This article first appeared on Philly.com
January 31, 2011
By Charles Jacobs
I’ve just returned from Sudan, where I witnessed a historic vote that likely will split Africa’s largest nation in two. I also participated in the liberation of 397 black slaves. You read that right. The two issues are intimately linked: slavery is a key reason for the Africans from the Christian and tribalist south to secede from the Arab-Muslim north, and it was a grass-roots antislavery movement that began U.S. intervention in Sudan.
In 2005, responding to a decade of populist demands to end slavery and stop the civil war in Sudan on campuses, in the media and in Congress, President George W. Bush pushed a peace treaty that contained a provision for a referendum on splitting the country. This became the Jan. 9 vote for freedom that was just celebrated by President Obama in his State of the Union address. Just weeks before, Obama himself applied heavy pressure on Khartoum to abide by the results of the vote.
Most of us think that slavery is a horror long gone, but there are more slaves today (27 million is the number generally accepted) than at any time in human history. There is no worse case than the chattel slaves in North Africa. In Mauritania, slavery never ended. In Sudan, slavery was rekindled by civil war.
In 1956, when the British granted Sudan independence, the dominant Arab north was to allow the south a degree of autonomy, but Khartoum’s Arab rulers tried to Arabize and Islamize Sudan’s blacks. Various regimes sought to impose Sharia law on everyone.
When the south rebelled, Khartoum used slave-raiding as a weapon to destroy southern resistance. In the 1990s, with the rise of Islamic radicalism in the region, the war was officially declared a “jihad” by Sudan’s current president, Omar el Bashir, giving slave-taking religious sanction.
This is clearly a touchy topic. Years ago, the Arab League (along with Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan) protested that anyone claiming that there was slavery in the Islamic Republic of Sudan was defaming Arab-Islamic civilization. But now, after much documentation, even Al Jazeera TV nonchalantly reports on Sudan’s slaves.
For decades, Arab militias, armed by the government in Khartoum, raided African villages, shot the men and took women and children as slaves. Young girls would be used as domestics until maturity, when they’d join other female captives as concubines and sex slaves. Boys would be goatherds.
Every major human-rights agency has reported these things. But because criticizing evil practices in other cultures isn’t PC, none of them campaigned to end slavery, and the world mostly sat on its hands. (Imagine – the victims of an intimidated human-rights establishment are African slaves whose plight is too “sensitive” to act on.)
In 1994, having been rebuffed by Amnesty International, who we lobbied to add slavery to its mandate, I and a small group of Mauritanian Muslim and South Sudanese Christian refugees in New York launched the American Anti-Slavery Group.
Mohammed Athie and I published the first widely read report on modern slavery in North Africa in the New York Times.
When we were interviewed on PBS’s “Tony Brown Show,” it broke the dam in the black community. Over the years, we put together an unlikely left-right coalition: We had Barney Frank and Pat Robertson (though not in the same room!). The NAACP and several members of the Congressional Black Caucus joined with GOP senators (Sam Brownback, from Kansas, was heroic).
Walter Fauntroy, the organizer of MLK’s march on Washington, along with black radio star Joe Madison, kept the issue alive.
Finally, we got to President Bush.
But the Bush treaty had no mechanism to emancipate slaves still in the North, 35,000 according to a South Sudanese official. On Jan. 9 and 10, I went with staffers from Christian Solidarity International to free 397 slaves.
The Arabs who live near the Dinka tribes (slavery’s biggest victims) need to graze their cattle on Dinka lands, and, for years, in exchange for this right, have sent retrievers north to bring slaves back home. CSI helps extend this indigenous trade-off by providing cattle vaccine to the retrievers so that more will participate. Returning slaves, like all war captives, seek what remains of their families and communities.
The boys, girls and women I interviewed told horrid tales of rape and murder at the site of the slave raid, then being taken north and branded, gang-raped, genitally-mutilated, eyes gouged out.
We at CSI and my organization, joyous as we are about the liberation of a nation, won’t stop until all the slaves are free.
Americans disagree about an awful lot: abortion, health care, gun control. But we are an abolitionist nation. And though we should be proud of helping emancipate today’s slaves, there’s still much work to be done.