process. With a view to assuaging the wrath of Khartoum, UNICEF's executive director Carol Bellamy made a series of widely publicized press statements attacking CSI's antislavery campaign, claiming that Dinka efforts to retrieve their enslaved women and children contravenes the Slavery Convention and is not in their own best interests. [44]

Bellamy also announced a four-point antislavery plan, which on paper looks very similar to the CSI program, minus slave redemption. It called for

A firm commitment, from all those directly and indirectly responsible to end the slave trade in Sudan; freedom of movement for international verifiers; full support for retrieval tracing and reunification programs; and a specific plan and provision of free access to document all phases of a full-scale effort to bring the slave trade to an end, to free its victims and to restore them to their rightful communities and families. [45]

Stated in the abstract, Bellamy's four points seem merely to reiterate the CSI program. Operationally, however, UNICEF's proposal differs fundamentally from CSI's: UNICEF, as a state-oriented organization, depends upon partnership with the regime in Khartoum. CSI, on the other hand, as a manifestation of civil society, acts in partnership with the victimized community. Even so, the government of Sudan has yet to accept the UNICEF proposal, instead denying the very existence of slavery. In addition, according to UNICEF spokesman Peter Crowley, as of July 1999, the UNICEF plan had no budget. The UNICEF effort remains in limbo, while slaves who long to be freed remain in bondage.

The U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, Mary Robinson, has also kept mum on the issue, despite her own staff and independent U.N. special rapporteurs confirming the existence of slavery in Sudan and the government's key role in abetting the slave trade—in particular, the reports submitted by the former Special Rapporteur on Sudan Gaspar Biro and his successor Leonardo Franco. The 1999 Sudan Resolution of the U.N. Commission on Human Rights failed even to mention the word "slavery." The U.N. secretary-general, Kofi Annan, has also never publicly condemned the revival of slavery in Sudan.

And the U.S. government? It too is reluctant. In 1999, for the first time in six years, Washington declined to serve as the main sponsor of the Commission on Human Rights' Sudan resolution, leaving this responsibility to the lukewarm European Union; and the Clinton administration assented to the commission's "slavery-free" resolution. Why the change? Because in return, the Sudanese were prepared not to press hard for a condemnation of the United States for the rocket attack on Khartoum's Ash-Shifa pharmaceutical factory in August 1998. However, with an eye on the abolitionist movement at home, the State Department tried to maintain the moral high ground by condemning the (U.S.-supported) Sudan resolution as "deeply flawed" for failing to "confront fully the practice of slavery." [46] This did not convince; just four days later, the Clinton administration announced a weakening of sanctions on Sudan (by allowing the sale of agricultural goods and pharmaceuticals). [47]

Could it be that the wobble in America's Sudan policy is finally straightening out? The assistant secretary of state for African affairs, Susan Rice, and the U.S. ambassador at large for war crimes, David Scheffer, publicly appealed in September 1999 for concerted international action to end slavery and other related war crimes in Sudan. [48] Time will tell whether this appeal is a signal for a serious policy initiative backed by the president, or if it reflects no more than posturing within a divided administration.

The sad truth must be acknowledged: Sudanese slaves and other victims of the NIF's genocidal jihad count for little in a world preoccupied with other matters. Millions of lives have been lost and disrupted while the world has largely turned a blind eye toward gross violations of human rights in Sudan.

Whatever may be the future of the international abolitionist movement, the Dinkas are right not to wait for help from the U.N. or any state but to find their own ways to liberate their people from bondage. Still, they can count on my colleagues and me, as well as a growing number of abolitionists for support until the last slave is free.


[1] Statement by Ali Mohamed Osman Yasin, minister of justice and attorney general, Republic of Sudan, to the fifty-fifth session of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, Geneva, Apr. 7, 1999.

[2] A.M. Rosenthal, "When Is It News?" The New York Times, Sept. 3, 1999.

[3] Agence France Presse, Feb. 5, 1999; Carol Bellamy, "Buying Slaves is Wrong," The International Herald Tribune, May 13, 1999.

[4] One reporter, Richard Miniter, used the pages of The Atlantic Monthly to do just this in its July 1999 issue ("The False Promise of Slave Redemption"). My investigation into his accusations, including an on-the-spot inquiry in July, has revealed several dismaying facts: (1) Jim Jacobson, Miniter's guide and one of his principal sources, was banned by Sudanese community leaders from further "slave redemption" activity after he had taken part in a bogus "redemption" in July 1998. After having been found out, Jacobson announced that he would no longer raise funds for "slave redemption," and began his campaign to discredit the integrity of the victims of slave raids and the community leaders who ended his unethical activity among their people. (2) According to local eye-witnesses, Miniter's field research in the area afflicted by slave raids amounted to no more than an hour at each of two locations. (3) Commissioner Aleu Akechak Jok, whom Miniter portrays as being opposed to slave redemption, is a long-standing supporter of this method of freeing his enslaved people. The commissioner rejected Jacobson's financial incentive to participate in a false redemption and ordered the two to leave the area forthwith. Commissioner Jok was also one of the community leaders who ordered the banning of Jacobson last February. 4) Miniter's article does not include interviews with slaves, ex-slaves, or slave retrievers, presumably because he did not encounter any. (5) Not only have three of Miniter's four cited local sources, Chief Longar Awie Ayuel, Commissioner Aleu Akechak Jok, and Adelino Rip Gee, claimed that Miniter grossly misrepresented their views, but the chief, supported by eye-witnesses, claims that the reporter did not even speak with him. (6) Miniter portrays Adelino Rip Gee as the "official spokesman" for the local administration, whereas he is in fact an unemployed intellectual who arrived in the area one and a half years ago from the government garrison town of Wau.

[5] For reports on their experiences, see Newsweek, May 3, 1999; The New York Times, Apr. 25, 1999.

[6] Chattel slaves are the private property of individual masters. They may be bought and sold. Other slaves belong to the state or to state-controlled institutions.

[7] Bat Ye'or has noted the striking similarity between the enslavement of non-Muslim boys for service in the government of Sudan's jihad and the devshirme system in the Ottoman empire. Bat Ye'or, The Decline of Eastern Christianity under Islam: From Jihad to Dhimmitude, with a Foreword by Jacques Ellul (Madison: Fairleigh Dickenson University Press, 1996), pp. 259-261. For the historical background of the training and use of child slave soldiers in Islamic societies, see Daniel Pipes, Slave Soldiers and Islam (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1981). Online version here.

[8] Majid Khadduri, The Law of War and Peace in Islam: A Study in Muslim International Law (London: Luzac, 1940), p. 62.

[9] According to the ninth-century historian Abu Khalif al-Bhuturi, quoted in Giovanni Vantini, Christianity in the Sudan (Bologna: EMI, 1981), pp. 65-67.

[10] Bernard Lewis, The Middle East, 2,000 Years of History from the Rise of Christianity to the Present Day (London: Phoenix Giant, 1996), p. 209.

[11] S. Abdullah Schleifer, "Jihad and the Traditional Islamic Consciousness, Part II," The Islamic Quarterly, 4 (1983): 187; Daniel Pipes, "Black Soldiers in Early Muslim Armies," International Journal of African Historical Studies, 13 (1980): 87-94. Online version here.

[12] John Lewis Burckhardt, Travels in Nubia, 2nd ed., (London: John Murray, 1822), p. 290.

[13] Carolyn Fleuhr-Lobban, "Islamization in Sudan: A Critical Assessment," The Middle East Journal, Autumn 1990, p. 611.

[14] Rudolf C. Slatin, Fire and Sword in the Sudan: A Personal Narrative of Fighting and Serving the Dervishes, 2nd ed. (London: Edward Arnold, 1896), pp. 554-557; Robert O. Collins, The Southern Sudan, 1883-1898: A Struggle for Control (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1962), pp. 57-58, 76-77, 139-140, 179.

[15] Francis Mading Deng, Africans of Two Worlds: The Dinka in Afro-Arab Sudan (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1978), p. 132.

[16] In North America a dark-skinned person with some African ancestry is regarded as "black"; skin color is far more subtle in Sudan, where great importance is attached to the fact that true Arabs are lighter in skin color than the black Africans of the south. This said, cultural differences (language and religion) are even more important.

[16] Oliver Albino, The Sudan: A Southern Viewpoint, with a Foreword by Arnold Toynbee (London: Oxford University Press, 1970), p. 79.

[18] K.D.D. Henderson, Sudan Republic (London: Ernest Benn, 1965), p. 162.

[19] Ibid., p. 197.

[20] J. Spencer Trimingham, Islam in the Sudan (London: Oxford University Press, 1949), p. 29.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Mohamed Omer Beshir, The Southern Sudan: Background to Conflict (London: C. Hurst, 1968), p. 11; Deng, Africans of Two Worlds, pp. 138-140.

[23] Millard Burr, Quantifying Genocide in Southern Sudan and the Nuba Mountains, 1983-1998 (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Committee for Refugees, Dec. 1998).

[24] Helen Chapin Metz, ed., Sudan: A Country Study, 4th ed. (Washington D.C.: Library of Congress, 1992), p. 257.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Ushari Ahmad Mahmud and Süleyman Ali Baldo, El Diein Massacre: Slavery in the Sudan (London: Sudan Relief and Rehabilitation Association, 1987), abridged edition of El Diein Massacre (Khartoum: n.p, 1987).

[27] The Times (London), May 31, 1996.

[28] As symbolized by its adoption, together with the other members of the Organization of the Islamic Conference, of the "Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam," which conditions respect for human rights on Shari'a norms. The "Cairo Declaration" was reprinted in Human Rights: A Compilation of International Instruments: Volume II: Regional Instruments (New York and Geneva: United Nations, 1997), pp. 474-84. See: Littman, "Islamism Grows Stronger at the United Nations," pp. 59-64. Online version here.

[29] As-Sadiq Al-Mahdi to Mary Robinson, U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights (Section III: War Crimes), Mar. 24, 1999.

[30] According to the testimony of Arab traders and former slaves.

[31] Situation of Human Rights in the Sudan, Visit of the Special Rapporteur, Mr. Leonardo Franco, to the Republic of the Sudan, Feb. 13-24, 1999, unedited version, U.N. Commission on Human Rights, fifty-fifth session, addendum to E/CN.4/1999/38, pp. 19-20, 56-57.

[32] Quoted from the 1993 and 1994 reports of the U.N. special rapporteur, Gaspar Biro, in "The U.N. Finds Slavery in the Sudan," with an introduction by David Littman, MEQ, Sept. 1996, pp. 89-92.

[33] Inter Press Service (Khartoum), July 24, 1998.

[34] Rapid Assessment Report, Rapid Assessment of Affected Locations in Twic, Aweil East, Aweil West and Wau Counties, March 13 and 25, 1999 (Lokichoggio: UNICEF/OLS Rapid Assessment Team, Apr. 1999).

[35] SPLM press statement by Justin Yaac Arop, (Nairobi), Aug. 19, 1999.

[36] SPLM press statement, (United Nations, Geneva), Mar. 22, 1999.

[37] Alison Wiebalck, "Slavery in the Sudan: A Challenge to International Law," The Comparative and International Law Journal of Southern Africa, XXXI (1998): 38-60; Racism: Leading to Genocide and Slavery in the Sudan, written statement by Christian Solidarity International, United Nations Economic and Social Council, Commission on Human Rights, fifty-fifth session, item 6, E/CN.4/1999/NGO/5, Jan. 29, 1999.

[38] Mahmud and Baldo, El Diein Massacre.

[39] Senior Representatives of the banned Political Parties and Social Movements of Sudan, Final Communiqué, Peace & Democracy in Sudan: The Development of the IGADD and Asmara (NDA) Processes (London: Christian Solidarity International Conference, 1995).

[40] Report by the Sudan Human Rights Organization (Cairo) on investigation of slavery by Hamouda Fathelrahman and Abdon Agaw, June 1999; Hamouda Fathelrahman, "A Personal Experience, A Sincere Appeal" (Cairo), June 1999.

[41] U.S., Congress, Senate, 106th Cong., 1st sess., S. 145, "Sudan Peace Act," Section 4, paragraphs C & D, July 28, 1999.

[42] Agence France Press, Feb. 5, 1999.

[43] British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) News, Mar. 18, 1999.

[44] M2 Presswire (Geneva), Mar. 16, 1999; Bellamy, "Buying Slaves Is Wrong."

[45] M2 Presswire, Mar. 16, 1999.

[46] Harold Hongju Koh, assistant secretary of state for human rights, at the U.N. Commission on Human Rights, Apr. 23, 1999.

[47] Reuters, Apr. 27, 1999.

[48] Susan Rice and David Scheffer, "Sudan Must End its Brutal War against Civilians," International Herald Tribune, Sept. 1, 1999.