Slavery in the Sudan
A briefing by John Eibner
November 7, 2000
John Eibner, assistant to the international president of the Geneva-based Christian Solidarity International (CSI), addressed the Middle East Forum on November 7, 2000. He began by showing a short video of his experiences redeeming slaves originally shown on "CBS Evening News."
In Sudan today, more than 100,000 women and children are victims of chattel slavery. Once captured, they become the private property of individual masters, and have to endure endless hard work, poor nutrition, and sexual abuse. Torture is commonplace and severe beatings the norm when a slave displeases his or her master.
Slavery in the Name of Jihad
One finds slavery and quasi-slaverypractices around the world, yet what makes slavery unique in Sudan is that there has beenwas a revival of the practice in the mid-1980s. The institution was virtually extinct in the 1970s and slave raids were unknown, except in a few remote places. The revival began in 1983, when then-president Ja'far Numayri placed himself at the vanguard of the Islamic revolution in Africa. Casting aside his socialist baggage, he became the great imam and arbitrarily imposed Shari'a law on the multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, and multi-religious Sudanese society. In the process, Numayri abolished the autonomy of southern Sudan that had producedending over ten years of peace in the country and imposed a policy of radical Islamization and Arabization.
These policies generated small-scale armed resistance among southern Sudanese, including black Africans, Christians and other groups who adhered to their traditional religious beliefs. The government in Khartoum then began to use slave raids and slavery as an instrument of counter-insurgency to break the resistance against its policies.
In 1983, the Numayri government began arming Arab militiamen, sent them southwards, and allowed them to keep whatever booty they could seize, including women and children as slaves. As we know from testimonies of former slaves, Arab raiders even today burn the villages they overpower and usually shoot the men. Forming old-fashioned slave caravans, the remaining women and children are tied to a long rope and dragged by horses. Those unable to keep up are beaten, often to death, while crying children or babies are thrown into the bush to die.
Once enslaved, the women and children are forced to adopt Islamic religious practices (most slaves are Christians or animists) and must take different names and speak Arabic, thus changing their cultural identities to Arabic. They are often, and are subjected to beatings and sexual abuse, including female genital mutilation.
Slavery in the Sudan today takes place in the context of declared jihad, a concept of holy war which permitsthat considers the taking of slavesas perfectly legal. We at Christian Solidarity International went to villages that had been raided a few days prior. We found horses wearing necklaces with little leather pouches containing Qur'anic texts about jihad. Other pouches featured obscure magicians' symbols worn by the raiders to protect themselves from bullets.
The Underground Railway and CSI
Besides documenting slavery, my work involves getting slaves out offreeing slaves from bondage by purchasing their freedom (about $35 per slave). The redemption of slaves is done in cooperation with local black Africans and Arab leaders. When CSI first went to the areas affected by the slave raids it found that local people had taken initiatives to stop the slave trade. Some black African community leaders had local peace agreements with some of their Arab Muslim neighbors who want to live in peace with their neighbors and do not want to participate in jihad. These peace agreements prompted some Arabs to facilitate the return of women and children who were enslaved. As a result, from the early 1990s and years before CSI first came on the scene, there has been an underground railway of sorts. We were invited to support that initiative, and after studying the issue carefully we felt that we had an obligation to support those whom the rest of the world has completely ignored.
The CSI slave redemption program is thus really a local grassroots initiative involving black Africans and Arabs, Christians and Muslims. It is a multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, and multi-religious enterprise for peace. The real heroes of the slave redemption are the Arabs who risk their lives to retrieve tens of thousands of women and children.
CSI received consultative status some six years ago as an NGO [non-governmental organization] at the United Nations and participated in the Commission on Human Rights. We used this position to campaign vigorously to raise awareness of slavery in the Sudan. The government of Sudan attempted to intimidate CSI and myself from raising the issue in public by means of a Salman Rushdie-like campaign against me, calling me an enemy of Islam. Things reached a crescendo a little over a year ago when Khartoum made a formal complaint against CSI and successfully pressed the U.N. to deny CSI its consultative status. This has made it clear to us that we cannot use the U.N. as a forum to further our interests.
The International Community
In the latter half of the 1980s, Sudanese journalists and academics exposed the existence of slavery in the Sudan. Since then, although policymakers and international organizations have been aware of slavery in the Sudan, there has been virtual silence about the practice that international law defines as "crimes against humanity."
The international community treats slavery as a taboo subject, knowing full well that due to slavery being a crime against humanity, broad. It knows that public awareness of slavery's existence would oblige it to deal with the issue. The international community is further paralyzed because Sudan enjoys the solidarity of the Arab League and the Organization of the Islamic Conference. Nor has the Organization of African Unity (OAU) taken up the issue. On the contrary, the OAU has invited the Sudanese government to represent Africa with a seat on the Security Council.
The American response has been very modest as well. When the revival of slavery started in Sudan in the mid-1980s, the U.S. government was preoccupied with Ethiopia's Mengistu, whom it regarded as the greatest threat to its interests. That compelled U.S. policymakers to turn a blind eye to the practice of slavery in the Sudan.
Only recently has a small but effective lobbyin Washington managed to put pressure on the government and produceU.S. government, resulting in a number of statements by Washington critical of slavery in the Sudan. These few modest statements represent a much more proactive anti-slavery policy than one finds in Europe, where due to oil interests, the European Union is spearheading a cover-up of slavery and a process of legitimization of the government in Khartoum, mainly due to its oil interests..
The African American community is showing signs of readiness to begin confronting the issue. Still, it can be stated that no community, today, is doing all that it should be.
Summary account by Assaf Moghadam, a graduate student at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University
Related Topics: North Africa, Slavery | John Eibner
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