Lawmakers denounce slavery in Sudan

Members of U.S. Congress also hope to keep aid from being used as tool in war

February 04, 1999|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Decrying what they called the government-backed practice of slavery in Sudan, two congressmen launched a new drive yesterday to spotlight the practice and also prevent the Khartoum regime from using world food donations as a weapon in the nation's civil war.

Tens of thousands of Africans from southern Sudan are being held as slaves, including women and children, and often are forced into hard labor or used as concubines, the lawmakers said.

"Thousands are branded, beaten, starved and raped at their masters' whim," said Sen. Sam Brownback, a Kansas Republican. Routinely, Christians and believers in tribal religions are starved and whipped into renouncing their beliefs and converting to Islam, he said.

Brownback, who chairs a Near East subcommittee, began looking into Sudan while probing religious repression around the world.

He recently sent a staff member, Sharon Payt, to Sudan to document both slavery and the food-distribution crisis. She returned with documentation of slavery and photographs of slaves, including slaves being redeemed for $50 to $100 each.

Rep. Frank R. Wolf, a Virginia Republican who has traveled to Sudan, joined Brownback in denouncing Sudanese practices.

Congressional attention to slavery in Sudan is not new. Rep. Christopher H. Smith, a New Jersey Republican who chairs a human rights panel, has held hearings on the practice. The Clinton administration also has denounced Sudanese slavery.

In 1996, two Sun journalists, Gregory Kane and Gilbert A. Lewthwaite, illegally entered Sudan and bought two boy slaves for $500 each to prove that slavery exists there despite the Sudanese government's denials.

Still, the practice continues. Caroline Cox, who heads the British-based relief group Christian Solidarity Worldwide and has been to Sudan about 20 times, said untold numbers of slaves are sold in other countries.

Worse, said Cox, some slaves may be forced into training schools for pro-government militias and forced to fight and kill their own people.

Cox joined in the Brownback-Wolf news conference.

The slaves are captured from populations in southern Sudan that are trapped in a drawn-out civil war between the Arab, militantly Islamic regime in the north and rebels in the south who view themselves as Africans and practice Christianity or traditional religions.

The civil war, which has claimed an estimated 1.9 million lives, has aggravated recurrent food shortages. Sudan may be facing its worst famine in 10 years, Brownback's staff said.

Added Wolf: "The government uses humanitarian aid as a weapon in its campaign of genocide, refusing international access to desperate regions like the Nuba mountains."

Cox says the government directs where United Nations food relief will go, deliberately starving people out of areas where they might aid the rebels and driving them north to displaced-persons camps.

"There was a natural disaster of drought and floods," she said in an interview during a visit to Washington. But "over and above that, there's been a totally government-made famine."

"I regret that Operation Lifeline Sudan [the U.N. program] feels it must comply with the government's diktats, in effect cooperating with the politics of hunger," Cox said.

Besides using food as a weapon, the government has adopted scorched-earth tactics, killing and driving out the populations of areas totaling hundreds of square miles, Cox said.

Aid groups and human-rights organizations ordinarily are barred from these areas, she says; she was flown in last summer by "brave pilots."

Pub Date: 2/04/99

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