An overlooked atrocity: slavery in Sudan

Garang Ayei's wife and children are gone. Just outside a tiny village in southern Sudan, Mr. Ayei's wife and children were captured by raiders, taken northward, and forced into a life of slave labor.

"The Arabs took my family two years ago," he told me late last year.

"My wife was raped and beaten. She spent one year as a slave in her captor's house. Her job was to carry the heavy buckets of water from the well. Her master fed her scraps and beat her regularly and finally broke her ribs. One day, she escaped while getting water."

Ayei's wife finally made it back to her village, but died soon after. He has no word of his children, but assumes they have suffered a similar fate.

This is a common story in southern Sudan. The civil war that has wracked Sudan for 16 years has received surprisingly scant attention, despite being the longest-running conflict on a continent that has more than its share of war, ethnic violence, persecution, and genocide. This largest of African nations has endured civil war for 32 of its 42 years of independence, first pitting the Muslim Arabs in the north against the black Christians and animists in the south from 1955 to 1972. The United States Committee for Refugees reports that in the southern and central parts of the country, civil war has caused the death of almost 2 million Sudanese - more than all the casualties in Bosnia, Kosovo, and Rwanda combined.

The state of Bahr el Ghazal in southern Sudan has been the site of devastating famine and starvation. It is also continually the focal point for slave raids. Rather than fight pitched battles with the rebels, the Khartoum government prefers to attack villages, abducting and killing unarmed civilians, mostly women and children. These abductions should not be confused with taking prisoners of war.

Slavery, while not an official Sudanese government policy, has become an instrument in Sudan's own ethnic cleansing.

In the south, a local chief told me that 3,000 children out of his 150,000 constituents had been abducted in 1998. If correct, that would be 2 percent of that population. Most of these kidnapping victims are tamed through rape, brutality, and Islamization - all the while serving as forced labor.

While many in the West ignore these vast abuses of human rights or attribute them to tradition or religious differences, other dynamics are at work. Certainly much persecution occurs because the southern inhabitants are Christians. But, attributing the entire Sudanese conflagration solely to religion is shortsighted. The civil war is composed of complex elements of religious, racial, and tribal differences mixed with political factionalism. The consensus among villagers I met was that slave raids occurring there are happening as part of the conflict, not solely as religious persecution.

Much media attention is showered on organizations that buy the freedom of slaves in Sudan. However, there have been concerns that the practice of buying back slaves is actually fueling the raiding because the human booty brings raiders double profit: free labor and monetary revenue.

Prices vary to buy a slave's freedom. Christian Solidarity International will do so for $50. In 1997, two newspaper reporters purchased the freedom of a slave for $500, the same price quoted to me in November. Christian Solidarity International has commendably freed 5,066 slaves in the past four years. But even at the lower rate of $50 each, that's more than $250,000 paid to the very people perpetuating these abuses. More slaves are likely to be taken because the raiders know that they can profit from charitable-minded Westerners - a chilling example of the free market at work.

There are no immediate or easy answers for ending the slave trade in Sudan.

Apologists for slavery say it is a traditional, centuries-old practice. Because a practice is traditional, however, does not mean it is legitimate. The government of Sudan has long denied that it allows the slave trade to continue, or even that it exists at all. Nonetheless, if the Khartoum government expects to gain credibility in the international community, attempts must be made to prosecute or halt this practice. Also, reconciliation talks between leaders of warring tribes could prove helpful in ending the more established elements of slave raids.

The ultimate end of this shocking practice is likely to come with independence for southern Sudan. Until such a time, however, the United States and the international community should reexamine their tepid response to this issue.

Last year's congressional attempt to sanction Sudan for religious persecution was so riddled with exceptions as to be meaningless. Congress and the Clinton administration should jointly craft and implement a binding measure that will monitor, embargo, and shame Sudan into curtailing this lurid practice.

*Bronwyn Lance is a senior fellow at the Alexis de Tocqueville Institution, a public policy research organization, in Arlington, Va. She was recently in Sudan working on a report to be published this month.

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