Removing the Veil Of Slavery and Exploitation

Man's inhumanity takes many forms. There are the stark atrocities brought to us almost daily on our television screens from such tortured lands as Iraq, Bosnia, and half a dozen countries in Africa.

But other brutalities abound, although they are not in the daily headlines.

The Monitor has just completed a series on the sexual exploitation of children around the world. Many of these children, offered as prostitutes, are essentially in bondage to their "owners," or "managers." Sometimes they are physically restrained from running away from this dreadful existence. Sometimes the constraints are economic - once condemned to this way of life, they have nowhere else to go, no other way to survive.

Recently, there has also been exposure of the degraded role of children in sweatshops making clothes for American and other affluent markets. Television personality Kathie Lee Gifford found that her Wal-Mart line of clothes was being made by exploited children in Honduras. Basketball star Michael Jordan was embarrassed by questions about conditions in the Indonesian "factories" making Nike sneakers for his name brand. Children in such third-world sweatshops are also part-time slaves. For though they may not be incarcerated 24 hours a day, there is no escape from their abysmal existence.

Present-day bondage

What may not be widely realized is that total slavery as it existed in the darkest days of the 17th and 18th centuries is still practiced in some parts of the world. This is pure chattel slavery in which one person is owned by another. And this goes on in spite of a ban by most countries that has been in effect for more than a century.

One of the worst offenders is the African country of Sudan. Something of an international pariah, the Sudan is high on the US government's list of terrorist governments for its support of terrorist activities beyond its own border. But inside the country, the Muslim-fundamentalist government of Lt. Gen. Omar Hassan al-Bashir has been waging a cruel war against Christians, animists, and even moderate Muslims in the south. A by-product of this civil war is the renaissance of slavery, as Muslim government forces carry off blacks from the south back to the north for use as slaves.

Earlier this year, Louis Farrakhan, head of the Nation of Islam, visited Sudan in the course of a tour of Islamic countries. Despite charges that the Sudanese government is condoning slavery, Mr. Farrakhan praised the ruling regime. That led to a heated debate among many black Americans. Randall Robinson, president of the TransAfrica Forum and a campaigner for human rights in Africa, was critical of Farrakhan on grounds that he had glossed over the Sudanese record on slavery.

Sensitive to follow-up questions by journalists, Farrakhan challenged them: "Why don't you go as a member of the press? Look inside of the Sudan, and if you find [slavery] then come back and tell the American people."

The fact is that there has been quite detailed examination of slavery in the Sudan by both journalists and human rights organizations.

Firsthand accounts

In a remarkable account in the Boston Phoenix last year, Tim Sandler joined a covert foray into southern Sudan, where travel is prohibited by the Sudanese government. From the southwestern village of Nyamlell, he reported that about a thousand women and children had been abducted into slavery in the past five years. Nyamlell is 15 miles from the railroad that runs from southern Sudan to the north, and 60 miles from government-held positions in the north. "Because of this accident of geography," Sandler reported, "like the other tens of thousands of people living in this region, the villagers of Nyamlell have become a primary target of the slave trade."

The village, he reported, was about eight miles from an active slave market. There, scores of slaves were brought by Arab Muslim traders to sell or trade to outsiders or families looking for their abducted relatives. Sandler documented his account with interviews with escaped slaves, replete with considerable, and often gruesome, detail.

Other firsthand evidence comes from a Brown University physician, Dr. Kevin Vigilante, who visited Sudan as part of a human rights delegation last year, but went into areas not part of his government-approved trip. He presented his findings to Congress, corroborating evidence collected earlier by a special United Nations human rights investigator.

The evidence is there. The question is, what does the world do about it?

*John Hughes is a former editor of the Monitor who has also served as US assistant secretary of state and assistant secretary-general of the United Nations.

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