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Slavery and Slave Redemption in the Sudan
Human Rights Watch Backgrounder
Updated March 2002 (earlier backgrounder dated March 1999)

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Slavery and Slavery Redemption in the Sudan
Human Rights Watch Background Paper, March 1999

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Human Rights Watch has long denounced slavery in Sudan in the context of the nineteen-year civil war. In this contemporary form of slavery government-backed and armed militia of the Baggara tribes raid to capture children and women who are then held in conditions of slavery in western Sudan and elsewhere. They are forced to work for free in homes and in fields, punished when they refuse, and abused physically and sometimes sexually. Raids are directed mostly at the civilian Dinka population of the southern region of Bahr El Ghazal. The government arms and sanctions the practice of slavery by this tribal militia, known as muraheleen, as a low cost part of its counterinsurgency war against the rebel Sudan People's Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A), which is identified with the Dinka tribe of southern Sudan.

Human Rights Watch has called on the government of Sudan to take firm measures to stamp out slavery 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 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 responsible not only of knowingly arming, transporting and assisting the slave-raiding militia, it also is responsible for not enforcing its own laws against kidnapping, assault, and forced labor. There is no prohibition in the Sudan Criminal Code of 1991 against slavery, though Sudan has ratified the Slavery Convention, the Supplementary Convention on the Abolition of Slavery, the Slave Trade, and Institutions and Practices Similar to Slavery, and is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) as well as other international treaties outlawing slavery.


The government of Sudan has stonewalled on the issue of slavery, claiming it was a matter of rival tribes engaging in hostage taking, over which it had little control. That is simply untrue, as myriad reports coming out of southern Sudan have made abundantly clear.

In 1999, the minister of justice by decree established the Committee for the Eradication of Abduction of Women and Children (CEAWC), an effort that UNICEF (the United Nations children’s agency), and several embassies and nongovernmental organizations supported financially. Human Rights Watch was invited to attend one of the initial workshops, held by CEAWC in Khartoum in July 1999. Victims’ communities were poorly represented there, and the communities of those implicated in abductions, forced labor, and slavery (a word the Sudan government assiduously avoids) were over-represented. Nevertheless, there did appear to be a willingness to move forward by retrieving women and children who had been abducted and were held in government territory. In order to do this, CEAWC incorporated the pre-existing Dinka Committee and its principal activist, James Agware (see below).

In 1999, on the eve of the arrival in Sudan of the U.N.'s special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Sudan, the government announced that it would prosecute abductors and urged the population to report cases of slavery. No one was prosecuted. Again in 2001 the government announced it would prosecute those involved in abductions and forced labor. So far no one has been brought to trial. In November 2001 the minister of justice announced the creation of special tribunals to try those charged with abduction. In December 2001 the government announced that the official in charge of CEAWC would report directly to the president of Sudan.

In January 2002 the government agreed with the U.S. special envoy for peace in Sudan, Sen. John Danforth, to allow an international commission to study incidents of slavery and forced labor, and to make recommendations on practical steps to end these practices. The establishment of the international commission is pending, although the U.S. government suspended its talks with the Sudan government after a government helicopter attack in February 2002 that killed at least seventeen southern civilians at a government-approved food distribution site in Western Upper Nile.


Since some time in the mid-1980s, a Dinka Committee, appointed by Dinka elders living in Khartoum, functioned intermittently to retrieve women and children held in slavery in Darfur, in the area of the Rizeigat tribe of the Baggara. That effort, headed by James Agware, a Dinka familiar with Darfur, was somewhat successful in that several hundred slaves were identified and released by their “owners.” James Agware and his associates visited the area and, through existing Dinka and other networks, identified abducted children of Dinka origin who were forced to work for Baggara families. Although the Dinka Committee never had steady financing, it managed to effect the release of several hundred persons from slavery conditions in Darfur, through talks with local authorities and chiefs. Those whose families could not be located were taken to Khartoum for care by the Dinka community there, and often placed in school.

The families residing in the southern region of Bahr El Ghazal (a rebel-held area), through middlemen or directly, have long been paying the “owners” to secure the freedom of abducted relatives—when they could locate the abductees. At times, committees consisting of Dinka chiefs and elders from Bahr El Ghazal have traveled to Darfur and Kordofan to make 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.


Since 1995, several groups of non-Sudanese Christians have endeavored to assist the Dinka in Bahr El Ghazal to “redeem”—or purchase the freedom of—their abducted children and female relatives.

Without doubt, the families of the abductees and their chiefs welcome the assistance they receive from outside groups to make payments to buy the freedom of 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. Some families have complained, however, that the foreigners drive up the market price of slaves for families searching on their own for their missing relatives and obliged to pay for their freedom.

However, the problem of slavery in Sudan is a complex one; it cannot be ended solely by efforts to “redeem” or buy back slaves. In a joint statement by the Sudan Council of Churches (SCC) and the New Sudan Council of Churches (NSCC), issued in Geneva in July 1999, the two main bodies representing Christians in Sudan, both Catholic and Protestant, said:

§ The issue of slavery should be looked at in the context of the crisis in Sudan.
§ When the crises in Sudan are brought to an end, slavery will also come to an end.
§ Partners should support the efforts of the U.N. Commission on Human Rights to end slavery in Sudan.
§ With all the good intentions in slave redemption, it does not end slavery.

In or about May 2000, SPLA Commander-in-Chief John Garang wrote the foreign groups engaged in slavery buy-backs to demand that they channel all their activities through the SPLA’s relief wing, the Sudan Relief and Rehabilitation Association (SRRA). Prior to that time, the foreign groups had used the services of various Sudanese in the diaspora to facilitate their “redemption” trips. Specifically, the SPLA forbade them from using the services of four named southern Sudanese. In August 2000, Human Rights Watch brought its concerns about potential fraud and misuse of the redemption process to the attention of a high official of the SPLA. He said that the SPLA was developing guidelines with regard to the process of buying slaves’ freedom. So far no such guidelines have appeared.


Initially it appeared that there were several problems with “redemption”: that this practice fueled the slave trade and that the organizations were effectively participating in the buying and selling of human beings.

Knowledge that there are foreigners with deep pockets willing to pay to redeem slaves could spur on unscrupulous individuals to make a business out of “redemption.” These individuals, it was thought, would be among the Baggara. When the raiding and slave-taking practice started in its present form in the mid-1980s, it seemed that the primary motivation of the Baggara raiders, in addition to weakening the Dinka population, was to acquire cattle, with slavery a secondary consideration. The availability of foreign funds posed the risk that those who already conducted the slaving raids on Dinka villages would increasingly see abduction as their primary source of wealth from raiding children and women expressly to sell their freedom.

A monetary incentive for slave raiding could also work against local agreements between Baggara and Dinka. Periodically the Baggara had agreed with the Dinka to halt raiding in exchange for access for Baggara cattle to Dinka pastures and rivers during the dry season. The government had often tried to thwart these agreements to preserve raiding as a counterinsurgency tool, by threatening the Baggara. Providing the raiders with additional material incentives to raid could undercut Baggara-Dinka peace efforts.

It has not been possible to date to ascertain whether the monetary incentive produced more raiding in practice. There are several reasons: a rise in raiding may have been prevented. In 1999, the SPLA began to provide automatic weapons to local youth guarding the cattle, so that they could defend themselves and their cattle, while the SPLA also reportedly moved some troops into the affected area. There were a few clashes between the newly armed Dinka herders and the Baggara, with fatalities on both sides. This reduced the ease of raiding that the Baggara had enjoyed until then; in previous raids, the Baggara had avoided places where the SPLA might be found. They did not seek to attack soldiers: Baggara efforts were aimed at unprotected populations. U.N. personnel reported unofficially that the numbers of raids in 2000 had declined from the prior year.

Another reason why it has been impossible to gauge the impact of “redemption” by outsiders is that there has been no systematic record keeping of the numbers of people captured during these raids. There has been virtually no systematic record keeping of any kind in this part of Sudan since the war began, and only sporadic records were kept before then. Literacy levels are is quite low and frequent displacement wreaks havoc with attempts at preserving records. Populations fleeing displacement, famine, raiders, and drought are often not able to preserve either records or the means to keep them.

But another difficulty in gauging the impact of “redemption” by outsiders is the risk of fraud in buying slaves’ freedom. Outside groups have been operated without reference to lists of missing children and women, with middlemen securing releases of the slaves without their having verified that there was a family member seeking them. This gave rise to the risk of fraud: for instance, unscrupulous middlemen might "borrow" or “rent” children who had never been abducted, for the purpose of enlarging a group of slaves (and thus increasing the proceeds from the purchase of their freedom). Many voiced concern about the potential for such fraud in this entirely unregulated environment.

A private nonprofit research project is now underway to conduct a survey of eyewitnesses to raids and abductions, victims who have escaped, family members of victims, chiefs, and other local authorities. This survey is intended to produce a registry, by name and description, and date and place of raid, of those who have been captured in northern Bahr El Ghazal since the resurgence of slavery in the mid-1980s. This survey should provide the reliable statistical data which is lacking at this time, and thus assist in ensuring that those “redeemed” are genuinely abducted slaves.

During early 1999, word of another type of fraud began to surface and circulate in exile and expatriate communities in Nairobi and elsewhere: fraud conducted by local Dinka authorities, including SPLA authorities. Most southerners aware of this said the same thing: slavery and “redemption” had become “a business” for the rebel group. Investigations by journalists with the Washington Post and the Irish Times have now confirmed these reports with eyewitness testimony confirming that some transactions for the freeing of slaves were effected not through Arab middlemen but through SPLA soldiers posing as Arab middlemen.

Press reports cite SPLA officials admitting that some of the children whose freedom was purchased were not slaves, and that at least one “middleman” was an SPLA officer in disguise. The SPLA official spokesperson said that the SPLA made quite a large sum of money from currency conversion alone.

Human Rights Watch opposes foreign-organized or funded buy-backs or purchases of freedom for slaves in southern Sudan, because of the factors set forth above.

The SPLM/A and other local authorities involved in this aspect of the slave trade should be held accountable for their actions. De facto authorities in the south should instruct military and civilian personnel in their territory that they should have no further involvement in any slavery “redemption,” buy-back, or related transaction. The SPLM/A should also make a full accounting for the use of the funds acquired through the buy-back process, including profits earned on the exchange of U.S. dollars for Sudanese pounds (later dinars). They should turn these proceeds over to a fund to be established under the supervision of a responsible international agency or trust for the use of persons who have been enslaved.

There is great need for an effective Sudanese and international program to stop abductions and return those abducted into slavery to their families. Human Rights Watch urges those concerned, including agencies that have until now not had a role in the process, to address the humanitarian needs of those who were enslaved and then escaped or were freed. We further urge that UNICEF and others devise approaches that will free all those still in conditions of slavery and that will enable them to be reunited with their families. We urge that the agencies such as UNICEF, the government of Sudan’s CEAWC and relevant state and military authorities, and international and national nongovernmental organizations working for the benefit of the enslaved institute mechanisms to prevent slavery and fraud as much as possible.

The focus must remain on the victims, however, which requires stepped-up international action—not just to end the war but also to end slavery in Sudan now by government of Sudan action. The government must firmly prosecute and sentence to appropriate prison terms those who have been involved in the abduction, kidnapping, sale, or exchange of Dinka. It should also disarm the Baggara who have been involved in the raids, and disband the Popular Defense Force units they comprise. (See “HRW Background Paper on Slavery and Slavery Redemption in the Sudan,” March 1999) Only such firm government measures can stop raiding.

The government of Sudan must also investigate and cooperate completely with search and other agencies to locate and release, without payment, those who have been abducted and enslaved and held in slavery throughout the government-controlled areas of Sudan. 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.


On February 23, 2002, the Irish Times published the results of its investigation of the buy-back practice. Declan Walsh, “The great slave scam,”
The same author also published in the Independent (London), “Scam in Sudan: An elaborate hoax involving fake African slaves and less-than-honest interpreters is duping concerned Westerners,”, February 24, 2002;
and in the Scotland press, “Fake slaves con aid agencies in Sudanese liberation scam,”, February 24, 2002.

On February 25, 2002, the Washington Post published an even longer story on its investigation of the redemption “hoax.” Karl Vick, “Ripping Off Slave Redeemers,”