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Acitivists decry slave redemption in Africa’s Sudan

NCR Staff

Human rights and humanitarian groups have questioned the growing practice in Sudan of slave redemption by foreign Christian groups, expressing fears that Western money will fuel the country’s slave market.

They have been joined in their criticism by a Catholic missionary priest and journalist who has said that the organizations involved in redeeming slaves may fall victim to “an operation organized by unscrupulous people for financial benefit.”

Families and chiefs of the southern Sudanese Dinka tribe have long attempted to redeem abducted women and children from slavery. Most of the victims of slave trade have been women and children from the Dinka tribe who were taken captive by militia groups from the predominantly Muslim North. The captives are considered war booty in the country’s ongoing civil conflict.

Since 1995, Dinka leaders engaged in redeeming slaves have increasingly received assistance from foreign Christian groups, allowing the redemption of hundreds of people at one time.

UNICEF spokesperson Marie Heuze in early February called these tactics “absolutely intolerable,” arguing that slave redemption implicitly supports human trafficking.

But groups carrying out redemption operations said that there is no evidence that large-scale redemption efforts contribute to the cycle of abductions and slavery. “What is intolerable is to leave these women and children in the hands of brutal captors,” said Charles Jacobs, head of the Boston-based American Anti-Slavery Group, which raises money for Christian Solidarity International.

Swiss-based Christian Solidarity International says it has redeemed more than 6,000 people since 1995, paying about $50 for each slave. Other groups, such as Christian Solidarity Worldwide, have subsequently carried out their own redemption efforts. The organizations have drawn support from U.S. schools and church congregations.

According to Human Rights Watch, abducted women and children are often physically and sexually abused, and are coerced into renouncing their Christian and animist beliefs and adopting Islam. The organization has noted that the militia carrying on the slave trade “diligently avoid any attacks on military targets. ... Their purpose is to abduct and loot, not to risk themselves in combat.”

The missionary priest and journalist, Comboni Fr. Renato Kizito Sesana, said that the “first culprit” in Sudan’s slave trade is the country’s government, which is “encouraging the popular militia and similar groups to loot property and people from areas under the control of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army.” Sesana is an Italian missionary who has worked in Africa for 22 years.

In a March 12 statement, Carol Bellamy, director of UNICEF, emphasized, “As a matter of principle, UNICEF does not engage in or encourage the buying and selling of human beings.”

UNICEF said that while redemption efforts are well-intentioned, “the sobering truth is that these efforts will not end the enslavement of human beings.” According to Bellamy, there can be no lasting solution to the enslavement of women and children in Sudan until the country’s on-again, off-again 30-year civil war is ended. “To roll back and eventually bring a halt to slavery in Sudan, UNICEF believes the main effort should be directed at enlisting the support of the warring parties in ending the armed conflict and all its practices.”

Human Rights Watch, while noting that it “does not condone or condemn” foreign assistance for redemption of slaves, said that the unregulated nature of redemption operations increases the potential for fraud. “Knowledge that there are foreigners (with presumably deep pockets) willing to pay to redeem slaves can only spur on unscrupulous individuals to make a business out of redemption,” Human Rights Watch said.

That concern is shared by Sesana, who raised questions of fraud in an article in AfricaNews, a Nairobi, Kenya-based publication of Koinonia, a lay association he founded. Sesana said the operation of redeeming hundreds of slaves at one time “sounds incredible to me and to anyone who has knowledge of conditions on the ground in Sudan.” The priest raised questions about the control of such large numbers of people, as well as the problem of feeding them.

Human Rights Watch also urged that more care be taken to monitor the humanitarian needs of those who are redeemed. “In January 1999 alone one transaction involved 1,050 children and women, not all of whom had families waiting to receive them,” the group said. “This is a large number of needy people turned loose in a zone which has not yet recovered from famine.”

John Eibner, head of Christian Solidarity International, one of the organizations targeted by critics, said that during the redemption operations, local people and his organization contribute what food they can.

Eibner noted that the system for redeeming slaves was already in place before Christian Solidarity International began its efforts. That system, organized by Dinka chiefs and northern neighbors, relies on trust from all parties that no fraud will take place, he said.

Noting that Eibner and others leading a recent redemption operation do not speak Arabic or Dinka, Sesana said that he had heard a report of questionable translations from their guides. He urged groups involved in redeeming slaves to allow human rights experts and journalists who can take a critical viewpoint and “who speak at least Arabic, able to ask the right questions at the right time, plus some Dinka translators properly selected, to accompany them on a trip. This trip should not be a hit-and-run redemption scoop, but it must allow time for the team to survey the surrounding area and interview in depth the people they encounter.”

National Catholic Reporter, April 2, 1999