‘There has been an alarming increase
in the number of reports ... of slavery, servitude, the slave trade and
forced labour. I regret the total lack of interest shown by the competent
‘The government has been unable with
its limited wealth and law enforcement resources to eliminate all instances
of rural abductions and ransoms stemming from tribal conflicts. Human rights
in war zones and areas outside government control are not fully respected...’
‘In the "mentality of the enslaver",
Southern Sudanese are seen as "less worthy" individuals whose rights can
be violated at random...’
|Some Questions and Answers|
slaves are there?
Several thousand have been enslaved in the last ten years. It's impossible to give a precise figure, or to say how many have escaped or been freed. The raiders have also massacred thousands of people and driven hundreds of thousands from their homes. Many such "displaced" people, including 250,000 Nuba, are forced into in government "peace camps" - where they become internees, but not slaves.
Who are the
The slaves are mostly Dinka people from the northern part of Bahr al-Ghazal region, plus small numbers from other war-stricken areas.
The main takers of slaves are government-armed militias from the Rezeigat and Meseriya people. Both groups belong to the Baggara, cattle-herding Arabic-speaking people who live in the neighbouring regions of Kordofan and Darfur. Other members of the "Popular Defence Force" (PDF) militias, as well as some regular army officers, are also involved.
has the taking of slaves in Sudan been going on?
Many centuries. Raiding for slaves was common under Turkish-Egyptian and Mahdist rule in the 19th century, when Northern Sudan held tens of thousands of slaves, and exported tens of thousands more to Egypt and the Arab states.
Much of Southern Sudan was plundered by commercial slave traders, who devastated its peoples. Southern Sudanese resisted fiercely, and today's inhabitants are the descendants of those people who remained free. Slavery was abolished by the British imperial rulers in 1898, but it took some decades for the practice to die out. Although Sudan suffered a North-South civil war from 1955-72, slave-taking was not a central issue then. Slavery has only re-emerged in the last decade.
In 1986 the Defence Minister in the civilian government led by Prime Minister Sadiq al-Mahdi proceeded to arm Baggara militias as a "security belt" against the mainly Southern rebels, the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA), in renewed civil war. The resurgence of slavery was described in a 1987 report by two Northern Sudanese university lecturers, who linked it to the militias. Many of today's slaves were taken during the 1986-89 period, before the current regime seized power.
What is the
Sudan Government's policy?
The government has repeatedly denied that slavery exists, but under international pressure it set up committees to investigate the question in early 1996. It blames the phenomenon on "tribal conflicts" in which both sides take hostages, and insists these captives are not slaves. Slavery is against the law in Sudan, and only "the white man, decades ago", took slaves, it says. In practice, the government uses the militias to destroy villages and terrorize entire communities. It turns a blind eye to raiding for captives as "war booty" to be kept in servitude or sold. Some captives become hostages, some become slaves. When families of captives try to get their children back through the courts,the government has not often been helpful. And close to the war zones, few people are brave enough to challenge militia fighters in court.
How can the
slaves in Sudan be freed?
Some escape, some are released by the courts or by inter-tribal negotiation. Some are handed back to their relatives on payment of "keeper's expenses". Rezeigat and Dinka representatives have negotiated for the release of hundreds of Dinka children in return for access to fresh pastures and water controlled by the Southerners - underlining how ecology affects the conflict.
Reports of foreigners helping to "buy back" captives have publicized the situation. But paying ransoms is not a solution. Capturing people for ransom or slavery can only be ended by dismantling the militias, restoring judicial processes and bringing the perpetrators to justice. It's essential to revive local reconciliation systems, and ensure access for human rights monitors.
the main problem in Sudan's war?
Slavery alerts us to the extremes of human rights abuse in Sudan, and to the racist history in the conflict. But it is vital not to overlook the many related atrocities committed against civilians in Southern Sudan, the Nuba Mountains of Kordofan, and elsewhere - including massacres, rape, aerial bombing and the wholesale destruction of villages.
Since 1983, an estimated 1.5 million Sudanese people have died and at least five million fled their homes as a result of war. It is government policy to force hundreds of thousands of war-displaced people into "peace villages". These are internment camps: people are denied their liberty and forced to work for little or no pay in appalling conditions. Families are split up, women are abused, men have to train and fight in the PDF militia. Children are taught a crude exclusionist Islam and made to Arabize theirnames and their language. Both sides in the war are using child soldiers and forced labour. RivalSouthern Sudanese factions have kidnapped children and abducted women.
What is the
background to the war?
British colonial rulers pursued separate development policies for North and South Sudan, setting the stage for conflict when they left. The war is also rooted in decades of social, political and economic discrimination by the dominant North against Southerners and people from other peripheral parts of the country.
In 1983, Southern army units mutinied and formed the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA), which claims to fight for the equality of all Sudanese. The SPLA split in 1991 and many Southern civilians have died in faction fighting. Since a military coup in 1989, the government of Lt-General Hassan al-Bashir has intensified the war, estimated to cost a crippling one million dollars a day. Oppression extends well beyond the war zones: dissent is banned, and torture is rife. Most Northern political parties - and some former army officers - have formed an exiled opposition front called the National Democratic Alliance (NDA).
Is this a
The ruling National Islamic Front (NIF) won less than 10% of the votes of Muslim Sudanese in the last free elections. It uses religious rhetoric in its war propaganda, to try to rally international Islamic support. Some Christian groups have fallen into the same trap, forgetting that the government is oppressing Muslims as well as non-Muslims. The civil war is fundamentally about political power and social disadvantage, about racism and intolerancerather than religious faith.
I do to help?
Slavery can not be tackled in isolation. It is tied in to other human rights and humanitarian questions in Sudan, and to the country's basic social and economic problems. A variety of organisations are trying to address these indifferent ways. Some are working on human rights monitoring, some aresupporting local efforts to resolve conflicts and release captives, and others are working on development and relief assistance programmes. All these campaigns need help.
Sudan Update published a discussion booklet, "Slavery in Sudan" in May 1997, in conjunction with Anti-Slavery International. It produces a current affairs review and runs a non-aligned information service.
PO Box 10
West Yorkshire HX7 6UX
Tel/Fax: +44 (0) 1422 845 827
E-mail Sudan Update
Unit 4, Broomgrove Rd
London SW9 9TL
African Rights - Facing Genocide: The Nuba of Sudan
African Rights - Sudan's Invisible Citizens: The Policy of Abuse against Displaced People in the North
Ahmed E. Elbashir - The United States, Slavery and the Slave Trade in the Nile Valley (University Press of America)
Amnesty International - The Tears of Orphans: No Future without Human Rights
Human Rights Watch/Africa - Beyond the Red Line: Political Repression in Sudan
Human Rights Watch/Africa - Children of Sudan: Slaves, Street Children & Child Soldiers
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