Madhol, Sudan (February 8, 1998 00:19 a.m. EST) — Stacks of money pass from the Christian foreigner to the Muslim trader, an exchange anxiously watched by a 13-year-old girl with diamonds of sweat on her brow.
The Sudanese trader, his lap buried by currency worth $13,200, waves carelessly to free his merchandise — 132 slaves.
Akuac Malong, the young Dinka girl, is among them. She has spent seven years — more than half her life — enslaved by an Arab in northern Sudan.
Her brilliant smile belies the beatings, near-starvation, mutilation and attempted brainwashing she endured. “I thought it would be better to die than to remain a slave,” Akuac says.
Trafficking in humans has resurged with civil war in Africa’s largest and poorest country, said John Eibner of Christian Solidarity International, a humanitarian group that bought Akuac’s freedom.
For all but a decade since Sudan’s independence in 1956, southern rebels, mainly black Christians and followers of tribal religions, have fought for autonomy from the national government in Khartoum, which is dominated by northern Arabs. The southerners believe the north is trying to impose Islam and the Arabic language and to monopolize Sudan’s wealth.
Since the rebellion resumed 14 years ago, fighting, famine and disease have killed an estimated 1.5 million Sudanese — more than died in the genocides and civil wars in Rwanda or Bosnia. More than 3 million people have fled or been forced from their homes.
Much of the fighting on the government side is done by local militias. Unpaid, their bounty is as old as war itself — slaves.
Sudan’s radical Islamic leaders encourage soldiers to take slaves as their compensation, according United Nations investigators and the U.S. State Department.
Young women and children are the most valuable war booty. Eibner said old people are beaten and robbed while young men are killed because they cannot be trained into useful, harmless slaves.
“According to the Khartoum’s regime ideology of jihad, members of this resistant black African community — be they men, women or children — are infidels, and may be arbitrarily killed, enslaved, looted or otherwise abused,” Eibner said.
The Sudanese government denies condoning slavery, insisting the practice persists because holding prisoners for ransom is a tradition rooted in tribal disputes.
No side has a claim on morality in this war. The rebel Sudan People’s Liberation Army has been accused of forcibly inducting teen-age boys into its ragtag army. But the southern blacks do not take Arab prisoners for slaves.
Paul Malong Awan, a regional rebel commander, said enslavement is a government tactic to weaken the morale and military might of the south.
Many of the blacks taken away are Dinkas, a million-member tribe that is the biggest ethnic group in southern Sudan. Dinkas are vulnerable because they predominate in northern Bahr el Ghazal, a region that is close to the front between north and south.
Christian Solidarity International estimates tens of thousands of black slaves are owned by Arabs in northern Sudan. The Swiss-based charity has made more than a dozen risky, clandestine bush flights to southern Sudan to redeem 800 slaves since 1995, most recently in Madhol, 720 miles southwest of Khartoum.
Some criticize its work.
Alex de Waal, of the London-based group African Rights, said that by paying large sums to free slaves, the Swiss charity undercuts Dinkas living in the north who do the same secretive work for a fraction of the cost.
Eibner countered: “There is no evidence to suggest that our work has undermined efforts to redeem abducted women and children. In fact, Dinka elders encourage us to press ahead with our activities.”
Gaspar Biro, a researcher for the U.N. Commission on Human Rights for Sudan, has cited “an alarming increase” in “cases of slavery, servitude, slave trade and forced labor” since February 1994.
“The total passivity of the government can only be regarded as tacit political approval and support of the institution of slavery,” he said.
A U.S. State Department report said accounts it received on the taking of slaves in the south “indicates the direct and general involvement” of Sudan’s army and militias “backed by the government.”
The centuries-old tensions between Arabs and blacks in Sudan are linked to slaving expeditions by Arabs to the upper Nile, a trade that the 19th century explorer David Livingstone called “an open sore on the world.”
Akuac’s mother, Abuong Malong, sobs when she sees her daughter for the first time in seven years. “It’s like she’s been born again.”
She recognizes her only from her straight, square teeth. “She was very small when she was taken, her features have changed, but she came back with the same spirit.”
Recalling that traumatic day, Mrs. Malong says they were fetching water when Arab militiamen on camels and horses thundered into their village, Rumalong. The raiders began shooting at the clusters of mud and wattle huts and rounding up cows and goats.
“I was running with Akuac for the trees when a horseman grabbed her,” Mrs. Malong says. “I was afraid that if I chased the horseman, he would kill me.”
Akuac and her older brother were tied to horsebacks and taken north with more than a dozen others from their village, a short walk southeast of Madhol. The women and older children had to carry the booty of their captors.
In Kordofan, Akuac was sold to an Arab who made her wash clothes, haul water, gather firewood and help with cooking.
She survived on table scraps, and slept in the kitchen. “I was badly treated,” Akuac says.
Her master also tried to make her a Muslim — taking her to mosque and giving her the Arabic name of Fatima.
But Akuac says she maintained her Christian faith, praying and singing hymns in secret and never forgetting her true name. “My name is my name and nobody can change that.”
She does bear scars — in the local Muslim tradition, she was forcibly circumcised with her master’s daughters when she was 11.
“It was very brutal. It is strange to our culture,” Akuac says. “The master told me, ‘If I don’t circumcise you, I will have to kill you because you will still hold the ideas of your people, and you will try to escape.”‘
Her heart is scarred, too. Her older brother, Makol, was killed two years ago at age 13 while trying to escape.
Another returnee, Akec Kwol Kiir, who is in her 40s, says she was repeatedly raped by four soldiers who took her north. She ended up in a camp where slaves were bought and sold. “They treated us like cattle,” she says.
Her Arab master insisted that she, too, be circumcised. She refused, and was brutally slashed. Her ear is notched and her chin and neck scarred.
Kwol finally submitted. “Otherwise, they would have killed me. Because I was a slave, they had the right to do whatever they wanted to me,” she says.
Slaves in Sudan
1st Add, 0387 Madhol.
Akuac and Kwol have been brought back to Madhol along with 130 other former slaves by a trader who calls himself Ahmed el-Noor Bashir.
Slipping into a cowhide-strung chair beneath a shade tree, the 27-year-old dressed in a fine white cotton robe and a close-fitting embroidered cap denies he rescues slaves for the money.
“To others it may seem 6.6 million Sudanese pounds ($13,200) is a lot of money. But how can you put a price on human life? I do it for humanitarian reasons, not for the money,” he says.
“My father is Arab but my mother is Dinka. When I see my mother’s people are suffering, I must do something.”
But many families among the Dinka, particularly those who also lose cattle and crops to raiders, cannot afford Bashir’s price — five cows or the equivalent of $100 in cash for each slave returned.
He says he rescues slaves by buying some from owners, takes others from wives jealous of their husbands’ concubines, and protects escapees who seek him out.
Though Bashir insists he loses money, he flaunts the Sudanese signs of wealth — on his feet are tasseled, leather loafers, on his wrist a Casio watch, in his hand a shortwave radio.
Eibner says he doesn’t begrudge the trader his money. “If this man is caught, he’s a dead man.”
For that reason, the slave caravan traveled only by the light of a melon slice of moon to reach Madhol.
The three-night walk wearied the 132 freed women and children. Infants of Arab fathers were carried on their raped mother’s backs.
Years of abuse are written in bruises and scars on their long, dust-caked limbs. Some wear tattered rags; others are naked.
Yet Akuac’s joy at freedom beams from her animated face and chocolately eyes. She sings a song of praise for the Sudan People’s Liberation Army and dances with family and friends to the twangs of a homemade, stringed rababa.
The first Sunday after her release, Akuac worships beneath a tree with a crucifix nailed to the trunk. Roman Catholic hymns are sung to the beat of drums and the mewling of infants.
On Monday, she goes to school — but is clearly bewildered as other children practice writing letters in the dirt with sticks and add up four-digit figures.
“I’ll have to catch up,” she says.