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Freeing Sudanese 'Slaves' From 'Arab Captors' Scam Exposed

By Declan Walsh in Nairobi
The Independent - London 2-24-2002

High-profile Western campaigners who spent millions of dollars buying the freedom of slaves in war-torn Sudan have been the victims of a scam, it is alleged.

Anti-slavery 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.

According 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.

The 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 redemptions.

Last 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."

Baroness 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.

Some 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 the cheque?"

The 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.

Nor 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.

Swiss-based 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.

Or 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."

Interpretation 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.

If 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.

Mr 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.

Experts 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.

Redemption 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.

CSI estimates there are still 200,000 slaves in Sudan. Save the Children puts the figure at no more than 7,000.

Source: http://news.independent.co.uk




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