Though arguably the greatest humanitarian crisis of our lifetime, the catastrophe engulfing Sudan remains largely invisible to the American public. And in a thoroughly perverse irony, this is at least partly because of the intense media attention that has recently been commandeered by the issue of slavery and slave redemption (the freeing of slaves through "humanitarian" purchase) in this deeply troubled region of Africa.
Instead of taking a full view of the Sudanese tragedy, Americans have been led to focus on a single feature in a human landscape filled with suffering. Instead of having to struggle to comprehend the appalling numbers - 2 million dead in the most recent phase of an ongoing civil war, more than twice as many made refugees, and more than 2 million recently at risk of starvation - Americans have been encouraged to satisfy their moral outrage by focusing on the particular obscenity of human bondage. Slavery has come to be perceived as the substance rather than the symbol of Sudan's agony.
Slave redemption has been the subject of many recent news stories and indignant editorials. The Boston Globe, for example, has attacked as "preposterous" the notion that redemption groups ought to direct their attention to ending the civil war, rather than proceeding with efforts to redeem as many slaves as possible. UNICEF's reservations about the consequences of redemption were the subject of withering scorn. But what goes unspoken in so much reporting on the issue are the ugly realities of redemption.
First, these redemptions introduce hard currency into one of the most volatile and militarily unstable regions in the world. The economic value of the $50-redemption figure so commonly cited can be thought of in many ways. Perhaps most telling in the war economy of Sudan is how much might be purchased in the way of weapons - weapons that can be used to enslave more of the mainly unarmed and unprotected Dinka people, the most prominent target of slavers. Scores of slave redemptions can easily fund the purchase of arms that might make possible the enslavement of thousands.
Second, increasingly numerous reports from southern and central Sudan, many from tribal leaders, make it undeniable that slave redemptions encourage more slave-taking. In other words, redemption not only introduces revenues that make slave-taking more widely possible, but creates the incentive for taking slaves in the first place. A hideous law of supply and demand has been put in place.
Also there are increasingly numerous reports that significant numbers of those "redeemed" were never slaves in the first place. Rather, they were simply elements of the local populations, often children, available to be herded together when cash-bearing redeemers appeared.
These unpleasant facts don't feed the all-too-American fantasy that simple acts of good will and generosity can overcome complex facts of human suffering. But if Americans demand of Sudan simple truths, it can yield only one: If the civil war does not end, neither will the dying, or the conditions that produce famine and epidemic disease - or slavery. Only an end to the civil war can stop the suffering. And the painful corollary is that all actions that extend the civil war, including slave redemptions, prolong the suffering of a people who deserve our wisest compassion.
Americans have an understandably visceral reaction to the reality of slavery in the modern world. And certainly the motives of slave redeemers aren't at issue. But Sudan can't be saved by simple solutions, and slave redemptions can't end slavery. Ending slavery will be possible only with the beginning of peace. American generosity must take the form of unstinting efforts to make the US respond, with the fullest possible diplomatic effort, in present negotiations to end the civil war in Sudan.
*Eric Reeves, an English professor at Smith College in Northampton, Mass., writes frequently on the nature of the human response to distant suffering.