January 9, 2011
This article was first published in Big Peace
By Francis Bok
Most people can think of a day that changed their lives. I can think of two. The first happened twenty four years ago, when at the age of seven I became a slave; the other is coming up in less than a month. It is a day when my people will be free.
On May 15 of 1986, when I was seven years old, my mother sent me to a marketplace in the town of Nyamlell, South Sudan to sell peanuts and eggs. The market was filled with people, sounds, and smells, with half naked children running, smiling, pushing each other. I was happy; I wanted to make my mother proud by selling as many eggs as possible. Suddenly, something happened. We looked up to see cloud of smoke rising from the direction of Gourion, my village. I heard gun shots and stomping of horses’ feet coming fast from the distance. Everybody around me began running in all directions. A wall of dust preceding their arrival, an Arab militia stormed the market.
What followed was a scene of panic, terror and confusion. The Arabs, some on horses, some on feet, were mercilessly killing all the men, shooting some and decapitating others with a single swipe of their swords. Children around me were screaming and crying in horror; the market place was filling with the bodies of the dead. I tried to run but one of the Arabs grabbed me and loaded me into a basket on his donkey. I was soon joined by other kids. A little girl, who looked no older than twelve, was executed by a point blank shot to her head in front of my eyes. Her crime? She could not stop crying. After the loading was over we began riding into darkness.
That was the beginning of my journey into slavery where for the next ten years I was forced to serve a family of a wealthy Arab Muslim living in North Sudan. Giemma Abdullah, his wife and his children made my life hell during these ten years. They not only made me perform hard labor and sleep with animals, but they also tried to destroy my identity as a Dinka, my tribe. I was given an Arab name and under the threat of death was forbidden to speak the Dinka language. I was forced to perform Islamic prayers and was constantly taunted as “abeed,” Arabic for “black slave.” After two unsuccessful attempts, I managed to escape and made my way to America. A year later, I joined the modern-day abolitionist movement.
On the day I escaped I did not become a free man. Images of other children still serving masters chained me to my captive nation. My life here has been better than anything a Dinka boy could dream of. Working with the American Anti-Slavery Group, I have travelled across the country and spoken to thousands. I meet and surround myself with people who passionately feel for the suffering of modern day slaves and want to help. I have had the privilege of meeting the American President George W. Bush and the Secretary of the State Madeline Albright. At the same time I always knew that as long as my people are not free, I would remain unfree- I am bound to the people of South Sudan – a nation where chattel slavery has been a perpetual reality from the antiquity to the present day; a nation that will, weeks from now, break the chains and pass to freedom.
Despite an official abolition of slavery in Sudan by the British in 1899, the practice persisted. Fueled by the Northern radical Islamist government’s calls for jihad (holy war) against Christian and animist “infidels,” slave raids intensified during Sudan’s Second Civil War (1983-2005). Over two million South Sudanese, including my father, my mother, my two sisters and many other relatives, were murdered in that war, and four million more became refugees. Slavery, a crime against humanity under international law, was also committed against non-Arab civilians in Nuba Mountains and most recently in the Western region of Darfur.
South Sudanese civil authorities estimate that up to 200,000 of blacks, mostly women and children, were enslaved during Khartoum’s jihad. As a result of an incredible work done by the human rights organization Christian Solidarity International (CSI) many were freed, but an estimated 35,000 still remain in captivity. The horrific suffering endured by the slaves and meticulously documented by the CSI is no less than shocking. Fourteen year-old Ker Aleu Deng, liberated by the CSI this last September, was hung upside down from a tree by his master who then rubbed chili peppers into his eyes leaving Ker blinded. Majok Majok Dhal, 15, was stabbed in a leg for refusing to work when he had fever. Abuk Ngor Anyuon, liberated in December, was forcibly converted to Islam and circumcised. Her master sold off two of her sons and cut off her finger for disobedience. CSI reported that the “overwhelming majority of slaves had been subjected to physical and psychological abuse, including rape, death threats, female genital mutilation, forced labor, beatings, and forced conversion to Islam.”
On January 9 of 2011, I will be thirty four years old and my life will change forever. On that historic day I will no longer belong to a captive nation, because for the first time ever my people will be given a choice – by vote — to secede from the North or to remain a part of the unified Sudan. The referendum was mandated under the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA), brokered by the United States in 2005, that stopped the genocide. America, we will be forever in your debt. There is no doubt in my mind that on that day we will choose freedom over slavery; our own culture over Arabization; our own religions over Islamization; equality over racism and supremacism. On that historic day the people of South Sudan will vote for a new independent African nation based on principles of democracy, freedom and equality for all!
Several challenges remain: the Northern government is working hard to sabotage the vote and provoke another war; the South faces a “humanitarian catastrophe” as it prepares to absorb masses of refugees from the North; the borders have not been demarcated and there is no agreement on oil sharing. In other words, it is not entirely clear what the immediate future holds for my people. What is clear, however, is that we will never go back to bondage, oppression and domination and that because of our tremendous sacrifices – and American help — a new nation will be born – a nation of free men.