Slavery in Sudan

Sudan today is experiencing a resurgence of chattel slavery.

The Anti-Slavery Society recently conducted an investigation into slavery in, mainly, the western Sudan provinces of Darfur and Kordofan, and in the capital, Khartoum.

The western region, populated largely by Baggara Arabs, borders on the province of Bahr el Ghazal, the home of the African people, the Dinka. (Baggara is a generic term referring to cattle-owning nomads, predominantly Rezeigat from Darfur and Meseriya from Kordofan.) The former are Sunni Muslims; the latter animists and Christians.

Historically, the Baggara and Dinka have had a complex relationship, based on certain shared values, but also on competition and conflict, particularly over cattle-grazing land. The present problem has an historical perspective, but it is more than a localized affair. It is a direct consequence of the five-year war between Khartoum in the north and the Dinka-dominated Sudanese People's Liberation Army (SPLA) in the south - and more especially the government's conduct in that conflict.

Armed tribal militias, used by Khartoum to counter SPLA advances, are accused of raiding Dinka villages in northern Bahr el Ghazal, southern Darfur and Kordofan. The government uses the militia system as an offensive strategy to destabilize the Dinka in the countryside and to preclude Dinka support for the SPLA by depopulating the region. In practice this entails terrorism, and the militia is rewarded with the booty that it seizes - from goods and livestock to slaves.

In general, there is a link between Khartoum and the militia, which is organized along clan lines. Deputy Defense Minister Burma Nasir, who is credited with the military strategy, comes from Kordofan, where the link is particularly strong. There is strong support in the western area for Prime Minister Sadiq el Mahdi's Umma Party which, according to its general-secretary, Dr. Omar Nur el Daim, has 22,000 men under arms. A connection also exists between the militia and the army, which supplies it with ammunition. Automatic weapons are easily bought for US$110-130. Several militia leaders are ex-soldiers with personal ties to regional military commands. The Anti-Slavery Society was informed that a Capt. Juma Khawoger and Lieut. Salah Boya, from the garrison town of Abyei, change out of uniform and join the militia on raids.

The serious problem of insecurity in western Sudan can be attributed to an abundance of guns and to groups engaging in armed robbery. The makeup and role of the militia are imprecise; at what point its actions merge into banditry is unclear. Young men, acting independently of local chiefs and the army, may also raid the Dinka, and clashes between these various armed bands are commonplace. Economic gain is the militia's main priority, and the Dinka are easy targets. Despite the mixed ancestry of the Rezeigat, in particular Arab-Dinka, there is an ingrained psychology of racism or Arabism that deems the Dinka inferior.

The Anti-Slavery Society ("the Society") was informed that between 19 December 1986 and March 1988, more than 600 Dinka were killed in the Abyei area and 400 taken as slaves. This figure has been confirmed by Transport Minister Aldo Ajor, himself a Dinka. The captives are being held in Satep, Meram, Datelia, Kolek, Muglad and Tibum in southern Kordofan. They are sold for between about $30 and $60 or are kept by their militia kidnappers. They work as agricultural laborers or house servants. Men between the ages of 15 and 20 cultivate the fields in the rainy season; in the summer they tend cattle. Children aged seven to 12 look after goats and other livestock or dig wells. Younger children are employed in the house along with the women whom the militia captors "marry." Other women are also used as agricultural laborers or water carriers.

The Society has received the names of 15 Dinkas taken from the Abyei area by Baggara militia at the end of February 1988. The militia is generally accused of murdering adult men out of fear that they may join the SPLA or supply it with cattle. Reports have also circulated that slaves are killed after the harvest, when their labor is no longer required.

The Society also has the names of 28 people captured by Baggara militia on 2 December 1987 from around Aweil in northern Bahr el Ghazal. The militia had attacked on horseback, firing indiscriminately, burning houses and crops and seizing cattle and livestock. Those people who failed to escape were roped together and marched into southern Darfur. In the same vicinity in March, a group of displaced Dinka traveling to Safaha on the Bahr el Ghazal-Darfur border were attacked by Baggara, who abducted four members of the same family.

In southern Darfur, a Rezeigat chief from a village near Heireen, Musalim Abu Gasim, is one of several named slave owners from villages in the area. They are holding 17 Dinka children captured from Aweil. A former lieutenant-colonel, Amdan Kiir, who is from Abyei and heads a local militia, has several slaves including Aluel Baroc and her four children.

The Society is in possession of documents relating to the sale and ransom of Dinka captives. In the villages of Mutarig, Gumelai, Fardos and Abu Jabra, children have been sold for the equivalent of between $50 and $80. The Baggara are also willing to release slaves on the payment of a ransom (regarded as "compensation"). In Mutarig a girl, Nyibol Deng Ngang, was freed after her brother paid $72 to her owner. The detailed accounts, appearing during 1987 in the Sudanese English-language press, suggest that this is common practice when relatives are able to raise the necessary amount.

Apart from direct capture by the militia, the war has created another avenue for slavery - the sale of children by either destitute parents. Since the beginning of the five-year conflict, an estimated 2 million southerners, predominantly Dinka, have been displaced. Militia attacks and the army's scorched-earth policy have forced them off their land and deprived them of their cattle, the basis of their local economy and society. Ironically, they head north, where they hope to find kinsmen and employment. But those who do arrive in Khartoum sink into one of a number of crowded, illegal, unsanitary camps on the outskirts of the capital.

They suffer constant police harassment over the brewing of beer, their main source of income. Their cardboard huts are frequently burned, and they'd are attacked by northern vigilante groups. Western aid workers believe that some of these attacks are organized in the Commissioner of Khartoum's office.

Since the beginning of April 1988, 20,000 Dinka, who walked from Aweil, have been camped in Safaha, a trading post on the banks of the Bahr el Arab, the riverine border between Darfur and Bahr el Ghazal. The town is one of several transit routes for Dinka moving north. The refugees, mostly women, children and the elderly, are severely undernourished. The young men prefer the refugee camps in Ethiopia to the north of their own country.

Children are also sold to the Rezeigat, the common euphemism being pawning or renting. While in Safaha, the Society attempted to buy a seven-year-old boy, making it clear that he would be taken abroad, and was quoted a price of $65 by a merchant from Ed Daein who arranges the transactions. Apparently the system works in such a way that a prospective buyer pays the parents a fixed amount through the merchant, who takes a $6-7 commission. The child-price during March was usually $50. To avoid the accusation of slavery, the merchant records the names of those involved, and the parents are theoretically able to buy back the child - but at double the original price.

However, parents who had sold their children admitted during interviews conducted in Nyala that they did not know the names of the Arab owners, and had no expectation of seeing the children again. Certainly Rezeigat at Safaha described the children for sale, who were mostly boys between the ages of six and 12, as abid (slave). In February, the Society was informed, a child fetched $100; in April the price had fallen to $16.

This practice is conducted with the full knowledge of the commander of the army garrison, Maj. Hussein Mohammed, and the commandant of the security and para-military police, Mohammed Ahmed Al Hamri.

Despite the testimonies of escaped slaves now living in Khartoum who have provided the locations and names of their abductors, the government continues to deny the existence of slavery and refuses to set up an independent inquiry. It has even dismissed the announcement of Transport Minister Aldo Ajor that members of his own family have been captured by the militia.

The Society notes that the ruling Umma Party draws its support from the Baggara Arabs, whose militia is responsible for human rights violations that include slavery; that Khartoum, if not advocating racism, is effectively pursuing a racist policy in regard to its African population, in particular the Dinka; and that the Dinka people as a whole are being treated as an internal enemy and are considered synonymous with the SPLA.

The Society urges the government of Prime Minister Sadiq el Mahdi to take all measures to stop the resurgence of chattel slavery, to seek out and punish military and other personnel involved in the practice and to order regional authorities to end the "renting" of children. It draws the attention of the Sudanese authorities to the fact that Sudan has ratified the 1956 Supplementary Convention on the Abolition of Slavery, the Slave Trade, and Institutions and Practices Similar to Slavery.

The Society, during last year's session of the Sub-Commission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities, invited the Sudanese government to investigate the case of Sgt. Maj. Omar, the owner of child slaves, and to report to the Center for Human Rights on the action taken. The Society is not aware of its invitation having been accepted, and asks the Center for Human Rights to urge the Sudanese authorities to be cognizant of their responsibilities under the Declaration of Human Rights and the Supplementary Convention on the Abolition of Slavery.

Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

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