Sudan's great slave scam
In Sudan, the slave trade continues - and Western
charities have collected millions of dollars to free women and
children enslaved in the north. But the high-profile redemption of
thousands of slaves is often a corrupt racket. In a major
investigation, Declan Walsh talks to witnesses of the sale of fake
slaves by fake slave-traders.
The slave redemption makes for powerful human drama. A line of women
and children emerges from the African bush. A slave trader in front,
wrapped in the white robes of an Arab. And before them, waiting with
a bag of money at his feet, is a white, Christian, man.
The procession halts under the shade of a tree. There is discussion,
then money changes hands. Suddenly the trader gives a nod, the
slaves walk free and there are cries of joy as families are
re-united. Freedom, at last.
Stirring emotional sight
Who could fail to be stirred by this emotional sight? Thousands of
black African southern Sudanese have been enslaved by vicious
militiamen from the mainly Arab north. For the past seven years,
Christian Solidarity International (CSI) has been buying back, or
"redeeming" the slaves, for US$50 a head. The highly publicised
redemptions have touched millions of hearts - and wallets - across
the world but particularly in the US.
Celebrities and politicians have chained themselves to railings in
protest. Pop stars have given free concerts. Little girls have given
their lunch money. But there is another side to the redemption
According to aid workers, missionaries, and even the rebel movement
that facilitates it, slave redemption in Sudan is often an elaborate
scam. Some genuine slaves have been redeemed - nobody can say how
many - but in other cases, the process is nothing more than a
careful deceit, stage-managed by corrupt officials.
It seems like a noble cause. The Sudan People's Liberation Army
(SPLA) has been at war with the Khartoum government, an extremist
Islamic regime, since 1983. The rebels control most of the south;
government forces hold the north. In its prosecution of the war, the
government - a notorious human-rights abuser - has revived slavery.
Arab militiamen are encouraged to destabilise frontline rebel-held
villages by looting, murdering and snatching women and children away
to a life of slavery in the north.
Terrible human trade
To combat this terrible human trade, CSI arranges for Arab traders
to buy the slaves and secretly walk them through the bush to safe
villages in the rebel-held south. The CSI plane lands, the money is
paid, and the slaves walk free. Or so it appears.
In reality, many of the "slaves" are fakes. Rebel officials round up
local villagers to pose for the cameras. They recruit fake slavers -
a light skinned soldier, or a passing trader - to "sell" them. The
children are coached in stories of abduction and abuse for when the
redeemer, or a journalist, asks questions. Interpreters may be
instructed to twist their answers.
Money 'very real'
The money, however, is very real. CSI can spend more than $300 000
during a week of redemptions at various bush locations. After their
plane takes off, the profits are divided - a small cut to the
"slaves" and the "trader" but the lion's share to local
administrators and SPLA figures. One commander is said to have
earned enough from the profits of slavery to buy 40 wives. Other
officials living in faraway Nairobi or Europe have allegedly built
houses or financed businesses.
A well-intentioned endeavour has been subverted into Africa's
greatest, and most lucrative, theatre performance.
Who gets the cheque?
English Baroness Caroline Cox, who sits in the House of Lords, was
among the original redeemers, but the trade has been dominated by
the Swiss-based CSI, which has bought the "freedom" of more than
64 000 slaves since 1995. It denies being duped.
"The money involved is well publicised," says John Eibner, the
American who has been the driving force behind redemption.
have our own mechanisms in place to ensure there is no fraud." CSI
is in the process of introducing fingerprinting and
video-identification systems for redeemed slaves.
However, members of the SPLA, which plays a key role in every
redemption trip, say otherwise.
"The racket is there, right from the top," admits official SPLA
spokesperson, Samson Kwaje. "The money comes from those American kids.
But who gets the cheque?"
Been there for years
It's a question that few can answer with certainty. But what is sure
is that the warning signs have been there for years. Within the
SPLA, whispers of suspicion have swelled into a chorus of criticism
in recent years. Acrimonious rows have broken out and accusations of
profiteering levelled at individuals.
Outside the rebel ranks, aid workers have been puzzled. It seems
almost incredible that tens of thousands of abducted civilians could
cross a dangerous frontline undetected by government forces.
Moreover, aid workers north of the line saw no evidence of large
movements south, and their colleagues in the south saw no sudden
demand for extra food or medicines by redeemed slaves.
Put simply, the numbers didn't add up. And yet no questions were
asked. The dollars rolled in and the redemptions continued. The last one was in December.
No doubt about slavery in Sudan
That slavery exists in Sudan is not in doubt. Since time immemorial
the southern Dinka pastoralists have fought with their Arab
neighbours to the north. In battles over grazing land, warriors from
both sides would raid cattle, women and children from each other.
Later, some slaves could be returned, in exchange for an agreed
number of cattle.
Organised slave raiding died out during the British colonial period
but with the advent of war in 1983, it was deliberately revived by
the Khartoum government in response to the SPLA insurgency. It armed
the Murahaleen, a ruthless horseback Arab militia, and charged them
with protecting a military train that cuts through rebel territory
to the garrison town of Wau.
As the train advances at a snail's pace, the Murahaleen sweep wide
into surrounding villages, killing men, torching houses and raping
women. Their pay is whatever they find, be it animals, women or
children. The slaves are driven north, where they live a miserable
life of servitude, abuse and sometimes forced conversion to Islam.
Shocked by the re-emergence of this brutal practice, CSI threw its
weight behind the redemption of southern slaves in the mid-1990s.
Under Eibner, it arranged for northern "traders" to smuggle lines of
slaves into SPLA territory. There, CSI would negotiate a price -
usually $50, more recently $33 - for the unfortunate slaves. Scores
of journalists were brought along to witness the exchange.
In the US, with its large black population and heritage of slavery,
it touched a raw nerve. The campaign gripped the public imagination
and hasn't let go since. From stockbrokers to schoolkids, millions of dollars have been raised for redemption. Slavery became a
fundraising phenomenon, and Sudan is the most high-profile African
cause in the US since apartheid.
But outside observers of redemption do not, and cannot, see
everything. The entire operation is controlled by the SPLA, which
provides communications, transport and interpreters, and it is
conducted in great secrecy. CSI says this is necessary for security
reasons - it fears the government will bomb it - but this makes it
extremely difficult for outsiders to drop in unannounced on a
One exception is Father Mario Riva. An Italian missionary, Father
Riva lived in Bahr el Ghazal, the frontline province where most of
the fighting and slave redemption takes place, for more than 40
years. He retired two years ago. In the late 1990s, Father Riva
stumbled across a CSI redemption between the towns of Marial Bai and
Nyamlell. The Comboni father was like any other Western observer,
but with one crucial difference - he knew the Dinka people, and
their language, as his own.
Translate something different to question
John Eibner was standing under a tree with a group of slaves, some of whom Father Riva recognised as his own parishioners. "The people
told me they had been collected to get money. It was a kind of
business," he recalls. A rebel official was translating between
Eibner and the slaves. "The white man would ask one thing and they
would translate something different to the people," he says.
For example, says Father Riva, Eibner would ask if a slave had been held in captivity. The official would translate the question as
"have you suffered in the war?" The villager would emphatically
reply in the positive. Then the translator would tell Eibner that
the man had been abducted by Arabs, treated inhumanely and was
grateful to CSI for saving his life.
However, Father Riva said nothing at the time, fearing retribution
from the rebel soldiers. "I was very upset. I could not stay at the
redemption," he says.
CSI has been publicly challenged on the effects of redemption. The
UN children's agency Unicef started a row when it suggested that redemption encourages further slave raiding.
There was also a split with Baroness Cox, an initially enthusiastic
member who formed a rival organisation, Christian Solidarity
Worldwide, in 1997 after an acrimonious falling-out with Eibner. CSW
went on to redeem more than 3 000 slaves but stopped one year ago
because it "had successfully raised the profile of slavery",
according to a spokesperson.
Process open to corruption
Baroness Cox admits that the process is open to corruption but
remains convinced that every redeemed slave was genuine: "It was
just horribly true and horribly authentic".
On the ground, however, aid workers were seeing thing differently.
One nurse with a European aid agency witnessed a first-time
redemption by a small American Christian group - not CSI - in late
1999. "They brought the kids to be redeemed to a clearing under the
trees. I knew two of them by name," she says.
"They were wearing our [feeding centre] bracelets. And the
logistician recognised the Arab guy as someone from the district who
worked with the SRRA [the Sudan Relief and Rehabilitation
Association, the rebels' relief-co-ordination wing]." The Americans,
who were filming the redemption, did not notice.
'Guys with guns'
The nurse wanted to speak out but her colleague told her to keep
quiet. "He said, 'There are guys here with guns. Let them give the money if they want'," she recalls.
At this time, redemption was also causing upset in rebel circles. A
December 1999 meeting of the SPLA National Liberation Council -
southern Sudan's top civil and military leaders - saw furious
accusations of profiteering traded openly late into the night. Among
those singled out was Dr Bona Malwal, a Sudanese academic who
lectures in Oxford and had frequently accompanied CSI redemption
trips. Also named was Dr Justin Yaac, now a senior SPLA official.
Free plane-ride into war-zone
A month later, the SPLA leader, Dr John Garang, made a written order
forbidding Malwal, Yaac and three other officials from travelling on
future redemptions. Malwal and Yaac, both based outside Sudan, deny
any suggestion of wrong-doing and say they were merely taking
advantage of a free plane-ride into the war-zone.
However, Dr Yaac admits that the rebels made exorbitant profits on
selling Sudanese pounds to CSI up to the end of 1999 - enough to buy
thousands of gallons of fuel, 27 second-hand Land Cruisers and
10 000 uniforms for the army.
The debate was re-ignited six months later by an angry letter from
Aleu Ayieny Aleu, a SPLA commander who had retired due to war
wounds. Redemption had become "the worse racket of mafia
dimensions," he railed.
Furthermore, he said, a relative, SPLA captain Akec Tong Aleu, had
been been "forced several times to pretend as an Arab and simulate
the sale of free children to CSI on camera".
Last August, Karl Vick of the Washington Post and I made
arrangements to meet Akec Tong Aleu in Akon, a village deep inside
Bahr el Ghazal province. After a week of waiting, Tong failed to
show. "I think he was kept away from you," SPLA spokesperson, Kwaje,
50 000 slaves redeemed
Despite the multiplicity of warning signs, CSI has accelerated the
redemption process in the past two years. Planes chartered by CSI
have regularly touched down in Bahr el Ghazal, bringing medicine,
food and hundreds of thousands of dollars. More than 50 000 slaves
have been redeemed in this period.
Eibner says he was aware of the controversies but put them down to
petty politicking: "CSI became the vehicle to fight internal
battles. It had very little to do with slave redemption". Instead,
he went on to direct a highly publicised anti-slavery campaign that
grabbed the public imagination. It hasn't let go.
With conservative Christian George W Bush in the presidency, Sudan
has become a political hot potato in the US.
Black political and religious leaders, such as the New York preacher Rev Al Sharpton, have queued up to witness redemption.
In December 2001, Perry Farrell, lead singer with the rock group
Jane's Addiction, helped to free 2 300 slaves. According to reports,
he led "emancipation dances" in remote villages using a portable
Thanks largely to CSI, slavery has percolated into the popular
consciousness. Last May, 150 students from a school in the small
town of Pennsauken, New Jersey, held a "Walk of Freedom". Motorists
honked in support at the children holding banners proclaiming: "Stop
Slavery". Laquisha Gerald had collected $44 for CSI. "I thought it
was good to give up my lunch money to free slaves," the 12-year-old
told the Philadelphia Inquirer."We're doing something good."
American Anti-Slavery Group
The main fundraising vehicle is the American Anti-Slavery Group
(AASG), headquartered in Boston, the home of American abolitionism.
Jay Williams, a black Harvard undergraduate, learned about slavery
at a gospel concert and has become the public face of AASG. He
explains the personal resonance of slavery and redemption: "We owe
it to those that fought and died for our freedom 150 years ago to
work for our brothers and sisters in Africa".
Williams has been on two redemption trips - during which 11 000
people were freed. It was an emotional experience. "It was one of
the best feelings ever," he says. "You only had to see the smiles on
their faces." After interviewing and photographing several slaves,
he has no doubt about what he saw.
They blush when they lie
"There's no way I can believe this was planned," he says. "The
consistency from interview to interview and place to place, about
what happens in the raid and in the north. I don't think there's any
way for people to construct a hoax."
The director of AASG, management consultant-turned-slavery
activist Charles Jacobs, agrees. "I'm a New Yorker and I think that
when rural people lie, they blush," he said.
But Sudan activists in the US have long been worried about the
redemption time-bomb. "It's not that there isn't slavery," says Dan
Eiffe, an Irish aid worker who has testified before the US Congress
on human-rights violations by Sudan government supporters. "But it's
worrying that the issue that has driven us is surrounded by
Sudan deserves attention
It is not that Sudan does not deserve the attention. More than two
million people are estimated to have died in 19 years of fighting,
and a further four million displaced. The Khartoum government has
shown a ruthless disregard for the people of the south. Its planes
regularly, and indiscriminately, bomb rebel-held villages.
Moreover, its efforts to combat slavery have been tokenistic.
Stinging international criticism sparked the creation of a slavery
commission in 1999, but military hard-liners, anxious to destabilise
the south, have prevented it from functioning efficiently.
CSI estimates that 200 000 slaves remain in bondage in the north.
However, aid agencies working there are sceptical. Save the
Children, which works with escaped slaves, puts the figure at 7 000.
According to Unicef Khartoum director, Thomas Ekvall: "We find those
numbers frankly impossible."
Meanwhile, the redemptions continue. The SPLA still co-ordinates CSI
trips because its leadership is wary of antagonising commanders and
officials in the militarily sensitive Bahr el Ghazal region.
Redemption is a "sticky issue" for the leadership, admits Kwaje.
But the practice may be drawing to a close. CSI recently announced
that, for the first time, it had liberated 14,500 slaves without
payment. It claimed the slaves were freed through negotiations
between southern and northern tribal elders.
Last autumn, a Canadian tele-evangelism agency, Crossroads, went to
Kwaje looking to redeem slaves. He sent them home.
"I told them to go back to the kids who donated the money and tell
them they should give it one of the aid agencies." -
European-Sudanese Public Affairs Council