The Nizkor Project: Remembering the Holocaust (Shoah)

Shofar FTP Archive File: places/sudan/slavery/bought-and-freed

Archive/File: places/sudan/slavery/press/bought-and-freed
Last-Modified: 1997/01/29
Source: The Baltimore Sun, June 18, 1996. 1A

Bought - and freed; Freedom: For a handful of cash, our reporters
strike a deal with an Arab middleman, freeing two young boys after
six years of bondage. The exchange proves beyond all doubt that
slavery exists in Sudan.

Series:   WITNESS TO SLAVERY. Last of three parts


MANYIEL, Sudan -- This is the day we will buy a slave. We are
up at dawn. It will take us three hours on foot to meet an Arab
trader and, if all goes as planned, make the purchase.

Our interpreter, Joseph Akok, arrives with another
English-speaking Dinka, Simon Kuot, to escort us. Both carry
Kalashnikov assault rifles. We also pick up another couple of armed

The Dinkas move with grace across the open terrain, two ahead,
two behind. We struggle to keep up. The sun is low and the going
flat along the firm, baked trail between waist-high dried grass and
scattered trees.

As the sun climbs steadily into the blue sky, the heat starts
to radiate from the earth. Soon it is scorching, then searing. We
press on, gulping water as we go. The Dinkas have no water with
them and don't seem to need it. Akok says they can walk a day
without a drink.

The heat of the dry season has one benefit -- the many
poisonous snakes and scorpions that infest the bush try to keep
cool underground or in the roots of trees. We encounter none. In a
couple of weeks, once the rains set in, this area will crawl with

Under a line of trees, a village of tukuls, the traditional
thatched homes, finally appears on the horizon: Manyiel.

We are flagging, drained by temperature, pace and distance.
The sun, directly overhead, burns down on us. Our shirts are
stained dark with sweat, our leg muscles on fire. We tell the
interpreter that when we arrive, we need to find shade to rest a
few minutes and gather our thoughts.

He leads us to a giant mango tree where chairs and benches are
waiting. We duck under the low branches, into the cool darkness and
collapse. We are offered sweet tea, but temptation is overwhelmed
by caution. We sip unpleasantly hot water from our bottles, some
hauled all the way from Baltimore.

Suddenly, almost furtively, from behind the trunk of the tree,
the Arab trader the man we have come thousands of miles to meet
appears as promised.

His dress of fine cream cotton and his close-fitting cap
embroidered with two bands of pink silk set him apart. On his bare
feet are light, brown leather shoes. He has a chunky steel watch on
his wrist.

He is a small, muscular figure with impressively strong
features, a neatly trimmed mustache and beard a sort of cropped
goatee that hugs the edge of his square jaw.

We shake hands.

He sits opposite us on a low bench strung with strips of dried
goatskin. He refuses to give his real name out of fear for his
life, he says, and asks to be called Adam el Haj. He also refuses
to have his face photographed.

"The abduction of the children was organized by the
government, and it is dangerous for anyone to work against that
policy," he says.

Since 1991, he says, he has freed 473 slaves, mainly women and
children, returning them to their families for the set fee of five
cows or the cash equivalent. An estimated 4,000 Dinkas have been
seized locally since the fighting started in the mid-1980s between
the Islamic fundamentalist government of the north and the
non-Muslim African rebels of the south, according to local officials

As we talk, a rebel official hands us a list of 59 children
abducted in a raid on the village of Gokmacar in 1987 who have yet
to be returned. The regime in Khartoum has made no effort to
account for the whereabouts of these children, the official says.

El Haj has 22 "associates" who scour the northern countryside
looking for slaves. "We all swore on the Holy Koran or the Bible to
be honest and to secure the return of abducted children to their
parents," he says.

That buyback system, he explains, was arranged between the
chiefs of the Dinkas in the south and the northern Riziegat tribe,
to which El Haj belongs. In exchange for sanctioning the return of
the slaves, the Riziegats have the right to graze their cattle on
Dinka land during the dry season.

As he gives details of his role, he sometimes appears nervous,
his eyes shifting as if he doesn't quite trust the situation or us.
There is little we can do to put him at ease.

How, we ask, did he get into the business of trading slaves?

"I have chosen this job not because it is profitable,"
proclaims El Haj. "I have chosen it because I have 200 head of
cattle. This job strengthens the actual understanding between the
two tribes. It allows our cattle and our tribe to go to the Dinka
land in peace. Without my doing this, the Dinkas would not let the
Riziegat cattle graze on their land."

"If we don't bring back the Dinka abducted children, then
there will be no peace, and when there is no peace, no further
movement of cattle to this land will be allowed. I am preventing
further conflict."

Once he locates the children, he says, he must persuade the
slave owners to release them for a price. If the owner refuses, El
Haj reports this to the Riziegat chiefs.

"In any society there are people who will not always abide by
the rules but know that the chiefs are influential in the villages
and rural areas," he says. '"Nevertheless, some owners move
locations to keep the children in captivity and make it difficult
for us to trace their whereabouts."

The slaves themselves do not come willingly at first, he says.
When they see another Arab taking control of them, they think they
are being traded to a new owner.

"They are frightened to see me. They think they are being
resold," he says. I assure them that I am directed by the chiefs of
the Dinkas and their parents to bring them home. Some will not
accept that. Still, I persuade them by providing pleasing things
like sweets and biscuits and other delicious foods."

The smaller slaves he puts on donkeys. The bigger ones walk.

"After I have assembled them, I move quickly away," he
says."Of course, it is a long distance from here to the land of the
Riziegats. It is always a tiring journey while driving donkeys
loaded with food and water. The children and women always get
tired. They get hungry. We need to move continuously."

Once here, local officials identify the slaves and inform
their families that they can be collected from El Haj for the
five-cow fee.

"He is doing a job. He is finding our children," said Akot
Deng Akot, a local rebel commander."If the Sudanese government
could catch him they would kill him, and we would not get our

To this point we have seen no slaves in this market town. It
seems time to raise the question.

We tell El Haj we are willing to pay his asking price of five
cows, or $500, for a slave.

He accepts with a nod of his head.

It is a negotiation of breathtaking simplicity, struck just 50
yards from where people are buying and selling salt, dried fish and
other ordinary commodities. We are not the first journalists to
participate in the slave trade. Abolition-era editors raised funds
to help buy freedom for slaves and to tell their stories.

"Their condition differs," El Haj says as a dozen children,
all boys, are ushered forward from the shade of another tree.
"There are bad people who may mistreat their slaves, and there are
good people who may allow their slaves to be in good health."

We survey the children. Most have rust-tinted hair, the
ubiquitous sign of malnutrition in this land of unending need. The
dust of Sudan is caked on their black bodies. Some have bruises and
scars to attest to their maltreatment. Some, we learn, were
forcibly circumcised in the Islamic tradition.

Many of them, we are told, were naked when they arrived. They
have been given clothes.

There is no trace of hope in their expressions. Their eyes are
downcast. Those who dare to glance up do so with mistrust. These
are boys whose childhood has been wrenched from them.

Their passivity is in stark contrast to the excitement we have
engendered in other Africa children, who crowd round us, giggling,
their faces alight with smiles, their eyes wide, hamming it up
delightedly for the camera. These boys, though, just sit before us.

We must choose which one to buy. This is a moment for which
neither education nor experience has prepared us.

The decision, however, is made easier by the knowledge that
Christian Solidarity International, the Swiss humanitarian group
that brought us here illegally, is leaving enough money with the
local authorities to free 15 slaves.

The boys don't know this. All they know is that two strangers
-- one white, one black -- are eyeing them.

We peer into their eyes, hoping to find one who can recount
the dreadful things he's experienced, a messenger from their world
to ours. The downcast faces offer few clues.

We settle on the child who seems the oldest.

We beckon him to step forward. God knows what he must be
thinking. We both feel for him but cannot immediately allay his

To one side, a few parents wait to be reunited with their
sons. We ask, through the interpreter, whether the parents of the
boy are here.

A tall, striking figure with a broad, dark face, expressive
eyes and restless hands steps forward. He is Deng Kuot Mayen, 58, a
cultivator of sorghum and other cereals, a poor farmer whose three
wives have borne him 10 children.

As the father passes the group of young freed slaves, he
touches the shoulder of a second boy. This boy immediately steps
forward, too. He is the half-brother of the boy we have selected.

We now find ourselves buying not one, but two slaves -- Garang
Deng Kuot, 10, and Akok Deng Kuot, 12.

The boys seem unmoved. There is no sign of joy in their eyes,
not a hint of a smile on their faces.

But their father can hardly contain his excitement on this day
of reunion with the sons he last saw six years ago, the sons his
relatives advised him to forget.

"I call on the Almighty God to love all my children and let
them remain happy," he says, his hands reaching toward the heavens.

He stands with his hands on his sons' shoulders as he
excitedly tells how Garang's mother fainted and Akok's mother
danced with joy when they were told by a local official that El Haj
was bringing their sons here.

We put $1,000 into the outstretched hand of El Haj, and two
young souls pass from bondage into the embrace of family and home.

His boys on the ground beside him, Mayen settles down to tell
us of the 1989 raid on the village of Mayak when his family was
torn apart by slave raiders.

"I was found hiding in the woods with the children," the
father says. He was shot in the thigh and then stabbed with a spear
or a knife. He fainted. When he came to, all the tukuls of the
village were burning and his children gone. He crawled to a new
hiding place.

The next day he was found and helped by passers-by. His three
wives and eight of his 10 children turned up unharmed, but he
realized that the two boys had been abducted.

"In the history of my grandfathers, not a single child was
ever taken as a slave or kidnapped," he says. '"'It pained me."

Garang was just 4 when he was seized. His memories are vague
... of bathing in the river when word came that the raiders were
approaching ... running away to hide ... seeing a horseman with a
whip in his right hand. The rider, he recalls, raised the whip but
did not lash him.

"He told me I should stop crying and lie down on the ground,"
says the boy, all the time looking at the dirt floor. '"Then he
leaned down, picked me up and rode off with me."

"I was so frightened I closed my eyes. He was firing his gun,
shooting. Those who took me never stopped until it was dark."

He and his half-brother, Akok, then 6, spent the night in a
donkey corral, and traveled throughout the next day. They were then
taken by different Arab masters.

"I was left with children I didn't know," Garang says. '"I
kept crying and the masters became angry and I was told to keep

He continues quietly: '"I was given to a very bad man. He
always made me do difficult things like carrying away hot ashes.
Sometimes he would curse me. Sometimes I was beaten. No person in
the family was good or kind.

"Whatever was left, that is what I ate. If nothing was left, I
just sat there.

"My master and the master of my half-brother were relatives.
We were near each other, but we could not talk to each other or
visit each other. But we were set free together. We actually held
hands and laughed."

In the house of Mohammed Abdullah in the village of Unsuma,
the child was given the name Ibrahim, taught some Arabic but was
not circumcised.

We gently try to press him for more details of his daily life,
of his reaction to his plight. There are long silences that seem to
underscore the great distance between his world and ours.

As we talk, a wind picks up, rustling the leaves of the mango
tree above. Soon the rain pours down and we take shelter in a
nearby tukul, where the family again squats on the dirt floor while
we are offered seats, symbolic of the uncomfortably unequal
relationship between us.

It is not clear what they think of us, but they are patient.
Do they feel that our long conversation is part of the deal? Or is
it because we have important rebel officials with us? Perhaps it is
simply the civility and courtesy we have experienced throughout our

Whatever the reason, the young boys tell their stories slowly,
hesitantly, without emotion.

All that Akok can remember of his abduction is that he was
lifted up and tied across the back of a horse. He recalls riding
until the sun went down -- he points to the west to signify the
lateness of the hour stopping in a forest and by a river.
Eventually he arrived at a cattle camp, which would be his home for
six years.

He was given the Islamic name Suleiman and put to work keeping
the fence clean and clearing the dung of calves. He was fed sour
milk and leftovers from the table of his master. He says he was the
only slave in the camp.

To coax even these few details from the boys has taken a long
time. Our translator indicates he is exhausted from the effort.

"What you want is just not in the boy's mind," he says. We
accept that.

To broaden our understanding of the daily lives of the young
slaves, we talk to two other half-brothers in El Haj's group, Deng
Deng Ngok, 13, and Thiep Deng Ngok, 10. They were abducted three
years ago from their home in the village of Peth, where their
father lived with his five wives and 10 other children.

It is another tale of horseback abduction, restraint at night,
working in the fields as shepherds during the day, living off the
crumbs from the master's table, of being naked.

In the house of the master of Deng Deng was a Dinka girl. She
had grown up there as a slave until she was old enough to marry the
Arab, who had two other wives and six children.

"We were not allowed to talk to that girl and she was not
allowed to talk to us," said Deng Deng. From all the conversations,
we learn that the masters are themselves mainly poor subsistence
herders or farmers, scratching a living from a harsh land, using
the slaves for sexual or domestic purposes if they are girls, or
the lowliest tasks in the fields if they are boys.

There is no suggestion of Arab palaces with mosaic tiled
floors, cooling fountains and scented harems behind wafting
curtains, not a hint of the plantation lifestyles that surrounded
slaves in the Old South. The reality for Sudanese slaves is
enduring squalor.

We have helped to redeem two children from slavery. They have
done their best to tell us the story of their blighted young lives,
and we have done our best to understand. We can do no more for
them, nor they for us.

It is clear that they have known nothing but hardship and
poverty, and that these will continue to be their lot, leavened, we
hope, by the love of their family.

They have miles to go before they will be with their waiting
mothers. They turn their backs on us, and walk with their father
into the endless bush. They leave the undeniable proof that slavery
exists, and a silent rebuke to an uncaring world that has done so
little about it.

Home ·  Site Map ·  What's New? ·  Search Nizkor

© The Nizkor Project, 1991-2012

This site is intended for educational purposes to teach about the Holocaust and to combat hatred. Any statements or excerpts found on this site are for educational purposes only.

As part of these educational purposes, Nizkor may include on this website materials, such as excerpts from the writings of racists and antisemites. Far from approving these writings, Nizkor condemns them and provides them so that its readers can learn the nature and extent of hate and antisemitic discourse. Nizkor urges the readers of these pages to condemn racist and hate speech in all of its forms and manifestations.