This article was first published in Orlando Sentinel
February 02, 2011
By Amethyst Roth
As UCF students study for their next history exam, young people in Sudan are living with a treacherous reality that many may think exists only in the past: slavery. A former Sudanese slave and anti-slavery activist came to UCF Tuesday to remind everyone that slavery is alive and well.
“A young man in Sudan wrote a note for me to read for American students,” said Francis Bok. “Tell the kids in America that we have dreams too.”
Bok shared his story of escape from slavery to freedom with an audience of about 425 people on Tuesday afternoon in the Student Union. The forum was hosted by the UCF Global Perspectives Office.
His message was to rally Americans against slavery in Sudan. He also criticized the Obama administration and the United Nations for not doing enough to prevent slavery and promote human rights in his native country.
“I will not speak well for the current administration, because they aren’t doing much,” Bok said. “President Bush is our hero, though.”
Bush signed a law in 2006 imposing sanctions against those responsible for genocide and war crimes in Sudan.
Bok has led numerous protests in Washington to bring attention to human rights abuses in Sudan. He also spoke about confronting former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi A. Annan in an open forum at Harvard University, where Bok spoke out against the U.N.’s inaction in Sudan.
“We cannot politicize human rights. The U.N. was created to intervene and they haven’t done that in Sudan,” he said. “The Secretary-General doesn’t need to be in Harvard — he needs to be in Darfur.”
Sudan has endured 50 years of civil war that has killed 2 million people and turned millions more into refugees. The war has been particularly brutal in Sudan’s western region of Darfur. Last month, voters in southern Sudan overwhelmingly voted to secede and form a separate country.
During his talk at UCF, Bok explained why he takes a dim view of the U.N., saying that while U.N. soldiers are sent to Sudan from other developing nations such as Bangladesh and India to enforce a 2005 ceasefire, they offer very little intervention. In fact, he said, U.N. soldiers sometimes carry out rape and harassment in the very cities they are supposed to protect.
Charges of rape committed by U.N. peacekeepers in Sudan have surfaced over the past three years from aid organizations working in the country, such as Save the Children. When these accusations were raised in 2008, U.N. spokesman Nick Birnback said it was impossible for the world organization to ensure “zero incidents” among its 200,000 troops serving around the globe.
“What we can do is get across a message of zero tolerance, which for us means zero complacency when credible allegations are raised and zero impunity when we find that there has been malfeasance that has occurred,” Birnback told the BBC.
As for the Obama administration’s Sudan policy, the president wrote in an op-ed article in the Jan. 8 edition of The New York Times that the United States is committed to using economic sanctions and diplomatic pressure to end the suffering of the Sudanese people.
“The United States will not abandon the people of Darfur,” Obama wrote. “We will continue our diplomatic efforts to end the crisis there once and for all. Other nations must use their influence to bring all parties to the table and ensure they negotiate in good faith. And we will continue to insist that lasting peace in Darfur include accountability for crimes that have been committed, including genocide.”
But such pronouncements don’t really impress Bok, 32, who told students how he was enslaved when he was 7 years old. One day his mother asked him to go to the local market to sell eggs and peanuts. It was that day that Arab rebels raided his home village, killed his parents and brutalized people all around him.
He was captured and forced into slavery for 10 years before making a successful escape to Sudan’s capital city, Khartoum, where he was arrested and enslaved again by police for two months.
Bok made his final escape when he fled to Cairo, Egypt. He was able to obtain a refugee visa to the U.S. and was resettled in North Dakota by the U.N.
In 2001, Bok launched the iAbolish.org website with a Boston-based anti-slavery group and started a foundation for building schools in southern Sudan. He also wrote an autobiography, “Escape from Slavery: The True Story of My Ten Years in Captivity.”
He expressed gratitude for obtaining a visa to the U.S., but criticized how the West handles war refugees.
“There needs to be a better solution than sending a few refugees away and leaving thousands and thousands to stay,” he said. Kaley Jowers, an English literature major at UCF, said that the forum encouraged her to speak up more about the problem of slavery.
“I sometimes feel bad because some girls in my dorm say that it makes them feel sad,” she said. “After hearing Francis’ account, I think that I shouldn’t hold back — students need to hear it.”
Indeed, slavery continues to be a worldwide problem, encompassing human trafficking, forced prostitution, and forcing children into war as soldiers and into the international drug and sex trades as workers. The United Nations estimates that there are 7 million children around the world who are being taken from their families, trafficked across borders and forced into slavery.