Slavery / SUDAN
Efforts to free slaves in Sudan are caught
When I produced the camera the boys and girls of the ‘Peace Reconstruction Centre’ in Ad-Dha’ein, North Sudan, flashed brilliant smiles all around. As I pressed the shutter I realized that the photograph would never capture the terrible trauma that lay behind those smiles. The Peace Reconstruction Centre is a residential home for the ‘lost and found’ amongst Sudan’s slaves.
This vast African nation has become known increasingly for its civil war and human-rights abuses – particularly slavery. Thousands of women and children have been abducted from the South and enslaved in the North. For the past 15 years, in the midst of civil war, one particular conflict zone, Bahr El Ghazal, has been the scene of regular raids. Children and women from the Dinka ethnic group have been taken prisoner, carried off and put to work, usually looking after cattle. Such raids have received the most attention, but other people in southern Sudan are also captured: through deception or as they flee war-torn areas.
In 1999 the Sudan Government finally recognized abuses were taking place and announced it would launch a programme to stop ‘abductions’ and ‘forced labour’ – still described as slavery by most Southern Sudanese. The Committee for the Eradication of Abduction of Women and Children (CEAWC) was set up, with transit centres in Khartoum and Ad-Dha’ein, as well as in half-a-dozen other towns, which it administers with advice and practical support from UNICEF and Save the Children (UK).
The centres have separate male and female dormitories which provide the victims of slavery with basic accommodation until their families can be traced. The one I visited in Ad-Dha’ein housed around 40 unaccompanied minors as well as numerous adults. Its inmates are considered by the Government to be former victims of ‘abduction’ – not freed slaves.
They were frustrated by being in temporary shelter longer than expected – for many it had already been several months. Some were victims of violent abduction; others I met, like Khadija, were captured as they fled north to escape the war. Khadija and her mother were among the thousands who fled the fighting in the South. They were captured in 1994 and then separated from each other for five years when they were taken to work for different nomadic families.
Initially Khadija looked after livestock and was repeatedly punished because the animals she was tending escaped; eventually she was reassigned to household work. She was given a Muslim name to replace her Dinka one and virtually forgot her own language. Finally her mother succeeded in escaping and contacted the Dinka Committee, a group of Dinka that specializes in tracing captives. The Committee helped her locate Khadija and they’ve now been reunited – although when I met them they had difficulty talking to each other because they no longer shared a common language.
The Dinka Committee is an independent group that started work at the beginning of the 1990s, tracing and retrieving some of the thousands of Dinka who have gone missing. By 1999 the group had successfully freed more than 1,000 people. Recently it has been co-operating with CEAWC, helping to identify people who’ve been enslaved. Dinka Committee members visit households in the Darfur and Kordofan regions to investigate if Dinka working for local nomads are actually slaves.
Once slaves are identified, the local Joint Tribal Committee is convened to examine and act on each case. In theory, it’s made up of an equal number of local Dinka and of the Arabic-speaking nomads that hold Dinka slaves. But because in reality the latter are politically more dominant, they can virtually veto or impede releases. This seems to happen most often when girls who were abducted have been married into the families for which they work. Dinka Committee members argue that marriage cannot be used to perpetuate a serious human-rights violation – an argument supported by international law.
When there is agreement on a case, a member from the Dinka Committee and one from the Arabic-speaking tribe take the individual to a CEAWC centre. Although the process is designed not to be confrontational, there have been cases where the Tribal Committee is refused access to a suspected slave.
But this is not the only obstacle. Nomads tend to move around and there is only one time when they are concentrated enough for an effective investigation: just before the rainy season when water sources are in short supply. Local authorities have stopped members of the Dinka Committee from entering key areas where nomads gather under the pretext that their presence could ‘cause problems’.
As Dinka Committee leader James Aguer (right) said last April: ‘We know where to find the slaves, but we can’t work. The Government will not face up to the tribes and demand the slaves be returned because the tribes support the army and the army gives them guns.’ In effect, the Government’s inaction has the effect of encouraging more abductions.
During Sudan’s first civil war, which started shortly before independence in 1956 and lasted until 1972, there was a wide range of human-rights abuses. But the enslavement of Southerners was not among them. However, when fighting broke out again in the 1980s, the Khartoum Government decided to integrate northern tribes into its counter-insurgency policy and encouraged them to carry out raids on their neighbours to the south. The main raiding tribes were the Rizeigat and the Misseriya.
As news of these slave raids began to seep out, demands for action to end the abuses grew – both from within Sudan and from the international community. The Government’s initial reaction was to lock up one of the two Sudanese academics whose research had revealed slavery’s existence – and to deny there was a problem.
Campaigners are always looking for a ‘magic solution’, particularly one that the public will support financially. In 1996 it looked as though one had been found for Sudan. The existence of ‘slave markets’ was reported in US newspapers and an organization called Christian Solidarity began collecting money to buy freedom for the slaves in Southern Sudan. Christian Solidarity not only reported that the slave holders were Muslim, but also emphasized that the victims were Christian. This is by no means always the case, although support for Christianity has increased among the Dinka since the civil war restarted in 1983.
Over the past five years Christian Solidarity reports that it has released more than 40,000 Sudanese from slavery at a price of around $50 each. This solution looks appealing in its directness and simplicity. The handover of payments, apparently totalling at least $2 million, also makes good television, helping to generate new funds from American schoolchildren and many others. But buying back a slave’s freedom is controversial. Organizations like UNICEF argue that it actually rewards slave-taking rather than punishing it – and therefore creates an incentive for more abductions. It also fails to attack slavery as a system.
By contrast, the Dinka Committee works with great discretion. While Christian Solidarity estimates that 100,000 Sudanese remain in slavery, the Dinka Committee has a more sober figure of around 14,000. A local organization working to empower its own people – what could be better? But there isn’t universal approval for the Dinka Committee among the Dinka in North Sudan. Many suspect that the Committee is being manipulated by the Government. These critics claim that no government institution can be trusted – not even CEAWC which was set up specially to secure the release of victims of abduction. After helping free hundreds of slaves, CEAWC has recently run into trouble. The closure of a safe transport corridor crucial to freed slaves returning to parts of Bahr El Ghazal province under the Sudan People’s Liberation Army’s (SPLA) control, has meant that CEAWC has not been able to keep up its success rate. Reports by the United Nations of large-scale raids after a year-long lull are further aggravating matters. Clearly, the Khartoum Government’s commitment to ending the pattern of raids and enslavement is suspect.
Comparison between the two methods of securing releases is made more difficult by the importance of the slavery issue for propaganda purposes – particularly in the West, and especially in the US. With the stakes so high it is difficult for anyone to admit that their technique is flawed. Behind closed doors, however, many members of the SPLA have expressed concern about the ‘redemption’ payments, as Christian Solidarity calls them. They question where the money is actually going. On the northern side of the divide, members of the Dinka Committee claim there is no evidence that significant numbers of Dinka held by Northern families are being released and returning south with Christian Solidarity agents. If the technique was effective, they say, they would support it. In practice, however, they wonder if someone is not perpetrating a giant hoax.
If real progress is to be achieved the Sudan Government must do much more. It needs to prioritize the reopening of a safe corridor to the South, so that once people are released they can return home. It must also prosecute anyone responsible for new abductions and make clear that participation in abductions or keeping the victims for forced labour will be punished. Above all, it must be seen to act.
This first appeared in our award-winning magazine - to read more, subscribe from just £7