MANYIEL, Sudan -- In the shade of a mango tree deep in the African bush, near the fish, fruit and vegetable market, we count the money one last time.
It is a 2-inch stack of Sudanese bills, worth $1,000 - a large sum in a poor region of the poorest country on the world's poorest continent. It would buy every commodity in the market. But that's not what we are here for.
We are here to buy a slave.
Before us, waiting abjectly on the baking, barren ground, is a sight to chill the human heart: a dozen young boys, their bodies caked with dust, their eyes downcast.
If we were Sudanese slaveholders, we might use such children for herding or for household chores in return for nothing but the crumbs from our table. We might give them Arabic names and convert them to Islam. We might use a girl for sexual pleasure, perhaps as a wife.
But we are not Sudanese Arabs. We are visitors - a longtime foreign correspondent who is white, and a Baltimore columnist who is African-American and on his first trip abroad - and our mission is not to perpetuate slavery but to expose it.
Here in southern Sudan, there can be no doubt that slavery exists. Like the heat of the sun or the onset of the rainy season, it touches the lives of all.
But in less primitive, far removed parts of the world there is debate.
Over the years the United Nations, the U.S. State Department and human rights organizations have reported and denounced slavery in Sudan. Their reports have failed to stir much public interest, and have been denied repeatedly by the Sudanese government.
In April, the U.N. special representative for Sudan, Gaspar Biro, reported "an alarming increase I in cases of slavery, servitude, slave trade and forced labor."
The Sudanese government again denied that it tolerated or supported slavery, repeating that abductions were local tribal matters.
Minister Louis Farrakhan, head of the Nation of Islam, added his voice to the debate after visiting Sudan on a much-criticized tour this year of pariah nations, including Iran, Iraq and Libya.
"Where is the proof?" he asked March 14 at the National Press Club in Washington. "If slavery exists, why don't you go as a member of the press, and you look inside Sudan, and if you find it, then you come back and tell the American people what you found?"
That is how we find ourselves on April 26 at the end of a long journey, counting Sudanese money in a village we've never heard of, preparing to buy a fellow human being and then return him (or her) to family and freedom.
Such proof of slavery, we feel, will be impossible to refute and difficult to ignore.
The trail to our fateful appointment in Manyiel begins a month earlier with interviews in Baltimore and Washington. Neither of us knows much about Sudan, so we seek out those who do.
We learn that it is one of the remotest, most disease-ridden and dangerous places on earth. To witness slavery, we must go to the front lines of a civil war [See Sudan, 22a] between the Islamic government, ruling from the north, and the black African tribes in the south.
Because the fundamentalist Sudanese government denies the existence of slavery, we must enter the country without its knowledge to investigate.
Our hosts will be the rebels, mostly members of the non-Arab Dinka tribe. They tend to be very tall and very black. Most practice Christianity or the traditional African animist religion of spirits and demons.
Their ragtag force is called the Sudanese People's Liberation Army. For 13 years, the SPLA has been fighting the Khartoum-based government, which uses both its army and tribal militias in an attempt to enforce a strict Islamic rule. The State Department estimates that more than 1.5 million people have died in this obscure war.
The Islamic fundamentalist regime's militias, which operate as the Popular Defense Force, are not paid by the government, we are told. Their compensation is as old as war itself: everything they can seize in the conquered place, including men, women and children.
"The government sends the [Muslim] Baggara warriors from tribes of the desert," says Sister Lucy Paganoni, who has spent years in Sudan with the Comboni Missionary Sisters. "They attack villages, burning produce, killing people. They take away young men and women. No one knows where they come from or where they go."
THE LOGISTICAL challenges of our mission are enormous, and so are the ethical ones. Can it be right to buy a slave under any circumstances?
Our misgivings are reinforced during a conversation in Washington with William O. Lowrey, a Sudan expert with the U.S. Presbyterian Church who argues against buying a slave's freedom.
"It passes the money on to the merchant, which is a way of supporting the ongoing slave trade," he says. "It's a Western orientation toward individualism to think that we can buy a slave back and set one free and we have done something good. But actually the money is used to support the institution of slavery.