Slave Liberation in Sudan
CSI has been working on the ground in Sudan since 1995 to liberate Christians and other non-Muslims forced into slavery by Islamist militiamen armed and directed by the Khartoum regime. We discovered a local network of Africans and Arabs working together to help retrieve some of those abducted into slavery. With CSI's assistance, this indigenous Underground Railroad grew into a sophisticated network that has managed to liberate tens of thousands of people in the past 17 years. Still, thousands remain in bondage - over 35,000 according to a Sudanese government official.
Slavery in Sudan was revived in 1983, when the Arab Muslim government of Sudan began using slave raids as a weapon in its war to put down Southern rebellion against the government’s imposition of Islamic law. The government armed Arab Muslim militia groups, and encouraged them to raid Southern villages, steal their property, and take their women and children as slaves. Tens of thousands of people were captured and enslaved.
A peace treaty in 2005 put an end to the slave raids, and paved the way for the south to become an independent country in 2011. However, the treaty provided no way home for those already enslaved – as many as 35,000 people. Today, CSI continues working to bring these people home.
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Keer Aleu Deng: A Teenage Captive Freed by CSI
"I don’t know where I was born. All I can remember is living in the North with my mother (Angel Mangok Diing) and Zakaria Salih. Zakaria was our master. My mother lived with him as a concubine. My mother told me that my father died and that we were captured and taken to the North by Murahaleen (Baggara Arab raiders). We lived with Zakaria in a village called Jama Jur. (It’s in Kordofan, between Meiram and Muglad.) My main work was to look after goats and pick hibiscus leaves for tea. Zakaria was a violent man. He often fought with my mother. Sometimes it was so bad she would run away to neighbors for protection. Sometimes Zakaria would chase us away. He beat both of us a lot. He usually used a camel whip. I had to call Zakaria “father”. But he called us bad names, like “kafir” (unclean infidel),“abd” (slave) and “jengei” (a racial epithet). He never called me “son”. He gave me an Arab name, “Abakir“, and never called me by my real Dinka name. My mother gave birth to Zakaria’s children. My half brothers and sisters were unkind to me. I don’t know what happened to them. They disappeared and no one told me where they went. Zakaria sent me to khalwa (Islamic school) to learn how to be a good Muslim. I was taught there that a kafir is a dirty person who does not know God and eats filthy things. Zakaria blinded me by hanging me upside down from a tree and rubbing chili pepper in my eyes. He left me hanging there for a long time. To add to my misery he lit a fire near me so the smoke would drift into my face. I screamed throughout the ordeal. I thought I would die. Zakaria did this because he said I didn’t do my work properly. He accused me of allowing hibiscus leaves to get wet, allowing his animals to get lost and skipping Islamic instruction at khalwa. He also claimed that my mother and I were planning to escape. I was saved by a neighbor named Bakhit. He was an imam. Bakhit took me into his home and gave me work to do. At first I could still see. But my sight gradually deteriorated. Now I can see nothing, except some strong light in one eye. [Keer reacted strongly when a close-up flash photo was taken at night.] Bakhit did not abuse me like Zakaria. He was a kind man. But once I became completely blind, he said I was of no use to him. So he gave me to the slave retriever, who brought me to the South. Since coming back (in May 2010), I have been staying with people from a church in Ariath. I like being at the church services. The church also provides some education. I like sitting in on the classes and listening to what is being said."
Compiled by Dr. John Eibner, based on Gunnar Wiebalck’s interview on 19 May, translated by Dr. Luka Deng, and John Eibner’s interview on 11 September, translated by Akuei Akuein.Read About Keer in the Boston Globe on his treatment at the Perkins School for the Blind
Read More Slave Stories from the Field HERE
CNN's Freedom Project Featuring Dr. Luka Deng
CSI Outreach Director at Unbounded
- What kind of crime is slavery?
- Why are people enslaved in Sudan?
- Didn’t the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) of January 2005 between the Government of Sudan and the Southern rebels stop this practice?
- How many slaves are there in Sudan?
- Where do Sudan’s slaves come from?
- Where are most Sudanese slaves held?
- How are Sudanese slaves treated?
- What is the UN doing to address the problem of slavery in Sudan?
- When and why did CSI start to help liberate slaves?
- How does CSI try to help?
- What has CSI achieved?
- What does it cost CSI to free each slave?
- Is it morally right to give money or other valuable items to slave owners for the freedom of slaves?
- How does Sudan’s Underground Railroad work?
- Doesn’t the redemption of slaves merely create a market?
- How do you know that the people that come back through the Underground Railroad were really enslaved?
- What happens to slaves once they have been liberated?
Q. What kind of crime is slavery?
A. Slavery is recognized in international law as a “crime against humanity.”
Q. Why are people enslaved in Sudan?
A. In 1983, the Arab Muslim-dominated Government of Sudan abrogated the autonomy of Black African Christian/traditionalist Southern Sudan and imposed Islamic law on the entire multi-religious country. Southern Sudan opposed these arbitrarily imposed measures through armed resistance. In response to rebellion in Southern Sudan, the Sudanese government began to arm Arab Muslim militias and use them as an instrument of its counter-insurgency policy. The Arab Muslim militias, sometimes supported by the Sudanese army, regularly raided the borderlands of Southern Sudan. They routinely burned villages, stole cows, goats and other movable property, shot men and captured women and children as slaves.
A. The CPA did suspend the abduction of slaves in Southern Sudan. However, it made no provision for the liberation of women and children who had been captured in Southern Sudan and taken as slaves to the North before the signing of the CPA. Moreover, as the CPA was being negotiated, a new war broke out in the northern region of Darfur where armed Black African Muslim groups launched a rebellion against the Government of Sudan. The enslavement of Black African women and children is a feature of the civil war in Darfur.
A. No one knows for sure. Community leaders from the affected area have reported to CSI that over 200,000 women and children have been enslaved since 1983. In addition to those captured in slave raids, slave children are born in bondage to slave women. In 2008, a member of the Sudanese Parliament in Khartoum estimated that at least 35,000 were still enslaved in the borderland of Northern and Southern Sudan.
A. Most of Sudan’s slaves are members of the Dinka tribe. Their homeland is in Northern Bahr El Ghazal. This area borders Northern Sudan. It is south of Darfur and Kordofan. Many other tribes in other parts of Sudan have also been victimized by slavery, but not to the same extent as the Dinka tribe.
A. Most of the slaves are taken from Southern Sudan to the North, and are kept by their captors in Darfur and Kordofan. Some slaves are taken to other parts of the country. There are credible reports of Sudanese slaves being sent to Libya and the Gulf States.
A. Male slaves usually have to look after livestock in cattle camps and/or help with agriculture. Female slaves usually have to perform domestic labor and/or field labor. Sexual abuse of slaves is widespread, especially, but not exclusively, amongst female slaves. Beatings, death threats, forced conversions, forced labor, racial and religious insults are commonplace. Some slaves are executed if they displease their masters.
A. The UN is doing very little. It is unable to do much for two reasons: It lacks the will and it is incapable of acting in Sudan without the permission of the very government that is responsible for the revival of slavery. The revival of Sudanese slavery was documented and well known in governmental and NGO circles since the mid-1980s. But the UN was silent for political reasons. When publicity generated by CSI forced UNICEF to acknowledge for the first time in 1999 that children and their mothers were indeed being enslaved, the Sudanese government threatened to close down all UNICEF and other UN operations in the country. Following negotiations with the Sudanese government, UNICEF agreed not to speak of “slaves” and “slavery” in Sudan. Instead it started to use the misleading euphemisms “abductees” and “abductions.” UNICEF also agreed to provide financial support for the Government of Sudan’s new Committee for the Eradication of the Abduction of Women and Children (CEAWC). Although this committee was established mainly as a showcase to deflect criticism from Western countries, it has succeeded in returning several thousand slaves to Southern Sudan. However, during the past several years, the government has wound down its funding and CEAWC has become largely dysfunctional.
A. CSI began its slave liberation work in 1995. The decision to act came following fact-finding visits to the affected area. CSI became aware of the extent of the slavery problem and of the sad fact that the international community was doing virtually nothing to help the slaves. We also discovered that an “Underground Railroad” already existed, enabling slaves to be freed and sent home. Community leaders asked for CSI’s help.
CSI began to strengthen the local Arab-Dinka peace agreements by sponsoring peace conferences (see below details of these agreements.). CSI also launched a major anti-slavery campaign to create awareness and encourage the policy-makers in North America and Europe to use their power to help free the enslaved. CSI furthermore provided financial support for the Underground Railroad.
A. The media spotlight that CSI placed on slavery and our efforts to build a broad, left-right, black-white, Christian-non-Christian coalition were two crucial factors in President Bush’s decision to in September 2001 to launch, a diplomatic initiative, headed by former Senator John Danforth, that ultimately brought peace to Southern Sudan. Moreover, local community leaders have recorded the liberation of over 80,000 slaves through the CSI-supported Underground Railroad since 1995.
A. It costs CSI $109 to help emancipate a slave and provide him or her with essential humanitarian aid. For nearly a decade, CSI paid 50,000 Sudanese pounds for the liberation and return of a slave. In local terms, that is the purchase price of two goats. In U.S. currency the value has ranged over the years between $50 and $35. At the present time, CSI does not exchange cash for slaves. Instead, we make cattle vaccine available to slave-owning cattle camp Arabs.
A. Yes, when there is no better way to affect liberation, and when the families of the enslaved and the leaders of the victimized community desire it. In Sudan, the government in Khartoum, the UN, and the rest of the international community, including the NGOs, have failed to produce a more effective system for liberating slaves. The redemption of slaves is sanctioned by the Judeo-Christian tradition. The great 12th century Jewish scholar Maimonidies judged that the redemption of slaves was a religious obligation. Two Catholic orders, the Trinitarians and the Mercedores were established explicitly for the purpose of redeeming slaves. Fredrick Douglas was a redeemed slave, as was Mother Bakhita - Sudan’s only canonized saint.
A. Local Arab-Dinka peace agreements are the basis of the slave retrieval system. In the early 1990s, some Arab clans which have an economic dependence on Southern Sudan - either the need for trade or land for dry season grazing – forged peace agreements with their Black African neighbors to the South. These Arabs were allowed to trade at designated markets in Southern Sudan and graze their cattle in designated areas, in return for rejecting the Government of Sudan’s declared jihad and facilitating the return of women and children who had been enslaved. Masters expected some payment for the release of their slaves, and the retrievers incurred costs. For nearly a decade, CSI paid 50,000 Sudanese pounds for the liberation and return of a slave. In local terms, that is the purchase price of two goats. In U.S. currency the value has ranged over the years between $50 and $35. At the present time, CSI does not exchange cash for slaves. Instead, we make cattle vaccine available to slave-owning cattle camp Arabs. When slaves are returned to Southern Sudan, they are documented by local community leaders and CSI staff. Tribal chiefs help locate the families of the liberated slaves.
A. No. The revival of slavery in Sudan was not driven mainly by economic forces. It was instead driven primarily by political and military factors. The suspension of slave raiding in Southern Sudan at the time of the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement between the Government of Sudan and the SPLA – notwithstanding the ongoing redemption of slaves – clearly proves this fact. Moreover, the religious and civil leaders of the victimized communities would not have encouraged CSI to redeem slaves had they experienced an increase of slave raiding because of CSI’s efforts. There is a broad consensus within these communities in favor of the CSI-supported liberation system. Were this not the case, CSI would not wish to liberate slaves, and, indeed, would not be permitted to.
A. CSI has employed many safeguards to prevent against fraud. There have been many independent investigations of CSI’s work, especially by the media. None of the eye witness journalists have discovered and revealed false slaves. CSI also involves many people, representing different segments of the victimized communities, including the local churches, in the documentation process. None of the few outsiders who have claimed that not all the slaves are genuine have ever produced the name or other details of a false slave. Such allegations remain today unsubstantiated. CSI openly encourages anyone that might have credible evidence of wrongdoing to present it to us in detail so it can be properly investigated and appropriate remedial action taken. So far, no one has presented CSI with such evidence.
A. CSI’s field staff interviews and photographs each liberated slave. Once the documentation is complete, each slave receives a survival kit, including a mosquito net, a blanket, a plastic sheet, a water container a cooking pot, a sickle, fishing hooks and food rations. The freed slaves find their way back to their home areas through the chieftainship network. Most slaves find their relatives. The few who do not are taken in by a chief or the church.