Horror in villages haunted by slavery


NYAMLELL, SUDAN — Our search for slavery brings us to this place of human misfortune and man-made misery.

Here an angry old man voices the humiliation of being offered as a slave in a town square; a girl recounts her harrowing wait to learn whether her Muslim master wants her as a daughter or a concubine; a blind widow tells us she may kill herself because the 4-year-old daughter who was her "eyes" has been abducted by slave raiders.

To hear these hideous tales, we have flown illegally, deep into the Sudanese interior, where the small, chartered aircraft stays on a red dirt landing strip long enough only to drop us off and pick up six war wounded.

Local Dinkas carry our baggage to a campsite on the banks of the River Lol. A girl of no more than 12, with the neck of a swan and legs like matchsticks, flips onto her head a rucksack laden with water bottles that has just about broken our backs, and sets off quickly and easily. Men, women and children grab whatever they can carry. We amble empty-handed after them.

We pitch our tents on a bend in the Lol. Before us, the river curves in a great horseshoe band of blue and green between banks of golden sand. The villagers fish from dugout canoes, swim and wash, their chatter floating up on a balmy breeze.

The sights and sounds are idyllic, masking the harsh realities of survival here and contrasting with the misery of slavery so frequently visited on these suffering people.

Wandering in the village we meet Joseph Akok, a local official. He is the classic Dinka tribesman, tall and wiry. He sports a goatee with flecks of gray and carries a Kalashnikov assault rifle, as do most of the men in Nyamlell.

"Today the enemy is not far from this place," he says in good English. "The enemy is moving at a distance of 20 miles, which on horseback is not a great distance." Impressed with his command of our language, we immediately ask him to be our interpreter. He accepts.

We stroll along the riverbank to another village, where bare-breasted women pound millet into flour in a scene of pastoral timelessness. We have just walked back through the centuries. The women giggle at the intrusion of such strange creatures as two Westerners, one white, one black.

Word of our interest in talking to former slaves has preceded us. Soon we seem to be surrounded by escaped slaves or families who lost women and children to bondage.

They tell their stories with a mixture of humility and simplicity that would convince the hardest skeptic of their truthfulness. These are peasants recounting traumatic experiences with little

emotion but great conviction.

Dur Dut Kuot is a scarecrow in rags. These are the clothes he wore as a slave. His feet, also wrapped in rags, tell the tale of his painful flight to freedom, which has only just ended. The feet are still cracked, torn, bloodied, but they have carried him home.

At 60 he is unusually old for enslavement but still able-bodied and strong-backed. He speaks with a fierceness in his eyes that clearly reflects his anger.

Other villagers gather around to hear how he was tending his tobacco field by the river, outside the village of Makuei, two months earlier, when he heard an enemy raiding party was on the rampage. He dropped his watering can and ran off to hide. But an enemy horseman found him in the undergrowth.

"He pointed his rifle at me," he recalls. "I was sure I was going to die."

Captured, he and the other prisoners were herded along during the day and tied up at night. For five days he carried two full sacks of looted clothes and a kidnapped child.

"A lot of children were with us," he says. "Two of them died on the way. There were some women, too. The women were very sad. The children were very sad. They knew their situation was very bad."

In a town called Shengat, the human booty was distributed.

"I realized I was becoming a slave. We were all there, and anyone who wanted you could call you. All the slaves were one group, women, children, men all together," he says.

"Everyone could take whatever kind of person they wanted. Anyone who likes women could take women. Anyone who likes girls could take girls. Anyone who likes a small boy could take a small boy.

"We were standing in the town. I don't know how many because I was in such fear."

His Muslim master, Mohammed Athem, had one child by an Arab wife and two by a Dinka woman captured five years ago, he says. He was put to work cutting wood for the family fire and the farm fences.

"At night they slept near me and tied my hands. In the morning they untied my hands and gave me the ax for my daily work," he says. "I knew the penalty for trying to escape was death. But I escaped after 20 days.

"I started to run toward the direction of my home. All the time I was there I never forgot that direction. I know where the sun comes from and know where it goes.

"I spent two nights and two days running, and then reached my home."

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