How black slaves helped set South Sudan free

By Charles Jacobs

On July 9, a new African nation – the Republic of South Sudan – was born and days later admitted to the United Nations as its 193rd member. This is an extraordinary development in the history of nation states, replete with marvels, contradictions and ironies: The partition of Africa’s largest country was the result of a halfcentury of armed struggle, yet it culminated peacefully via the ballot box. Courageous Muslim individuals contributed to freeing a Christian and traditionalist South from Islamic rulers. But most wondrous of all: It may well have been South Sudan’s black slaves who set their nation free.

Since the Islamic conquests a millennium ago, Arabs enslaved blacks in Sudan and throughout North Africa. The practice was largely suppressed by the British, but in the early ’90s, when Islamist rulers in the north declared a “holy war” to impose Sharia Law on the South, slavery dramatically surged. Arab militia, armed by Khartoum, stormed the mostly Dinka villages in the South, killed the men and enslaved the women and children. Rights groups reported that tens if not hundreds of thousands of slaves were captured to serve Arab masters in the north. Slave raids took place in the context of mass slaughter: In the ’90s, close to 2 million South Sudanese were killed in the conflict, according to US government agency reports. Reports in the Western media of what later would be called “genocide” were disappointingly sporadic. Christian groups in America dubbed the events in Sudan “the Hidden Holocaust,” but slavery and slaughter continued

During those years, South Sudanese intellectuals and activists who had fled to the United States tried to pressure American churches, human rights groups, lawmakers and the UN to stop the killings. They were ignored. A war in Sudan? It was one more African tragedy to an America with “compassion fatigue.”

In 1994, The New York Times broke the story of a modern day slave trade in North Africa – written by Mauritanian Muslim refugee Mohammed Athie and me. Athie and I met with leaders of the South Sudanese diaspora in New York and in Washington, D.C., and suggested they campaign against slavery in Sudan. Most agreed, but some were reluctant. Francis Deng, a prominent South Sudanese intellectual, worried that if the South brought up the slave raids, the Arabs would be shamed and then the two peoples could never be at peace. Some New York activists wondered why Americans, who did not bestir themselves over the slaughter of Africans, would care about slavery. Some felt it would be a humiliation to speak publicly of Dinka women and children serving Arabs as concubines and domestics. In the end, there was agreement. Human bondage is a crime against humanity. America is an abolitionist nation that almost tore itself apart over the issue of one man owning
another. Americans disagreed on many things – abortion, homosexuality, war, taxes – but we were defined by our devotion to personal liberty. People would listen.

And they did. When the reports of slavery reached the United States, a neo-abolitionist movement took wing. In Boston and Washington, we created an unlikely left/right coalition that included Barney Frank and Pat Robertson; much of the Congressional Black Caucus; and Republican Senator Sam Brownback.

Most important, we linked with the slave liberator John Eibner of Christian Solidarity International (CSI) in Zurich. An American-born intellectualturned activist, Eibner patiently built an “underground railroad,” convincing Arab cattlemen who depended on Dinka grazing lands to return Dinka women and children from captivity. It was Eibner who trudged through the bush, arranging the emancipation of tens of thousands of slaves … all with personal stories of lives in captivity. We helped get these stories in the national press, and Americans took action. When the story of South Sudan is written, Eibner will emerge the shining, legendary figure.

Boston, the center of antislavery efforts during the Civil War, played a key role. Our organization, American Anti-Slavery Group (AASG), educated congressmen, churches and synagogues. Through the Sudanese community here, we discovered Francis Bok, an escaped slave, and helped bring his voice and his story to hundreds of thousands in universities, churches and synagogues across the country. Bok became the first escaped slave to testify in Congress and published a book about his experience.

Prominent black pastors from Roxbury like Gerald and Cynthia Bell and Ray and Gloria White Hammond, along with news anchor Liz Walker, flew to Sudan to witness CSI’s liberations. In September 2000, Coretta Scott King and Boston Mayor Thomas Menino presented AASG with the first Boston Freedom Award for its abolitionist work.

The Sudan Campaign, a national umbrella of concerned organizations, pressed US administrations to intervene. Finally, George W. Bush did. In 2005, under pressure from the United States, South and North Sudan signed a Comprehensive Peace Agreement that stopped the war and provided the South with the opportunity to choose independence. On Jan. 9, 2011, 98 percent of the South voted for secession.

This fight for freedom has its Muslim heroes: In 1987, Ushari Mahmoud and Suleiman A. Baldo, two Muslim scholars based in Khartoum, risked their lives documenting the resurgent Arab slave trade. Their report, “Al Diein Massacre and Slavery in Sudan,” evoked scenes that could have been right out of anti-Jewish pogroms and for me was a major source of inspiration. They were imprisoned for writing the report, a summary of which appears in the accompanying box. If these two men could take such risks to expose crimes of their fellow Muslims for the sake of humanity and justice, how could we sit and do nothing?

That lesson lives: Today South Sudan is free, and the slave raids are no more, but the political agreements failed to free the estimated 35,000 slaves remaining in the north. CSI and AASG are – still – determined, and working to set them free.

July 31, 2011 | 3 Comments »

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  1. I’m behind with my e-mail and just read this.

    Thank you so much to Charles Jacobs, John Eibner and every one of the non-Muslim and Muslim heroes who helped to free the slaves and bring about the birth of the new nation of South Sudan!

    May every slave be free one day!

  2. It is characteristic of Israel to be one of the first to offer diplomatic recognition to the new nation of South Sudan, in addition to technical and material help. Considering Jewish history which included so much persecution, conquest, brutality, massacres, genocide and slavery, we have much in common with South Sudan. May they live and prosper in peace and freedom for many, many years.