The False Promise of Slave Redemption

Some Africans and Westerners say that the battle against slavery in Sudan is being undercut by a humanitarian effort -- the practice of buying freedom for the slaves

(The online version of this article appears in two parts. Click here to go to part two.)

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.

Documenting the Problem

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.

By the early 1990s reports of slavery's return began trickling out of Bahr al Ghazal, a Dinka region in southern Sudan, to relief and development groups helping Sudanese refugees in Uganda and Kenya. At first the reports were hard to believe, and aid workers accepted the Sudanese government's adamant denials. But new eyewitnesses kept coming forward. If their reports were true, aid workers wondered, how could the situation be brought to the world's attention?

The answer was provided by John Eibner, an official at Christian Solidarity International, a group based in Zurich that had been founded in 1977 to fight the persecution of Christians and religious minorities in the Soviet Union and elsewhere. CSI, now also dedicated to assisting victims of war and famine, has played a major role in shaping the response to slavery in Sudan. In May of 1995, defying the Sudanese government, Eibner chartered a plane and flew deep into Sudan's "no go" area. There he met dozens of Dinka mothers who told him about their abducted children. He could no longer doubt that the resurgence of slavery was real.

Upon his return to Switzerland, Eibner persuaded reporters from around the world to make the dangerous and illegal trek into Sudan to document the slave trade. He led journalists from The Baltimore Sun and other newspapers to the open-air slave markets. "Witness to Slavery," a series that the Sun published in June of 1996, shocked Western officials and human-rights advocates. The Clinton Administration imposed comprehensive trade and economic sanctions on Sudan in 1997. Still, economic leverage was limited: all direct U.S. aid to Sudan had been cut off years earlier, owing to the 1989 coup d'état. In 1993 the United States had added Sudan to the list of countries it believes sponsor terrorism, further reducing the prospects for international aid. Other industrialized nations publicly condemned the Sudanese government's tolerance of slavery. Not surprisingly, world outrage did nothing to diminish it.

Sudanese Slaves

How widespread is slavery in Sudan? It must be said that hard numbers of the sort Americans are accustomed to do not exist. There is no question that scores of raids occur every year, and many thousands of people now live in captivity. There are many accurate local statistics: villages keep fairly complete lists of their people who have been killed or captured. But no reliable national data exist to provide a complete picture of the crisis. The chaos of civil war makes comprehensive data collection difficult, and only sporadically do the village reports reach county governments, or county lists reach the rebel command in Nairobi. In some regions, such as the Nuba Mountains and Darfur, records have been destroyed in the intense fighting or are no longer kept. Steven Wondu, the Washington representative of the rebels' Sudanese People's Liberation Army, offered 20,000 as a very rough estimate of the number of slaves in Sudan. Whatever the precise figure, local reports and the personal experience of Western aid workers and journalists are sufficient to conclude that slavery is a persistent threat.

John Eibner came up with the idea of Westerners' buying back slaves, building on a practice already used by local people. As Eibner relates, "On previous visits we heard about the efforts of local people to get their loved ones out of bondage through a retrieval mechanism that had been established as part of a local Dinka-Arab peace agreement, which was signed in 1991." By the fall of 1995 Christian Solidarity International was in the business of buying slaves in large batches and setting them free. The organization called the process "slave redemption."

Within the past eighteen months raising money for slave redemption has become a focus of well-intentioned activity in many public schools and evangelical churches. In these supposedly apathetic times the plight of Sudanese slaves has inspired countless institutions and community groups across the United States, Canada, and Western Europe. Dozens of nonprofit agencies, relief groups, and missionary organizations are raising hundreds of thousands of dollars a year for "freedom funds."

Barbara Vogel's fifth-grade class at the Highline Community School, in Aurora, Colorado, was the first public school class to raise money for slave redemptions. The effort began in February of last year, when Vogel read her students an article from The Rocky Mountain News about the plight of Sudanese slaves. "Nothing hit my kids like this did," Vogel told me recently. "They cried. They all agreed we had to do something." By selling lemonade, T-shirts, and old toys, the Aurora students raised more than $1,000 within the year. Media attention, including a feature on the CBS Evening News, brought in donations from across the country, ultimately totaling more than $50,000. Many other schools have followed Vogel's lead, including the Damascus Middle School, in Oregon, where fifth-, sixth-, and seventh-graders raised $2,500 on their own.

Christian Solidarity International, which says it has freed almost 8,000 slaves since 1995, is by far the largest of about a dozen groups that buy slaves out of bondage. In what was billed as the largest single slave redemption to date, in January of this year CSI bought 1,050 slaves for the equivalent (in Sudanese pounds) of $52,500 -- $50 each. In April, CSI broke its record, freeing 1,783 slaves. Meanwhile, Christian Solidarity Worldwide, a London-based group headed by Baroness Caroline Cox, redeemed 325 slaves. Cox, a member of the House of Lords, has attracted her own following, including a number of donors in the United States.

James Jacobson, at the time the vice-president of the National Right to Read Foundation, a literacy group based in The Plains, Virginia, became CSI's Washington representative in November of 1995. At first he was a loyal supporter of slave redemption. During the next few years CSI was beset by internal differences that resulted in the breakaway of the British, Austrian, and American offices, among others. The American operation achieved independence last year, as Christian Freedom International, with James Jacobson at its head. Vowing to pursue the same objectives as CSI, but handicapped by his lack of firsthand experience of Sudan, Jacobson made a trip to the war zone. He traveled to remote villages and met former slaves who were scarred from beatings. "I felt satisfied that slavery was real," he said, "but I began to realize that there was also the potential [in slave redemption] for abuse." As media reports and the number of redemptions by an increasing assortment of groups multiplied rapidly, so did Jacobson's doubts and fears.

Subsequent visits to Sudan gradually revealed what Jacobson regarded as the consequences of good intentions gone awry, and after his most recent visit to Sudan, on which I accompanied him, he has reluctantly turned away from slave redemption as a tactic. Though his organization is still actively involved in Sudan, shipping clothing, tools, and school supplies, Jacobson identifies three problems with current humanitarian efforts there. First, the financial incentives of slave redemption are so powerful in Sudan, one of the world's poorest nations, that they encourage the taking of slaves. Second, even when the incentives don't promote slavery, they can promote hoaxes. Third, the way the United Nations distributes food acts as a magnet for slave raiders.

writes on subjects including entrepreneurship, national politics, foreign affairs, and the environment. His articles have appeared in The New York Times, and Reader's Digest.

Illustrations by Gregory Christie.

The Atlantic Monthly; July 1999; Slave Redemption - 99.07 (Part Two); Volume 284, No. 1; page 63-70.