Market thrives for Sudan's 'human capital'

Victims, observers say Sudan has broken its 2-year-old pledge to root out slave trade.

Abuk Ashan says she is one of the lucky few. After being kidnapped at the age of 7, she endured a decade of enslavement, forced marriage, beatings, and stabbings. As she sits on a bed in a Khartoum safe house awaiting word of when she can reunite with her family, at least she can say she survived.

Throughout Sudan's 18-year civil war, southern rebels -mostly followers of indigenous religions and Christian faiths - have fought for autonomy from the Khartoum government, mainly run by Arab-descended Islamists.

Experts say this war, which has left 2 million dead and 4 million displaced, is by far the world's most lethal conflict. The ethnic group most often victimized is the Dinka, the largest of many ethnic groups in Sudan.

In response to long-standing claims that it supports the slave trade, Sudan's government two years ago established a committee to root out the practice. The agency is backed by the UN Children's Fund and partly funded by Save the Children and the Canadian government. It has worked closely with a Dinka advocacy group called the Dinka Committee. Over the past two years, the agency says, it has identified 1,681 "abductees" and reunited 358 of them with families.

But for the past six months, Khartoum has broken its pledge and is once again permitting the slave traders to abduct southerners, according to the Dinka Committee, Western diplomats, and European officials.

"The government has given the green light for more abductions as a gift to the Arabic tribal militias that support the military's war against the Dinka," said James Aguer, the head of the Dinka committee.

European officials and Dinka leaders say Khartoum is fueling the slave trade by delivering arms and supplies to Arabic communities in the Bahr al-Ghazal province of southern Sudan.

"This is shameful," Mr. Aguer says. "The government cannot face up to the Arab tribes and demand the slaves be returned. The tribes support the Army and the Army gives them guns."

The abductions follow a pattern well documented by human rights groups. Government-backed militias of Arab cattle herders, known as the Murahaleen, charge into villages on horseback or in jeeps, murdering the men and taking the children and women as prisoners.

Later, the children and women are sold, feeding a decades-old tradition of several Arabic tribes in southern Sudan, which favors one to three black African "slaves" per household.

Ms. Ashan, a Dinka, says she was swept up by Murahaleen tribesmen on horseback in 1991 and carried to a "collection center" inside the area controlled by the Arab tribe. "At the center they gathered us all in a line and slit the throat of one boy who had been putting up a struggle," says Ashan, who was released in July. "They said this is what will happen to others who try to escape. There were 24 of us watching."

Ashan was sold to a family in an Arab tribe and given the job of caring for the camels. The family later wed her to their eldest son, and four years ago she gave birth to a boy. Ashan escaped, but her son remains with the Arab family.

The Sudanese government adamantly denies slavery even exists in Sudan. Ahmed El Mufti, a secretary in Khartoum's Ministry of Justice, and leader of the government's slavery-eradication committee, says the abductions in southern Sudan are not evidence of "slavery." He cites, for example, a 15-year-old Dinka boy who chose to return to his "captor" family once he'd been freed. "There are abductions between the tribes - this we admit, and we are working on the eradication of this. But it has nothing to do with the government," Dr. Mufti says.

The international community for years has struggled to help the victims of Sudan's chronic war.

Western intelligence officials say the US State Department is divided over whether to proceed with a Clinton administration policy of giving limited "organizational support" to rebels in the Sudanese People's Liberation Army. The SPLA is a guerrilla army of some 100,000 fighters, controlled by Dinka leaders.

Some Christian groups "purchase" freedom for slaves by paying the Arabic slave traders. But UN officials and other obervers say that practice merely encourages the traders to rely on that as a means of income.

The Switzerland-based Christian Solidarity International claims to have bought the freedom of 38,000 slaves by paying the Arabic tribesmen the price of two or three goats. CSI and other groups argue that the UN's tack of working with Khartoum makes it complicit in the slave trade.

"We feel that [the Khartoum committee] can be made to work more effectively and that it represents the process that should be followed," counters Thomas Ekvall, UNICEF's representative here. Sudan's progress has been slowed by a lack of political will both here and abroad, he says.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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