Freeing Sudanese 'Slaves' From 'Arab Captors'
By Declan Walsh in
The Independent - London 2-24-2002
Western campaigners who spent millions of dollars buying the freedom
of slaves in war-torn Sudan have been the victims of a scam, it
organisations have "redeemed" more than 65,000 Sudanese
slaves from their Arab masters over the past seven years, usually
for $50 (£35) a head. The leading charities are the Swiss-based
Christian Solidarity International (CSI) and Christian Solidarity
Worldwide (CSW), founded by Baroness Caroline Cox, a deputy speaker
of the Lords. But although slavery in the African country is a reality,
The Independent on Sunday can reveal that "redemption"
has often been a carefully orchestrated fraud on the charities.
to witnesses, local villagers are rounded up to pose as slaves when
Christian groups arrive with briefcases full of money. The "slave
traders" are sometimes disguised rebel soldiers from the Sudan
People's Liberation Army (SPLA). A retired Italian missionary told
the IoS he saw his own parishioners posing as slaves. A European
aid worker saw children she knew pretending they were in bondage.
And a former rebel commander said a relative, also a soldier, had
been forced to pose as a slave trader.
emotive issue of slavery in Sudan has had a particularly strong
impact among black Americans and Christian groups in the US, where
it has become the biggest African cause since apartheid. Politicians
have chained themselves to railings in protest, pop stars have given
free concerts. The CSI has raised millions of dollars with its promise
to save a slave for $50, and raised the issue in public consciousness
by inviting well-known figures such as the Rev Al Sharpton and Perry
Farrell, lead singer of the rock group Jane's Addiction, to witness
May, a 12-year-old American schoolgirl, Laquisha Gerald, raised
$44 for the cause. "I thought it was good to give up my lunch
money to free slaves," she told the Philadelphia Inquirer.
"We're doing something good."
Cox, who split from CSI to form CSW in 1997, has spent over £100,000
redeeming 2,281 slaves. She insists she was not cheated. "We
double and triple-checked and did spot interviews with the people
redeemed," she said. "Their stories rang true." The
decision of her charity, CSW, to stop redeeming slaves a year ago
had nothing to do with suspicions of corruption, she said. According
to the organisation, her missions to Sudan simply became too dangerous.
genuine slaves have been set free - nobody can say how many - but
frequently redemption is a deceit, stage-managed by corrupt officials
of the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA). "The racket comes
right from the top," said Samson Kwaje, an SPLA official, last
week. "The money comes from those American kids. But who gets
Khartoum government, which has been fighting southern SPLA rebels
since 1983, is a notorious human rights abuser. The rebels have
mainly traditional and Christian beliefs, while the government is
dominated by Muslim extremists. Last week a government helicopter
gunship fired five rockets into a southern village, killing 17 civilians
in an attack which prompted the US to break off a peace initiative
it is sponsoring.
is there any doubt that the government has deliberately rekindled
the slave trade as a counter-insurgency measure. It has armed the
Murahaleen, a murderous Arab militia that destabilises rebel-held
villages by killing the men, stealing the cattle and taking women
and children into bondage. In the north, the slaves endure a terrible
life of harsh labour, physical abuse and sometimes forced Islamisation
or female circumcision.
CSI has sought to counter this terrible trade since 1995 by buying
the freedom of more than 63,000 "slaves". In theory, it
arranges for Arab middlemen to buy up the slaves and secretly walk
them across the front line to the safety of the rebel-held south.
Then the CSI representative flies in, pays the going rate - usually
$50 per head but currently $35 - and the slaves walk free.
so it seems. Father Mario Riva, an Italian missionary, witnessed
a CSI redemption in the late 1990s. Unlike nearly all other Westerners
who have been permitted to witness a redemption, he knew the Dinka
people and their language. Fr Riva saw John Eibner, an American
CSI official and the driving force behind slave redemption, standing
under a tree with some slaves. The priest recognised them as his
own parishioners. "The people told me they had been collected
to get money," he said. "It was a kind of business."
was key to the deception, said Fr Riva. If Mr Eibner asked whether
a slave had been taken into captivity, the interpreter would ask
if they had suffered in the war. If the "slave" answered
that they had, Mr Eibner would be told they had been captured and
badly treated by Arabs, and were grateful to be home.
A nurse with a European charity recalled seeing a slave redemption
in late 1999 carried out by American Christians. "They brought
the kids to be redeemed to a clearing under the trees. I knew two
of them by name," she said. Her colleague recognised the "slave
trader" as a rebel official, but warned her to keep quiet.
"He said: 'There are guys here with guns. Let them give the
money if they want,' " she recalled. The nurse requested anonymity,
fearing retribution against colleagues.
the slaves are fake, the money is very real. After the CSI plane
takes off, the profits - sometimes over $300,000 in one week - are
divided up. A small cut goes to the slaves and the traders, but
the lion's share goes to local commanders and SPLA figures. One
is said to have earned enough to buy 40 wives, and others have allegedly
built houses or financed businesses.
Eibner denies CSI has been duped. "The money involved is publicised,
but we have mechanisms to ensure there is no fraud," he said.
But the organisation recently announced that it had freed 14,500
slaves without paying a penny.
have long maintained that CSI's figures did not add up. At times
when it was "redeeming" over 6,000 people, aid workers
in the north saw no mass movements south. Colleagues in the south
reported no surge in demand for food aid from the returned "slaves".
In 2000, Fr Riva compiled a list of southerners who had returned
to Nyamlell, the town where the CSI campaign started, over the preceding
seven years. They were only 300.
has caused upset within the SPLA, where accusations of profiteering
have been made against senior figures. "It has divided us,"
said Mr Kwaje. Aleu Ayieny Aleu, a retired SPLA commander, alleged
that a relative had been "forced several times to pretend [to
be] an Arab and simulate the sale of free children" to CSI.
And a storm of profiteering allegations prompted the SPLA leader,
John Garang, to ban five people from entering Sudan on CSI redemptions.
estimates there are still 200,000 slaves in Sudan. Save the Children
puts the figure at no more than 7,000.