SUDAN is Africa's largest country and its saddest case. Every ancient scourge lives here: war, famine, disease, pestilence, rape, mutilation, and slavery. Starvation and violence have cost some two million lives and displaced some five million people since 1983, according to Freedom House, a Washington-based human-rights organization. Robert A. Seiple, until last summer the president of World Vision United States, a relief and development group, has asked, "Is there a name for a million square miles of suffering? Yes. It is called Sudan." The United Nations and, indirectly, the United States government have since 1989 airlifted millions of tons of food to starving people in southern Sudan, the epicenter of a civil war. But it is the emergence of modern-day slavery that has seized the world's attention.
Entering southern Sudan, one sees the names of dozens of international agencies, nonprofit groups, and religious organizations plastered on Land Rovers and compound gates. There is no shortage here of good intentions. But far from the airstrips and offices, some Africans say that Westerners are a large part of the problem: nearly everything the activists do makes matters worse. And the issues of slavery and starvation are joined in an unexpected and overlooked way that ensures the continued failure of humanitarian efforts. Still, the battle against slavery in Sudan can be won, if international officials have the sense to try a different, more hardheaded approach -- one that does not include the much-publicized practice of redeeming slaves for money.
THE evil of slavery, which had been virtually eliminated by the British during the First World War, returned to Sudan in 1989, when the fundamentalist political party known as the National Islamic Front took control of the government in Khartoum and decided to arm Baggara tribesmen so that they could fight the rebellious Christian tribes of the south in Sudan's widening civil war. That war, which has raged intermittently ever since the country gained independence from Britain, in 1956, pits the educated, technologically superior Muslim north against the poor, undeveloped, and populous Christian and animist south. The Baggara are a Muslim people who in the past enslaved their neighbors, the cattle-herding Dinkas. Re-armed, the Baggara resumed the slave raids that the British had ended. They were aided and encouraged by the Khartoum government, which supplied auxiliary troops, known as the Popular Defence Forces, and also provided horses, guns, and ammunition. The government allowed slave markets to open in Khartoum, Juba, Wau, and other cities it controlled. Thousands of Dinkas, mostly women and children, have been seized in raids and taken north on foot or by train, over hundreds of miles of rocky, arid wasteland, to be sold, sometimes for as little as $15 apiece. Family members are often separated as they are parceled out to different buyers. Their Muslim owners, who do not speak the slaves' language, consider it a traditional right to enslave southerners; their word for a southern tribesman, abd, is synonymous with "slave." The slaves have been put to work as cooks, maids, field hands, and concubines. Some teenage males have been forcibly circumcised; a number of females have been ritually mutilated. Many are fed and kept like cattle, often sleeping beside livestock that their owners consider far more valuable. Like cattle, they are branded, sometimes just below the eye, with the Arabic name of their owner.