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HRW Background Paper on Slavery and Slavery Redemption in the Sudan
March 1999  (Read March 2002 Updated Version)

Slavery and Slave Redemption in the Sudan
March 2002
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Human Rights Watch has long denounced the contemporary form of slavery practiced in Sudan in the context of the fifteen-year civil war. This practice is conducted almost entirely by government-backed and armed militia of the Baggara tribe in western Sudan, and it is directed mostly at the civilian Dinka population of the southern region of Bahr El Ghazal. The government's purpose in arming this tribal militia, known as muraheleen, seems to be to conduct a cost-reduced counterinsurgency war against the Sudan People's Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A), which is identified with the Dinka tribe of southern Sudan. Thus the tribal militia, often operating with government troops and usually transported into Bahr El Ghazal by military train, raids with impunity civilian Dinka villages, looting cattle and food as well as abducting women and children for use as domestic slaves and sometimes as "wives" or concubines. The abductees are considered war booty, although the muraheleen diligently avoid any attacks on military targets and do not attack villages where the SPLA might be present. Their purpose is to abduct and loot, not to risk themselves in combat. Their "war" effort is directed exclusively towards civilians, which is a gross violation of international humanitarian law.

In its reports Children of Sudan: Slaves, Street Children and Child Soldiers (1995) and Behind the Red Line (1996) as well as in its forthcoming report Famine in Sudan, 1998: the Human Rights Causes, Human Rights Watch describes the practice of slavery and provides testimonies of its victims. The abducted children and women often lead lives of extreme deprivation and cruelty at the hands of their masters. Many are physically and sexually abused, and forced to live at a standard well below that of their captors (sleeping on the floor, minimum food, no chance for education). Beatings for "disobedience" are common. They are denied their ethnic heritage, language, religion, and identity as they are cut off from their families and are held by Arabic-speaking captors, most of whom rename the abductees with Arabic names and some of whom coerce the children and women into adopting Islam. Those who force these changes on their captives often are convinced that they are doing a favor for the captives; they regard the Dinka culture as inferior and believe that the abductees are fortunate to have been incorporated into a superior culture. This notion of beneficial side effects to the practice of war booty or slavery is a self-serving sop to the conscience of those who engage in abductions or reap the benefits of this practice, particularly where the incorporating family is childless and treats the children kindly -- a rare event in any case. It also makes it imperative for the government to engage in an educational campaign of toleration for diversity.

Human Rights Watch has called on the government of Sudan to take firm measures to stamp out this practice and prosecute those responsible for it, including law enforcement officers who fail to assist the victims and their families who are searching for them. The victims' families have consistently complained that the local government officials, including police, have rarely helped them when they have traveled to western Sudan in an attempt to locate and free their abducted children. Thus the government of Sudan is guilty not only of knowingly arming, transporting and assisting the slave-raiding militia, it also is guilty of not enforcing its own laws against kidnaping, assault, and forced labor. There is no prohibition in the Sudan Criminal Code of 1991 against slavery, however.

The government of Sudan, until recently, has stonewalled on the issue of slavery, claiming it was a matter of rival tribes engaging in hostage-taking, over which they had little control. That is simply untrue, as myriad reports coming out of southern Sudan have made abundantly clear. Recently, on the eve of the arrival in Sudan of the U.N.'s Special Rapporteur on human rights in Sudan, the government announced that it will prosecute slavers and urged the population to report cases of slavery. This is a small but positive move in the right direction. Whether the announcement will be followed up with concrete action is uncertain, since the Sudan government has a long history of press releases promising changes that are forgotten by the next news cycle. What is required is a proactive government campaign to stamp out this practice, and effective assistance to the families in locating and freeing (without compensation to the masters) their abducted relatives. Human Rights Watch has long urged the government to set up a tracing agency for families separated during the war, or permit other experienced agencies, such as the International Committee for the Red Cross or UNICEF, to freely conduct tracing and family reunification throughout Sudan. Even if the government of Sudan suddenly began to enforce its criminal laws, that would not address the problem of the people -- possibly numbering in the thousands -- who still live in captivity.

Since 1995, several groups of non-Sudanese Christians have endeavored to assist the Dinka to redeem their abducted children and female relatives. These efforts are in addition to efforts that the Dinka have been taking for many years, including networking to identify Dinka children not living with their families in non-Dinka areas, and a variety of other methods designed to free the identified children and women without attracting the attention of the obstructionist local authorities. The families, through middlemen or directly, have long been paying the masters to secure the freedom of abducted relatives -- when they could locate the abductees. At times, committees consisting of Dinka chiefs and elders have made formal approaches to Baggara chiefs, appealing to them to free the abductees or to assist the chiefs in locating them. Some of these efforts have borne fruit, and some have not. There are those among the Baggara and local officials (usually from the Dinka or Nuba tribes) who cooperate with the families when asked. They are not in the majority, however. As a result, these self-help measures have been excruciatingly piecemeal.

Without doubt, the families of the abductees and their chiefs welcome the assistance they receive from outside groups to redeem the slaves. They put the welfare of the individual children and women first, regardless of larger policy considerations raised by concerned agencies and individuals. This is entirely understandable: those relatives and chiefs whom Human Rights Watch has interviewed have stressed that this outside assistance enables them to free larger numbers of slaves than they were able to do on a piecemeal basis before.

The danger of continued redemptions is several-fold. 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. When the practice started in the mid-1980s, it seemed that the primary motivation of the raiders (in addition to weakening the Dinka population) was to acquire cattle, with slavery as a secondary consideration. The availability of foreign funds poses the risk that those who already conduct the slaving raids on Dinka villages may make abduction the primary motivation, or may abduct children and women for the explicit purpose of gain from the sale or redemption of abductees, even if cattle remain the primary war spoils attraction.

Furthermore, such a monetary incentive for raiding and abduction may work against local agreements between Baggara and Dinka to halt raiding in exchange for access for Baggara cattle to pastures and rivers during the dry season; in past years these local agreements have provided intermittent relief from raiding but are not approved of by the government, which tries to thwart them to preserve raiding as a counterinsurgency tool. Providing the raiders with additional material incentives to raid may well undercut peace efforts.

Finally, there is the risk of fraud in the redemption process. Redemptions are now conducted without reference to lists of missing children and women; the middlemen seem to secure the release of the abductees from their masters without knowing whether there is a family member ready to assume responsibility for the released abductee. This gives rise to the risk of fraud: for instance, unscrupulous middlemen may "borrow" children -- with or without the knowledge of their caretakers -- who have never been abducted, for the purpose of enlarging a group of slaves (and thus increasing the proceeds from the redemption). Thus foreigners intending to do good may be deceived by middlemen. While Human Rights Watch cannot cite a specific instance of this, many have voiced concern about the potential for such fraud in this entirely unregulated environment.

These concerns argue for an effective Sudanese and international program to stop abductions and return abductees to their families. While Human Rights Watch does not condone or condemn the current outside assistance for redemption of slaves, it does urge those concerned, including agencies that have until now not had a role in the process such as the ICRC and UNICEF, to address the humanitarian needs of those who are redeemed and to devise approaches that will forestall fraud. There are increasing numbers of slaves redeemed; in January 1999 alone one transaction involved 1,050 children and women, not all of whom had families waiting to receive them. This is a large number of needy people turned loose in a zone which has not yet recovered from famine. Since UNICEF has included in its categories of children in especially difficult circumstances "former abductees" and "abductees," it can proceed to the creation of a census of all abductees (by name, date of birth, place of birth, ethnic origin, names of family members, and date and place of abduction) by interviewing those in the affected zones. This census would be a valuable tool to assist in the tracing of abductees and to deter potential fraud.

The focus must remain on the victims, however, which requires stepped-up international action -- not just to end the war but to end slavery in Sudan now. Postponing measures to tackle this problem until the end of the war may mean that thousands more are taken captive while the parties remain militarily and politically stalemated.