Songs and tears as Sudan's slaves begin long journey home

Declan Walsh
Saturday 17 January 2004 01:00

It was as if the dead had risen. Sixteen years after being snatched into slavery, Abuk Dut walked into Majak Gei village in southern Sudan. A waiting crowd exploded with emotion. Women rushed around, singing and weeping. Overjoyed elders hailed her.

An uncle rushed forward with news of family. A chief sprinkled the overwhelmed woman with water from a bowl, a traditional blessing. It was her first day of freedom since the age of seven.

That day, armed raiders on horseback swept through Abuk's village like a malevolent storm. Houses were torched, men killed, women and children abducted. Abuk was bound and forced north into captivity in government-held territory. Years later she was forced to marry a member of the PDF, a notoriously ruthless local militia. As time passed Abuk forgot her native Dinka language and learned Arabic.

Last May, everything changed. Charity workers and local officials came to take Abuk home. Her husband made frantic phone calls to prevent her leaving; others tried persuasion. It was desperately poor in the south, they said. There would be no proper medical treatment for her two infant daughters. Abuk remained unswayed. "God will treat my daughters," she said defiantly as she packed her belongings.

The return of the slaves has started in Sudan. An estimated 14,000 women and children have been abducted from the war-racked south since 1986. Now aid workers say the Khartoum government, embarrassed by its association with the phenomenon, is prodding the slave-raiders to send their booty home.

A trickle of abductees has returned. As the burgeoning peace process takes hold, thousands more are expected to follow. The charity Save the Children UK is helping organise the returns.

"I can't even watch some of the reunifications," Chol Changath, a programme officer, said. "The people cry, and so do I. There are tears of bitterness, from being separated, and happiness, from coming home."

Slavery has deep and tangled roots in Sudan. In the 19th century, Turko-Egyptian forces brutally suppressed the southern tribes, establishing vast slave routes to the north. The trade slowed under British colonisation but was reignited by the latest round of civil war, which started in 1983.

Khartoum deployed horseback militia known as Murahaleen to frontline areas. In return for protecting a strategic railway line, the Arab tribesmen were allowed keep whatever booty they found, crops, cattle or human.

The raids have ceased in the past year, but thousands of southern women and children still live in servitude on northern farms. They get no money and are beaten if they refuse to work. Some, reports say, have been forced to convert to Islam. "I do not want to be sold again," pleaded Acho Ommail when she reached Nyinboli village last year. The 35-year-old mother told aid workers she had had been traded several times, and lost her four children.

The Conservative peer Baroness Cox and other Christian campaigners highlighted the slaves' plight and the complicity of the Khartoum government. Some also became involved in the controversial practice of "buying" slaves out of captivity. The US group Christian Solidarity International claimed to have redeemed more than 70,000 slaves, a figure five times greater than the total slave tally estimated by British and Sudanese researchers.

The contradiction bolstered claims by missionaries and aid workers that exaggeration and fraud blighted the "redemptions". CSI denied the accusations but "buy-backs" have slowed in recent years. Instead, slaves are returning voluntarily, on foot. About 175 crossed the perilous front line last year, and 125 other were flown in on aid agency planes. The returns can trigger great celebration, but are often complication by the human and logistical hurdles of Sudan's isolated war zone.

The return of 10-year-old Adhal was fraught with difficulties. First the plane dropped him at the wrong airstrip. Then he had to rest because he contracted malaria. Finally, he found the people who claimed to be his relatives. But they did not know his third or fourth names, the equivalent of not having an address in southern Sudan. Even worse, they were expecting a girl.

"It can be difficult with the names," Chol Changath said. There are thousands of missing people in the south, and you can have three families claiming for one child." The returns also turn up enigmas. One man, who had spent a decade tending his "master's goats", had forgotten his relatives and showed no emotion when told his parents had died. Aid workers thought him mentally injured. But to their puzzlement he still spoke fluent Dinka despite his long exile in the Arabic-speaking north.

The looming peace deal has encouraged high hopes for the thousands of remaining slaves. After 21 years of war, a peace deal between the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) rebels and the government of Sudan is intoxicatingly close. Negotiators are expected to sign within months.

The agreement will probably set off a tide of southerners returning from exile in the north, including thousands of abductees. But the influx could cause another crisis; already there are worries about whether they will find enough food or shelter.

Last year's food shortages in Bahr El Ghazal province, for example, were compounded by the return of freed slaves with no food in their stores and no harvest. One desperate mother and her three children were forced to pack their bags and walk back to the north.

After the clamour of celebration died down in Majak Gei village, Abuk Dut got some bad news. Three brothers had died in the fighting. So had her father, who had spent three years wandering northern Sudan, searching fruitlessly for his lost daughter. Exhausted and broken-spirited, he died shortly after he returned home.

But there was good news, her uncle added. Abuk's mother, Ayak, was alive, well and living in a nearby village. A day later the old woman came to collect her daughter. Shortly afterwards they set out on the journey home, together again.

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