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 By GILBERT A. LEWTHWAITE & GREGORY KANE 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 guards. 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 them. 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 children." 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 misgivings. 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 quiet." 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 journey. 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.
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