To search, type one or more key words below.
Search Search the web.
 Page Bottom 

A Slave's Journey in Sudan

April 23, 2002

A Slave's Journey in Sudan


KHARTOUM, Sudan — Abuk Achian was 6 years old when Arab raiders rampaged through her village in southern Sudan, carried her off on horseback and turned her into a slave.

Ms. Achian, now a pretty woman of 18 with ebony skin, is one of many thousands of Sudanese women and children who have been kidnapped and enslaved over the last 20 years. Eradicating this slavery will require sensible international pressure — not the grandstanding that the issue sometimes attracts.

Originally the Sudanese government condoned the slave raids, as a way to reward Arab militias fighting on the government side in Sudan's civil war. Lately it has begun to crack down on the tribal raiding, although it still tends to deny that slavery exists here, acknowledging only what it calls traditional abductions.

Ms. Achian was one of about 30 former slaves whom I met in Sudan (despite the efforts of the government, which did just about everything it could to limit my reporting here). Her story is typical: She is a member of the Dinka tribe, black Africans who are Christians or animists, while the kidnappers are Baggara, or Muslim Arab herdsmen.

"I was so scared," she recalled of her first few weeks in captivity. "I couldn't understand the language that they spoke, and I was crying. But they beat me until I stopped crying and started to learn their language."

Her duties were to sleep outside with the camels, milk them, and make sure they did not run off. Her master beat her regularly and forbade her to ever talk to other Dinka.

Ms. Achian says she tried to escape once. Her master caught her, tied her hands together and hoisted her by her arms from a tree branch so that her feet did not touch the ground. Then he flogged her into a bloody mess with a camel whip, cut her with a knife and let her dangle in the air all night.

After a few beatings, she also agreed to become a Muslim and later underwent the genital cutting that is widespread among Sudanese Muslims. When she was 12 her master sold her to be the bride of a young man. Initially Ms. Achian was afraid of her husband, but soon came to love him and had a son with him.

"He treated me well," she said. "He was a very good man."

Well, perhaps not that good a man. He too was a slave-raider, and he would periodically go off to attack Dinka villages and return with new slave children. Ms. Achian said she felt sorry for the new slaves but never dared complain to her husband. Then her husband was killed on one of these raids, and Ms. Achian found herself a widow, at age 16. Her parents-in-law seized her son and beat her when she protested, and so she left her boy behind and ran off to freedom.

One approach to ending slavery has been taken by Christian organizations that claim to have purchased tens of thousands of Sudanese slaves and then released them. Unfortunately, there is evidence that many of these slave redemptions are the result of trickery, with fake slave traders selling make-believe slaves many times over.

Another approach favored by many on the left and right alike has been sanctions, aimed either at the Sudanese government or at a Canadian oil company, Talisman, that operates in Sudan. But sanctions reduce the Western presence that is the greatest force for change. Because of sanctions and the threat of them, China is increasingly becoming a dominant player in Sudan's oil industry in place of Western companies — and none of the Chinese I spoke to in Sudan worried at all about issues like slavery.

So ultimately the only workable approach to eradicating slavery is the least sexy: engaging the Sudanese government and applying relentless pressure. We now have a window to press our case, for President Omar al-Bashir is trying to reorient Sudan and improve its relations with the West and is thus unusually attentive.

There is a school of thought within the Bush administration that we should not step into distant messes in which we have no compelling national interest at stake. But Sudan's plight cries out to us. Some moral challenges are so great that they undermine our credibility unless we step up to the plate, and slavery is one.

Copyright 2002 The New York Times Company ¦ Privacy Information
Copyright 2001 The New York Times CompanyPrivacy Information

horizontal line
What's New Page to home page e-mail  Page Top