Bought - and freed Freedom: For a handful of cash, our reporters strike a deal with an Arab middleman, freeing two young boys after six years of bondage. The exchange proves beyond all doubt that slavery exists inSudan.

June 18, 1996|By GILBERT A. LEWTHWAITE AND GREGORY KANE | GILBERT A. LEWTHWAITE AND GREGORY KANE,SUN STAFF

MANYIEL, Sudan -- This is the day we will buy a slave. We are up at dawn. It will take us three hours on foot to meet an Arab trader and, if all goes as planned, make the purchase.

Our interpreter, Joseph Akok, arrives with another English-speaking Dinka, Simon Kuot, to escort us. Both carry Kalashnikov assault rifles. We also pick up another couple of armed guards.

The Dinkas move with grace across the open terrain, two ahead, two behind. We struggle to keep up. The sun is low and the going flat along the firm, baked trail between waist-high dried grass and scattered trees.

As the sun climbs steadily into the blue sky, the heat starts to radiate from the earth. Soon it is scorching, then searing. We press on, gulping water as we go. The Dinkas have no water with them and don't seem to need it. Akok says they can walk a day without a drink.

The heat of the dry season has one benefit ` the many poisonous snakes and scorpions that infest the bush try to keep cool underground or in the roots of trees. We encounter none. In a couple of weeks, once the rains set in, this area will crawl with them.

Under a line of trees, a village of tukuls, the traditional thatched homes, finally appears on the horizon: Manyiel.

We are flagging, drained by temperature, pace and distance. The sun, directly overhead, burns down on us. Our shirts are stained dark with sweat, our leg muscles on fire. We tell the interpreter that when we arrive, we need to find shade to rest a few minutes and gather our thoughts.

He leads us to a giant mango tree where chairs and benches are waiting. We duck under the low branches, into the cool darkness and collapse. We are offered sweet tea, but temptation is overwhelmed by caution. We sip unpleasantly hot water from our bottles, some hauled all the way from Baltimore.

Suddenly, almost furtively, from behind the trunk of the tree, the Arab trader the man we have come thousands of miles to meet appears as promised.

His dress of fine cream cotton and his close-fitting cap embroidered with two bands of pink silk set him apart. On his bare feet are light, brown leather shoes. He has a chunky steel watch on his wrist.

He is a small, muscular figure with impressively strong features, a neatly trimmed mustache and beard a sort of cropped goatee that hugs the edge of his square jaw.

We shake hands.

He sits opposite us on a low bench strung with strips of dried goatskin. He refuses to give his real name out of fear for his life, he says, and asks to be called Adam el Haj. He also refuses to have his face photographed.

"The abduction of the children was organized by the government, and it is dangerous for anyone to work against that policy," he says.

Since 1991, he says, he has freed 473 slaves, mainly women and children, returning them to their families for the set fee of five cows or the cash equivalent. An estimated 4,000 Dinkas have been seized locally since the fighting started in the mid-1980s between the Islamic fundamentalist government of the north and the non-Muslim African rebels of the south, according to local officials

As we talk, a rebel official hands us a list of 59 children abducted in a raid on the village of Gokmacar in 1987 who have yet to be returned. The regime in Khartoum has made no effort to account for the whereabouts of these children, the official says.

El Haj has 22 "associates" who scour the northern countryside looking for slaves. "We all swore on the Holy Koran or the Bible to be honest and to secure the return of abducted children to their parents," he says.

That buyback system, he explains, was arranged between the chiefs of the Dinkas in the south and the northern Riziegat tribe, to which El Haj belongs. In exchange for sanctioning the return of the slaves, the Riziegats have the right to graze their cattle on Dinka land during the dry season.

As he gives details of his role, he sometimes appears nervous, his eyes shifting as if he doesn't quite trust the situation or us. There is little we can do to put him at ease.

L How, we ask, did he get into the business of trading slaves?

"I have chosen this job not because it is profitable," proclaims El Haj. ""I have chosen it because I have 200 head of cattle. This job strengthens the actual understanding between the two tribes. It allows our cattle and our tribe to go to the Dinka land in peace. Without my doing this, the Dinkas would not let the Riziegat cattle graze on their land.

"If we don't bring back the Dinka abducted children, then there will be no peace, and when there is no peace, no further movement of cattle to this land will be allowed. I am preventing further conflict."

Once he locates the children, he says, he must persuade the slave owners to release them for a price. If the owner refuses, El Haj reports this to the Riziegat chiefs.

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