Black Sudanese slave women rest as they wait to be redeemed by aid workers from Christian Solidarity International after years of enslavement by Arab masters in the north — January 8, 2011. (American Anti-Slavery Group)

Slavery Report: Sudan

History and Background

Sudan is one of the oldest centers of inter-racial slavery in Africa. When Arab armies conquered Egypt in 642, Muslim warriors quickly began seizing control of the rich trade along the Nile and advancing into the territory of the ancient black civilization of Nubia. Securing ivory and then gold from Nubia’s legendary mines rapidly progressed into enslaving large numbers of the native black population. It took centuries, however, for the rulers of the Islamic caliphates based in Egypt to progress from merely capturing slaves to using slavery as a tool to Islamize the Christian and animist south. Arab policy towards Islamization reached a turning point, however, when, in 1317, Saif ad-Din Abdullah Barshambu seized the crown of the Nubian kingdom of Makuria and ordered that the population accept Islam. As the centuries passed, Muslims ruling from Cairo and (since 1822) Khartoum pursued the jihad policy of forcing Islam and Arabic culture on the black natives of the south — using slave raids as their principal weapon.

Slavery was so extensive just before the period of European colonization that an 1894 study commissioned by the French revealed that between 30 to 50% of the population of the western Sudan was enslaved, and as much as 80% in the more prominent trading towns.

With the final British conquest of the territory in 1899, slavery was banned immediately. Though it took decades, the British largely managed to stamp out slavery for the better part of the following century, including after the country’s independence in 1956.

Slavery only came to prominence and returned on a large scale in the 1980s with the outbreak of the Second Sudanese Civil War (1983 – 2005), which cost the lives of perhaps 2.5 million blacks. With the accession to power of General Omar al-Bashir and the cleric Hassan at-Turabi’s National Islamic Front party in 1989, the war combined its older economic objectives with those of a full-scale conflict of cultural identity and religion. With the government’s declaration of jihad, it was an Islamic obligation not to only rob the black south of its oil and fertile land, but also to dominate and Islamize the “racially inferior” people of the south to the point of genocide, through both bombings and slave raids. Slaves also served as compensation for the unpaid Arab militiamen of the Murahilin, the government’s paramilitary organization.

By the 1990s, Arab militiamen would routinely stream down from the north and storm African Sudanese villages, massacre the adult men, and drag the women and children off into slavery. The grass and mud brick villages were then burned to the ground, nearly disappearing from the landscape. The slaves would be distributed amongst the militiamen for the long trek north, during which children could be mutilated and murdered and the women regularly gang raped at night. Once the slaves arrived at their new masters’ houses, the women would be “married” as concubines and the children forced into servitude: the boys often into herding livestock and the girls into performing household chores — later, between the ages of 9 and 12 or so, becoming concubines themselves. Boys would often be dismembered or crippled by having their Achilles’ tendons slashed if they tried to escape. Even if they remained fully obedient, many boys would be killed before they grew too tall and strong to subjugate.

Arab enslavement of southern blacks, largely from the Dinka tribe, peaked in a rough cluster between around 1990 to 2000. A 2002 U.S. State Department report estimated that anywhere between 14,000 and 200,000 blacks had been abducted into slavery since the beginning of the war (the latter, more reliable, figure coming from Dinka chiefs). Actual slave raids are believed to have stopped by 2002, coinciding with the peace talks which brought about the close of the war in 2005.

Experiences of the Slaves

Where mainstream human rights giants like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch largely abandoned the slaves of Sudan, the heroic Swiss-based organization Christian Solidarity International actually undertook the task of freeing the slaves. With donated money, CSI’s well-publicized liberation campaign succeeded in purchasing the freedom of more than 100,000 slaves between 1995 and 2011.

Those slaves lucky enough to be liberated in CSI’s mass buy-backs — mostly women — tell hideous stories of abduction, beatings, forced conversion to Islam, grueling labor, Islamic vaginal mutilation, malnutrition, racial abuse, and rape. Almost all who are redeemed have given birth to their Arab masters’ children — some liberated with their mothers, others still held as slaves.

One woman, Amel Dor Manyuol, freed in 2014, was the only survivor of six children:

The slave raiders came at night, on horses. I watched them shoot some of my brothers and sisters, and I saw the rest flee into the bush. I assume they’re dead. We were four brothers and three sisters: Adup, Akot, Achier, Abuk, Adut, Akuol and me. I haven’t seen any of them since.…

Mohammed had one wife and two older sons. They were all unkind to me. You can see on my left arm I have a scar from a bite, and a burn-scar. These were given to me by the baby girl I had to take care of, after she grew up. On my left leg is a knife scar, from Mohammed’s children. When Mohammed saw these wounds, he said, “She’s a jengai [a racial epithet]. It’s no problem.”

Mohammed’s sons raped me. So did Mohammed.

Mohammed had me circumcised. An old man named Abdullah did it. They told me, “If you join us, you have to be like us.” At first I refused, but I was terribly beaten until I agreed. Before that, they gave me a new name: Hawa.

Another, Aguil Mawien Tang, was horrendously abused and deprived of her own children fathered by her master:

The slave raiders raped the women. I was raped by two groups of men, first three, then two. They beat me terribly with sticks to get me to submit. I still have the scars on my chest.…

[My master, Amoth Akbar] sold slaves to other people, and gave me to other Arab men for sex — any passerby who had a gun. I complained to him about it, saying, “Why do you give me to these other men, when you are the one who took me here?”

I had two children because of this. As soon as they were old enough to start working, Amoth took them away from me. I don’t know where they are. I don’t even know their names. Amoth gave them Arab names but didn’t tell me, and wouldn’t let me give them Dinka names.

Most Recent Developments

While the end of the Second Sudanese Civil War in 2005 brought an end to constant slave raids, a large number of black slaves still remain in Arab Sudan today. In 2006, James Aguer Alic, an anti-slavery activist and former minister in the Arab Sudanese government, told the British newspaper The Independent that “there are a further 35,000 children to be freed.” In the years since then, no reliable estimates have emerged for the number of black slaves still owned by Arab masters in the north.

Great unrest has also rocked Arab Sudan after the ousting of General Omar al-Bashir from power on April 11, 2019. A provisional civilian government led by Abdalla Hamdok which sought dialogue with the West and greater religious freedom for Christians was itself overthrown in a coup d’état in 2021 and replaced by another Islamic military dictatorship. Briefly reinstalled after a deal was reached with the military, Hamdok was forced to leave office again on January 2, 2022, leaving both Christians’ and the slaves’ futures uncertain.

In fact, even with an independent South Sudan, South Sudanese Christians are still not safe. The civil war and political turmoil which have tormented the new country since independence in 2011 have made it almost impossible for the people to defend their porous northern frontier, fueling cross-border violence.

Since at least 2018, Arabs from the Misseriya tribe and neighboring Dinka populations have both engaged in violent raids targeting each other’s precious cattle. A series of three cross-border raids in the winter of that year left nearly 50 people dead on both sides, with one Arab Sudanese politician blaming the “disarmament of the herders without [both governments] providing them with protection by securing the border between the two countries.” In addition to this, inter-communal cattle raiding has been a major problem within South Sudan since independence, though the government in Juba has accused Khartoum in the past of arming some such raiders.

In more recent years, however, further Arab raids have brought South Sudanese villagers’ worst nightmares to life: new slaves are being taken. On the heels of a 2021 raid which killed 13, Michael Deng Bol, bishop of the Episcopal diocese of Abyei, told The Anglican Communion News Service of how

In 2020 Kolom village, 12km away from Abyei town, and Mabok Diil village, 18km east of Abyei town, were also attacked in the same way with 38 killed and 22 wounded, together with the abduction of 17 children and burning down of 77 houses including our prayer centres and medical facilities.

On January 15, 2022, Christian Solidarity International released the horrific details of another new raid, this one costing the lives of 19, destroying two villages, and taking an undetermined number of children as slaves:

Clutching her baby against her breast, panic-stricken Akon Nguet gathered her other children and rushed out of their hut at dawn to hide in the bush. Within minutes, her home was ablaze. Arab Islamist militiamen on horseback and three-wheel motorbikes had launched an attack against her predominately Christian Black African village in South Sudan.

On January 4, 2022, Arab raiders crossed the border from Sudan and set about destroying the villages of Yinh Pabol and Warguet. These were the first such attacks in the area in over 15 years, and they came out of the blue.

“Most of the attackers on horses were men and the majority on motorbike tricycles were women who came into the area one hour after the men had captured some women and children,” according to a local worker with Christian Solidarity International (CSI). He said the women were ululating to celebrate the success of the raid. The local church in Akon’s village was burned down.

The local governor said 19 people were confirmed dead in the twin attacks.

Some of Akon’s neighbors were killed. Others were captured and whisked away into slavery in Sudan, just as tens of thousands of South Sudanese people were enslaved during the civil war (1983-2005). Akon and her children survived. But they are now destitute. Their hut was set alight, and virtually all their meager belongings were destroyed.

Adhuol Wol Ahoi’s eight-year-old child was one of those captured.

“While I was at a distance to my maternal uncle’s house where I live with my child, I saw men on horses shooting my uncle three times. They grabbed my childAguot Bol, and put her on a horse, then rode away with her,” said the desperate mother.

She, Akon, and hundreds of others from their area are now struggling to survive, eating leaves, begging from other impoverished people, huddling around an open fire at night to stay warm.

In response, the South Sudanese government closed Northern Bahr el-Ghazal State’s border with Arab Sudan, with one general assuring the locals that he had “deployed heavy forces at the border to monitor the security situation.” Despite these measures, by March, subsequent Arab cattle raids had left dozens dead in one week. Whether slaves were taken is unknown. Then, on June 14, 2022, the border was declared “operational,” and, two weeks later, the governor of Northern Bahr el-Ghazal State was in Khartoum attempting to negotiate a trade deal. The ramifications of an officially open border are difficult to determine, but could further embolden Arab raiders.

On December 14, 2020, the Trump administration announced it had removed Sudan from the State Department’s State Sponsors of Terrorism list in response to Khartoum’s pleas that the government no longer sponsors terrorism. The Biden administration should be advised to enforce a condition of Khartoum abolishing slavery, stopping new raids, and working to free those still enslaved as a condition for any future cooperation.