A modern tale of slavery, survival, and escape

In 1986, 7-year-old Francis Bok was taken from his village in southern Sudan by raiding Arab militiamen from the north and forced into slave labor, along with hundreds of other Dinka women and children. His parents were murdered. Escaping when he was 17, Mr. Bok made his way to Cairo where, with help from other Dinka refugees, he secured UN refugee status and eventually an airplane ticket to the United States. Since 1986, nearly 2 million southern Sudanese - black Africans who are mostly Christian or followers of local religions - have died as a result of a civil war with the northern Muslims; 4.4 million more have been forced from their homes. Bok, now 23, is in school for the first time. His work with the Anti-Slavery Group in Boston has earned him congressional and White House recognition. He is coauthor of the new book, 'Escape from Slavery,' the story of his journey. Below are excerpts from his book.

Everyone was running in every direction. "The murahaliin are coming!" And wherever the people scattered, they ran into men with guns entering the marketplace. First men on horses, shooting people with bursts of fire and smoke from their rifles. Then men on foot, running and shooting and slashing at people with their long knives. Not 10 men, not 20, but many more.

I had never heard so many screams. I raced from the marketplace. Someone grabbed me from behind. Another Arab, yelling at me and waving his gun. What was he saying? He pushed me back toward the marketplace with the other kids, boys and girls, those who could barely walk along with the 5-year-olds and bigger kids like me. Everyone was crying and screaming for their parents. What was happening to us?

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* * *

With no Dinka men standing, the killing seemed to be finished. While a few murahaliin guarded us, the others began loading donkeys with big baskets on the side. A man picked me up and deposited me in one of those donkey carriers. We headed out of Nyamlell. Behind the horsemen, the soldiers, and our donkeys walked the older Dinka kids and women, forced to carry the very things that we all had been selling and buying not long before.

* * *

As the sun came up, I noticed the countryside was different. I was sure we were across the border in northern Sudan in the part where my father said the Dinka did not live, only the Arabs. We rode through a village where the people seemed to know my [captor, Giemma]. We kept riding until we came to a farm. He got off the horse, untied my belt and set me on the ground like a package. Some children came running out of the house. Happy to see their father the children ran up and hugged him. I didn't notice they were carrying sticks - until they started beating me. Their parents did nothing but watch. My body buzzed from the blows.

* * *

This new world made no sense. More than anything I wanted to talk to the [neighboring] Dinka [slave] boys herding animals through the forest and standing at the river, who spoke only Arabic. I had to learn this language - which seemed a strange wall of sound. I began to listen carefully to everything Giemma and his sons said as they showed me how to do my chores.

* * *

Driving the goats and sheep back home one evening, I decided that it was time to get some answers from Giemma. I had lived with him and his family for more than a month. I walked straight up to Giemma, and for the first time, I talked to my master in his language: "Why does no one love me?" Giemma stared at me as if one of the goats had suddenly spoken. I tried another question. "Why do you make me sleep with animals?" "Where did you learn that!" Giemma yelled and hit me again and again. I said no more. [Two days later] Giemma said, "You want to know why no one loves you and why you must sleep with the animals?" I could only nod. "I make you sleep with the animals," Giemma announced to me, "because you are an animal!" Satisfied with his answer and certain he had put a little black slave in his place, he walked away. Even for a 7-year-old boy without any schooling, the consequences of Giemma's pronouncement could not have been any clearer: I now knew that life would never get any better for me with these people. That was the moment when I began planning my escape.

* * *

To live with his family, Giemma said I had to become a Muslim. If I did not pray with him, I was kafir - an infidel. Muslims could not touch an infidel, never mind eat with them. I did not want to say those prayers or complain. I had seen what happened to the boys who complained. So I said their prayers, but in my heart I was still a Christian.

* * *

I turned 15 and then 16 and then 17. I was now taller than Giemma. To this family, I was their black slave, the lowest of the low. To Giemma, I was his most reliable workhorse.

Three years had passed since I had been caught [trying to escape]. I had now been with Giemma for a total of 10 rainy and 10 dry seasons. "It's time to try and leave again," I said to myself.

The next morning I headed out with the cows as usual, bringing them to a familiar area near the Mutari road. As soon as they started grazing, I ran as fast as I could for as long as I could through the wood along the road toward [the town] Mutari.

Within a matters of hours I had put 10 years behind me. I was walking in this new town, the streets lined with one-story buildings made of mud with straw roofs and no one knew what I had done. I saw other Dinkas working with their masters, and no one seemed to suspect I had escaped from mine. I was so happy, I was free!

* * *

I have learned that no one gives a people oppressed for generations their freedom and equality without a struggle. You have to fight for it. But a poor people like the southern Sudanese cannot do it alone. They need help. And that is why my work with the American Anti-Slavery Group has become so important to me. I am in a position to ask the Americans to help us in our struggle for freedom and equality. And when we achieve those goals, I will go back to Sudan to retrieve what I lost growing up in the north as a slave: the culture and traditions of my people.

For me that will be proof of my freedom. Certainly, here in America I am free. But I am still a guest. For me, real freedom is the ability to go back home.

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