Why I Bought Slaves

By Caroline Cox

After a visit to Sudan, Baroness Cox reports on the slaughter of Christians and animists by raiders backed by the country’s Islamic regime. She explains how she, and the organization Christian Solidarity Worldwide with which she traveled, were driven to enter the slave trade.

The Catholic catechist Santiago Ring was standing in the ruins of his church at Mayen Abun in northern Bahr-El-Ghazal in the borderlands between southern and northern Sudan. The beautiful brick church had withstood attempts by Muslim raiders from the north to burn it down, who destroyed all that could be destroyed and tried to shoot down the cross from the roof. Santino stood by the empty ruin holding one of the drums traditionally used to make a joyful accompaniment to worship, which had been slashed by soldiers.

He told us what happened in the fateful day in April when government troops with armed jeeps, camels and fast horses swept into this part of Bahr-El-Ghazal. First they attacked the thriving market at Aben Dau, killing hundreds of civilians including children; they then pursued and massacred those trying to escape into the bush; and stole tens of thousand of cattle; they pillaged homes before burning them and setting fire to crops; then they moved on, killing, plundering and burning. Most of those who live in Bahr-El-Ghazal are African Dinka people, mainly Christians and animist, persecuted by the fundamentalist Islamic regime in Khartoum, the capital of Sudan.

Traveling with a group from Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW), I was in the area two weeks after these raids and I saw the devastation at first hand: human and animal corpse were strewn as far as the eye could see; charred remains of homes and crops were all that was left of village after village. Those who had managed to escape had fled to swamps where their attackers could not follow.

At Mayen Abun, the raiders continued their savagery. Santino’s sister was taken as a slave and her husband was killed. Santino was left to care fro his sister’s four children. With all crops burnt, they were reduced to eating tamarind seeds.

We were shown bloodstained patches on the ground where we were told the raiders had cut the throats of three women and a child; nearby, we were shown charred human remains in a hut which had been set alight. Santino claimed that two men were thrown alive into the conflagration.

But for me the most poignant moments were when Santino talked about the faith of his people. He told us that several hundreds would still come to church, emerging from hiding to worship. He said with profound sadness, that they felt abandoned by Christians in the rest of the world. They were trying to hold a frontier against a fundamentalist, totalitarian Islamic regime committed to polices of enforced Arabisation and Islamisation; if they gave up the struggle, militant Islam would spread to neighboring African countries – and perhaps further afield. But until we came nobody had visited them for several years. They felt isolated, forgotten, abandoned.

As he stood in the ruined church with his sister’s children who had lost their father to the bullet and their mother to slavery, his plaintive question, “Doesn’t the Church want us anymore?” broke our hearts. Those words challenge us who live in comfort, in countries where we do not have to pay a price for our faith. How often do we remember St. Paul’s messaged to the Church of Corinth: “When one part of the body of Christ suffers, we all suffer.”

Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW), based in New Malden, Surrey, works for victims of repression, regardless of creed or color, and it never proselytizes. But when it encounters Christians facing persecution, it tries to show solidarity with them. Their first request is always prayer. It is humbling. Even if they are dying of disease and have no medicines; of starvation and have no food; even if they are naked and are cold, prayer is still their priority.

The media has portrayed the tragedy of those who are dying from famine caused by drought and floods, but there has been little coverage of the horror’s inflicted by the government’s policy of ethic cleansing of the African Dinka tribes from these fertile and oil-rich borderlands.

During our most recent visit we were able to take essential medical supplies and to assist in the buying back of some of the slaves who had been abducted during the raids in April, or who had been in slavery for longer. Of course, buying the freedom of the slaves who had been abducted during the raids in April, or who had been in slavery for longer. Of course, buying the freedom of the slaves is not a long-term solution to the Government’s policy of encouraging this age-old practice. The national Islamic Front regime has elevated it to new dimensions by participating in the raids with its own well-equipped forces and by arming the Mujahidin warriors with automatic rifles and fast horses.

It is possible for some of the friendly, peaceable Arab traders to negotiate the freedom of some slaves and to bring them back to their communities. But many of the Dinkas have lost everything in the raids and have no resources with which to buy the freedom of their loved ones.

Some assistance with resources can enable local community leaders to buy back women and children for families who have lost everything. For that reason, a macabre and intensely harrowing part of our visit was spent engaging in the slave trade. Controversial? Of course, but does one look into the eyes of a mother or a child and tell them that they must remain in slavery until a political solution is found for the conflict in Sudan? On this visit we were able to make it possible for Santino’s sister to be restored to their children and for the wife of one of the men thrown into the burning hut to be bought back. We will not forget her radiant smile as she exclaimed, despite all the suffering, how happy she was to be free.

But buying back slaves is not our only response. On a previous visit, Mubararrak el Mahdi, a grandson of the famous el Mahdi who defeated general Gordon in Khartoum, courageously accompanied a mission to this area to meet the peaceable Arabs who visit the south in the dry season to trade and to graze their cattle in the fertile pastures. In huge meetings under the spreading mango trees, he told his Arab brothers that they were being manipulated by the government and that they must stop attacking, killing and enslaving their African neighbors. We were told on subsequent visits that the Government was finding it much more difficult to find recruits for these raids.

Christian Solidarity Worldwide is working in the political arena to highlight the practice of slavery and to press the National Islamic Front regime to open up all the Sudan to human rights monitors to identify and free those still in slavery. We estimate, on the basis of numerous visits and first-hand evidence of slave raids, that tens of thousands of Africans have been enslaved. There are reports that many have already been exported to other countries. This makes the need for a slave-tracing programme even more urgent, to rescue them before they vanish forever.

If you had been with us and spoken to some of those we met, you would be convinced of the need for action. You would have met young Dinka slave boys who could only speak Arabic and who could recite verses from Koran, which they would never have learnt in their local communities. You would have seen the scars on the bodies of the women and children who had been beaten. And you have witnessed the macabre transactions whereby these victims of the Government’s policy of enforced Arabisation and Islamisation were bought back.

The price? On average, the price of freedom for a slave in Southern Sudan is the equivalent of three heads of cattle -- $100. At least Santino’s sister is free. And so are 400 other slaves. But countless others still suffer and die in the tragedy, which is Sudan today. Many southern Sudanese Christians refuse to go to government towns and garrisons for the food and medicine which could alleviate their suffering and keep them alive. They know they will have to forfeit their Christian faith and adopt Muslim names and practices as the price for survival. They claim they would rather die than forfeit their faith.