IS THE PRACTICE of slave redemption in Sudan a "corrupt racket," as some have charged? And were I and now-retired Sun reporter Gil Lewthwaite therefore taken for a ride when we were there six years ago?
The Washington Post was the first American paper to make the claim about slave redemption. But now everybody wants in on the act. The New York Times followed the Post. Last month, CBS' Dan Rather did a 60 Minutes II segment in which one Jim Jacobson, who used to redeem slaves in Sudan, and Father Mario Riva, a Roman Catholic missionary in the country, repeated the charges of duplicity.
There have been reactions, of course. A native southern Sudanese refuted Riva's assertions. Charles Jacobs of the American Anti-Slavery Group criticized Rather's report as one-sided. John Eibner of Christian Solidarity International -- the man with whom Lewthwaite and I entered Sudan in 1996 -- has dismissed Jacobson as a disgruntled ex-CSI worker out to discredit him.
The charges and counter-charges fly. But I'm compelled to answer the question put to me: Was our redemption of two boys in May 1996 on the level or not?
The eyes may not be "the mirror to the soul," as the cliche goes, but they do reveal a lot. George Jackson, the communist African-American prison activist and writer of the 1960s and early 1970s, said he could always tell which inmates would back him in a fight with corrections officers or other inmates by looking in their eyes. It was "that thing in the eyes," Jackson wrote in Soledad Brother, which let him know when guys were going to chump out.
Reginald Lewis, the late African-American entrepreneur who became the richest black man in America when he bought TLC Beatrice in the 1990s, was a quarterback at Dunbar High School when he noticed which of his teammates would quit on him in the fourth quarter and which ones wouldn't. Lewis, like Jackson, would look in their eyes.
To answer my question, we must first put aside the comments of the Rathers and the Eibners and the Jacobsons and the Rivas. We want to look at "that thing in the eyes" in the matter of the trip two Sun reporters made to the Sudan in 1996. What do the eyes tell us?
The eyes in this case belong to a boy -- by this time a teen-ager, if he's still alive -- by the name of Akok Deng Kuot. He was 10 at the time of his redemption. His brother, Garang Deng Kuot, was 12. I will briefly rehash the tale they and their father -- Deng Kuot Maxen -- told us.
The boys were abducted from their village at the ages of 4 and 6. The younger brother's testimony -- and the rage in his eyes -- was the most poignant. The Arab family that enslaved him was brutal, he said. Had they been a little kinder, he might have forgotten his parents in the south. But they were so cruel that he vowed never to forget his parents.
Young Akok said it all with his eyes. In the Sun photo Lewthwaite took, those eyes, still full of fury, told all. The delight in his father's eyes, reunited with his sons after six years, told even more.
But let's assume, only for the sake of argument, that everything the critics of the slave redemption program have claimed is true. Do I have any regrets about being "conned" and handing over $1,000 of The Sun's money to the Sudanese People's Liberation Army, the southern group that has been fighting the government of Sudan forces for 19 years? Yes, I have several regrets.
I regret we weren't able to give more money. I regret that we didn't hand over enough money for the rebels to raise an army, march north into Khartoum, grab O-Slimy bin Laden -- who was in Khartoum in 1996 -- and hang him from the highest edifice in the city. We'd have spared ourselves much agony five years later on Sept. 11.
I regret we as a nation didn't heed the words of Yousef Kuwa Makki, a Nuba Muslim fighting in the SPLA against an Islamic fundamentalist regime he abhorred. Islamic fundamentalism, Makki warned Americans in 1996, was a bigger threat to the West and to the United States than communism had ever been.
"They think they have a direct pipeline to God," Makki said over dinner at a refugee camp in Lokichokio, Kenya one night. "They feel they have a message to deliver to the world from God and that they are the only ones who can deliver it."
Their mission, Makki said, was to convert the rest of Africa, and then the world, to Islam. To remove guys like that from the scene, I'd gladly hand over a grand of my own money.