Sudan's great slave scam

2002-02-27 15:21

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 story.

Elaborate scam

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. "But we 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.

Brutal practicce

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.

Great secrecy

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 redemption.

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.

Feared retribution

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.

Debate re-ignited

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, told us.

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.

'Emancipation dances'

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 stereo.

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 scandal."

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."

Redemptions continue

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