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By Jeff Jacoby
The Boston Globe

April 2, 1996

"I have heard their groans and sighs, and seen their tears,"
grieved Harriet Tubman, "and I would give every drop of
blood in my veins to free them."

How the great abolitionist heroine of the 19th century
would weep to learn that at the threshold of the 21st
century, black chattel slavery still exists in this world.
More than weep: Harriet Tubman's very heart would crack
if she knew that almost no one, not even the descendants
of the American slaves for whose emancipation she fought
so desperately, seems to care. Chattel slavery - the buying
and selling of human beings - ended in the West in the
19th century. In the East, especially in the
Arab-dominated nations of Sudan and Mauritania, slavery
abounds. Tens, maybe hundreds, of thousands of black
Africans have been captured by government troops and
free-lance slavers and carried off into bondage. Often they
are sold openly in "cattle markets," sometimes to
domestic owners, sometimes to buyers from Chad, Libya,
and the Persian Gulf states.

These people are slaves in every grim sense of the word.
They are owned outright by their Arab Muslim masters.
Many are branded like cattle, forcibly converted to Islam,
lashed if they resist, tortured if they attempt escape. They
are put to work as household servants or at hard labor in
the fields. Girls and women are routinely raped.
Kidnapped boys as young as 15 have been impressed into
the Sudanese army, to be used as cannon fodder in
Khartoum's "holy war" against the black Africans of
southern Sudan - and as blood banks for older soldiers.

Chattel slavery in Sudan and Mauritania has been
conclusively and repeatedly documented by eyewitnesses,
human rights investigators, the United Nations, Sudanese
and Mauritanian defectors, and a handful of dogged
journalists. Yet most Americans know nothing about it.
Why? To end apartheid in South Africa, activists the
world over kept up an unremitting campaign of pressure
against the former government in Pretoria -
condemnation, vigils, sanctions, divestment, boycotts,
marches, protests. Where is the campaign to free Africa's

"Every schoolchild in America knows that women have
been raped in Bosnia," says Charles Jacobs, director of the
Boston-based American Anti-Slavery Group. "Everyone
knows the whales have to be saved. But no one seems to
realize you can buy a black woman as a slave for as little
as $15 in Khartoum."

Jacobs, a management consultant by profession, became a
latter-day abolitionist in 1992 after an unsettling
conversation with a client who worked out of Senegal.

"I had heard these rumors about slavery in the Arab
world. I asked him, `Can it be true?' He said, `Sure it's
true; you want to buy one?' "

Together with Mohamed Athie, an exiled Mauritanian
diplomat, and David Chand, a black Christian from
southern Sudan, Jacobs has spent 31/2 years trying to
shine a light on the horrors of slavery in North Africa.
Almost everywhere they have turned - the eminent
human-rights agencies, the women's groups, the church
councils, the civil rights coalitions - they have
encountered the same response: Yes, we know about the
slaves. No, we're not prepared to fight for their freedom.

"For people who . . . have been at the forefront of the
anti-apartheid movement," bewails Athie, "I seriously
cannot understand how they can turn their backs on this . .
.. I cannot believe people do not want to take action."

The new abolitionist movement has a few heroes. Several
are black journalists from the non-mainstream media
(some of them spurred to action by research from the
American Anti-Slavery Group): reporter Samuel Cotton of
the City Sun and publisher William Pleasant of the
Liberator, both New York weeklies; Nate Clay of the New
Metro News and WLS radio in Chicago; PBS television
host Tony Brown. Gutsy Tim Sandler of the Boston
Phoenix and Brian Eads of Reader's Digest have
journeyed to Sudan to find escaped slaves and record their
stories. Kevin Vigilante, a Rhode Island doctor and
humanitarian, has tracked down the camps in Khartoum
where abducted black children are brutalized. John
Eibner's Christian Solidarity International raises funds to
literally buy the freedom of captives in the slave markets
of southern Sudan.

But these are rare exceptions. In most of America's
prestige press, in the boardrooms of the great civil rights
organizations, in the offices of famous black leaders, in
the corridors of the State Department, one of the most
bitter evils of our time evokes only a cowardly silence.
Jesse Jackson cannot get involved in fighting slavery, one
of his aides told Jacobs, because he "is busy with
affirmative action." The NAACP hasn't acted. TransAfrica
hasn't acted. The chairman of the Congressional Black
Caucus, US Rep. Don Payne of New Jersey, recently
dismissed the slave trade as a "sub, sub issue."

Only with aching slowness is this blackout being lifted. In
May 1995, Jacobs convened an abolitionist congress in
Harlem. Last month, a congressional subcommittee held a
first-ever hearing on slavery in North Africa. But the pace
of progress is microscopic. And all the while, tens of
thousands of human beings are bleeding and dying in their

The address of the American Anti-Slavery Group is P.O.
Box 441612, Somerville, MA 02144. (Telephone: 617-278-4324)

[Posted to UseNet by Joel Rosenberg]

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