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15. The Rebirth of Slavery in the Dark Heart of Sudan

Source: THE BOSTON PHOENIX Date: 6/30/95; “Africa’s Invisible Slaves: Human bondage resurfaces in the dark heart of Sudan” Author: Tim Sandler

SYNOPSIS: From mass murder in Rwanda to mass starvation in Somalia, Africa’s horrors continue to shake the world’s sensibilities. Yet, despite heightened attention to Africa’s troubles, its largest country, Sudan, still harbors the continent’s darkest secret: the rebirth of slavery.

In the last several years, pure chattel slavery—the use of people as property—has quietly reemerged as a social institution in Sudan. And as a participant in this slave trade, Sudan’s government has good reason to make sure it remains a secret.

In an area that Sudan’s Muslim-fundamentalist government has declared off-limits to outsiders, stories of modern-day slavery are rampant. Despite the government’s denial of slavery, throughout the vast southern region of Sudan, where the Arab world meets black Africa, the resurgence of systematic slavery is as evident as the bloated stomachs of the malnourished children. Lashing marks, branding scars, and permanent injuries on freed and escaped slaves offer vivid corroboration of their accounts of human bondage.

Sudan’s Muslim-fundamentalist regime has turned the 12-year-old north/south civil war into a government-sponsored jihad against Christians, animists, and even modern Muslims. Sudan is now high on the U.S. State Department’s list of terrorist governments and the motivation for the State Department’s warning against travel in Sudan by foreigners is clear.

While the number of slaves in Sudan is easily in the thousands, a more precise figure is difficult to calculate. A U.N. special investigator reported in 1994 that in the past several years tens of thousands of black Christians and animists had been abducted from southern Sudan and the Nuba Mountains and brought to the north.

Thousands of young boys are routinely rounded up by the government forces and taken to cultural-cleansing camps where they are beaten, renamed, forced to convert to Islam, and often compelled to fight on the front lines against their own people in the south.

Slaves in southern Sudan are sometimes sold openly in “cattle markets,” a term that illustrates the value Arab traders place on the humans exchanged there. Women and children are sold for as little as 200 to 300 Sudanese pounds in the Nuba Mountains area.

An accurate estimate of the number of slaves in Sudan is hampered by the government’s placement of severe limitations on travel into the country. Officially sanctioned travel outside the Khartoum area is rare, and all foreigners are supposed to register with police.

Unfortunately, slave labor is not limited to the Sudan, nor even Africa. The Anti-Slavery Society, of Australia, charged that between 104 million and 146 million children-some as young as four-are forced to work in appalling conditions to make consumer products for Western nations (Associated Press, 9/19/95). The Society said that the children, with an estimated 73 million to 115 million of them in India alone, are making car parts, jewelry, clothing, toys, food, fireworks, chemicals and other goods in sweatshops. Other nations cited by the group as tolerating forced child labor were Pakistan, Nepal, Philippines, China, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Thailand, and Sri Lanka.

SSU Censored Researcher: Justin Twergo

COMMENTS: Boston Phoenix writer Tim Sandler reported that the mass media virtually ignored the resurgence of slavery in Sudan. “I say ignored because a good many of the major news outlets, including network television, are now aware of the situation (the Phoenix sent its story to many of them). Still, there has been no follow-up.”

“Given America’s history of slavery,” Sandler continued, “it would be difficult to imagine that wider exposure to modern-day slavery in Sudan would not be greeted with widespread outrage. Outrage often translates to action, and public exposure could well prompt U.S. political leaders to take meaningful measures to address the problem.

“Clearly, the general silence about Sudan’s slavery allows the Sudanese government, which is involved in the slave trade, to continue to do so with impunity. Indeed, Sudanese government officials continue to assert there is no such thing as slavery in their country.”

Sandler notes that this is a politically thorny issue “because you have black Muslims participating in the enslavement of black animists and Christians. Unlike the black-and-white dynamic of South Africa in the 1970s and “80s, there is a less apparent racial divide. In the U.S., that creates a significant political dilemma for political leaders who may have both Muslim and Christian constituencies.”

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