Sudan : Slipping Back in Time
July 2000

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In this day and age slavery is still big business. These are slaves, thousands of women and children. They’re Dinka from southern Sudan and had been abducted by militiamen, then sold as slaves to their Arab enemies in the north of the country. Today they’ll be sold again, but hopefully it will be for the last time.

John Eibner, Christian Solidarity International – human rights NGO
I have very, very mixed feelings about what’s happened to them. We’re happy that they’re coming back to their own country, that they’ll be able to be with their loved ones again. But, we feel very angry about what has happened to them, the abuse. So one has all sort of feelings swirling about inside. But when you’re here and come into contact with the returning slaves.

In the border area between north and south of Sudan the enslavement of women and children is a daily event. For over 16 years there’s been war here. No side is winning neither the Islamic north, or the black African south.

Abuk Tong Kon
Freed slave
Our village, Wanyjok, was raided and burnt to the ground. Along with 17 other women I was taken north. We had to work in the fields. We were beaten and hardly had anything to eat.

It costs around 50 US dollars to buy a slave’s freedom. The Arab slave traders don’t want to give their names.

Slave trader
The way my Arab brothers have treated the Dinka is terrible. We’re all Sudanese. That’s why I’m helping to bring the slaves back.

Slave trader
For three years I’ve been selling back slaves. I’ve become known. Now, I can’t go to the north anymore. The government would kill me immediately. They’ve seen my face.

Every woman and child slave has their fingerprints registered in a computer. The Swiss aid organisation buying their freedom wants to be sure they won’t be paying for the same slave twice.

Men from the region are gathering here. They’ve heard about the buy back of slaves and they’re hoping they might find their families again.

My family was kidnapped and my house burnt.

We don’t have anything except our sticks to defend ourselves against the Arabs.

These men are amongst the lucky ones. They’ve found their wives and children. The Dinka rarely show their feelings but in a situation like this it is difficult for even them to keep self-control.

Abuk Tong Kon
Former slave
I’m so happy. Now, I’m finally going home with my husband.

John Eibner
CSI – human rights NGO
Our goal is to contribute to the transformation of Sudan into a state where there’s peace, justice, respect for the rule of law and basic human rights for all citizens. So, even if somehow all of the slaves were redeemed our work would carry on. We believe, we are sure, there are still tens of thousands of women and children who are still chattel slaves.

The long civil war has made it difficult to farm the land and hunger has become common. The Dinka were once the most famous cattle breeders in Africa now they’re a shadow of what they once were.

Bona Malwal an Oxford professor and politician.


Bona Malwal
Former information minister
I just don’t understand how the western world’s mentality works, because the first thing you have to do is crack down against those who are perpetrating the slavery. Not those who are trying to make you aware that there is this crime being committed here and helping the families of these children that are being enslaved. It’s an incredible situation how the western world is treating the people of southern Sudan.

Every family in the border region of Bahr-el-Ghazal has its own tragic story to tell since the kidnapping of slaves began in the mid-80’s. In the north, the Koran is the basis of Sudanese law. The regime in the capital Khartoum refuses to take any responsibility for the action of its militias.

Angelo Marach
Rebel co-ordinator for humanitarian aid
I agreed with one of the Arab traders to go and bring my wife back safely, regardless if she has been raped. Also I heard my daughter was dead because of them.

Arek Ali
We had to travel all day. We didn’t have anything to eat or drink. My small daughter died of thirst. I couldn’t bury her and simply had to lie her against a tree and keep on going.

daughter Sebada
Her head’s been hurt, her arm was slashed simply because she wasn’t moving quickly as the other people.

Nemery, 10 years old
I was hit with a big stick. Day and night we had to watch the goats. I had to sleep standing up.

This boy had a tooth smashed because one of his goats ran away. He was abducted with his mother but nobody knows where she is. He’s forgotten how to speak the Dinka language.

Cries of Allah u Akbar in Khartoum call Muslims to morning prayer. Since the military came to power in 1989, the north’s been firmly in the hand of the Muslims.

Khartoum awakens. This city of 6 million people lies on the meeting of the White Nile, flowing from Uganda, and the Blue Nile, flowing from Ethiopia. The war has left Sudan poor and it costs the country 1 million dollars a day. Exactly the same amount as the United Nations gives Sudan in food aid. A paradoxical situation. It’s estimated two million people have already died in the conflict. 4.5. million people have been displaced.

Eighty per cent of Sudanese struggle to live from the land. A hard existence since northern Sudan is mainly desert.

The former Islamist party is now called the National Congress. But it hasn’t changed its’ hatred for the south.

Abdel Aziz Shiddo
Vice-president, National Assembly
Without any suggestion, this government is not involved at all in any black slavery. And I tell you now, I am willing to sponsor the prosecution of anyone accused anywhere of being involved in slavery.

The UN children’s agency, UNICEF has to proceed diplomatically in countries like Sudan, otherwise they’d be expelled.

Mohamed Bendriss Alami
UNICEF, Khartoum
Abduction is the first act committed by some traders and also some government people on the ground, and we’re dealing with the abduction of children right now.

The Catholic church educates 45’000 children in Khartoum. Here too, there’s government control. Government inspectors check if the teachers also teach Islamic culture as required by law.

Marc Awer
I was in prison for a month. I was tortured and beaten. After finding that I was a student and no links to the rebel movement, I was released.

Peter Tong Mayen
Uniformed men on horses attacked our village. They killed many villagers – they simply hacked them into pieces. I had to work four years long as a slave. I was beaten without reason. Then I fled.

Many of these children tell the same story. Here they get one meal a day – often it’s the only food they get. The government uses the children as propaganda to justify its’ actions.

Abdel Aziz Shiddo
Vice-president National Assembly
Our constitution guarantees freedom of religion. Fully. The constitution is based on the rights of the citizen to participate in common life irrespective of his religion or different ideologies.

This statement would be contradicted by every Christian in Sudan. The Catholic bishops conference building was protected by high walls and barbed wire but that didn’t help against the attacks. Seven men came in the night says the watchman. They were from the government and forced him to open the door.

John Dingi
General secretary, Catholic Bishops Conference
It was Saturday morning when we find the door here was broken. They entered in but they didn’t taken anything. There was no computer in this office. The government of Sudan has made one of the best constitutions but it is maybe on paper in writing but it doesn’t really enrich the lives of the people. And it has different connotations from what we really believe in which is democracy and freedom.

For years no new churches have been built and existing churches have been destroyed.

Priests and believers are too frightened to give interviews on camera.

I don’t think there is freedom. Because the constitution is stand alone as it has been approved. But then the by-laws that are governing the country do not come from the constitution. And the by-laws have all the sort of taking away church properties, closing churches, breaking up schools, all these kinds of things. So, that we in Sudan don’t think there is freedom of religion.

Unfortunately, everything is becoming Islamic. The government appoints Islamic people, the banks which are mostly Moslem banks, Islamic banks, insurance companies they are Islamic. So, where’s the position of the Christians. That’s why many people are now leaving the country because of that they are afraid of the future and their children at work. And I think they are right in that.

According to the Catholic church 20 Christians are in prison. Recently two priests were accused of terrorist activities, they were detained and tortured. At the end of 1999 they were freed without any court hearing.

Abdel Aziz Shiddo
Vice-president, National Assembly
I tell you frankly that no Christian has been arrested in this country. Or detained because he’s a Christian. I tell you honestly that this has never happened, could never happen, and will not happen. But sometimes a Christian commits a crime.

When that does happen Christians are sentenced according to Islamic law – Sharia. Since 1989 Sudan has considered itself the first Islamic state in Africa. 340’000 people from the south fleeing from drought and the civil war came to Khartoum. They survived on international aid but their settlements are often destroyed by the government. 50 houses were levelled. Youssef Muktar lost everything including his parents and wife who were killed.

Youssef Muktar
Displaced person
One thing is clear, the politicians are to blame for everything. Civilians know nothing about politics. We all want to go back to our homes. We don’t have any rights here. I can’t even build a house here. The last one was destroyed.

Since 1986 Mary Mussa’s been living with her six children in Khartoum. Before she fled from the rebels she had been forced to carry munition cases and food.
Mary Mussa
Displaced person
The problem lies in Islam. But I trust God will help us. In the south I can plant vegetables and millet – but here I can’t. Hopefully, the war will end soon.

The southern Sudanese are treated as second class citizens – without many rights. But for Muslims outside Khartoum things aren’t much better. Two thirds of the north of the country are desert and there’s little farming. In 1956, the country gained independence from Britain. A year earlier civil war had broken out. In the seventies there was only sporadic fighting. But Sudan has never seen a full peace. The war has always been a fight between different cultures.

Shrik el Idriss
I have no idea about war. I only work in the fields so my family has something to eat. I’m happy with my existence.

Many are hoping for a better life through the newly discovered oil reserves. However the south will hardly profit from this. The Islamic north uses its’ control of natural resources and pasture for its’ own benefit and international companies own the concessions for many mineral deposits. They close their eyes to human rights violations when money matters most.

America says Sudan is a sponsor of international terrorism and authorised the destruction of this pharmaceutical factory saying it was making chemical weapons. Lacking proof the US now has to pay compensation to the owners and must instead rely on sanctions to punish Sudan but Sudanese officials say they have no effect.

Abdul Rahim Hamdi
Stock exchange director
None whatsoever, and I say this very adamantly. There were some funds sequestered by the Americans belonging to Sudan in an American bank, and this is against all international, American, banking regulations. But since then, investment has flourished in Sudan.

People like the director of the stock exchange and those in the closely aligned ruling party know how to make money in a poor country. It’s never the powerful that suffer.

Southern Sudanese Alfred Taban works for the BBC in Khartoum. For months he was imprisoned and terrorised.

Alfred Taban
The recent Islamic revival has put a sort of a split. Because now you are either a Muslim who is with them, or you are not a Muslim who is not with them. This has made people to be conscious of their religious belief. We never used to have any problem with that. We used to mix as Sudanese what ever religion you come from. But this Islamic revival has totally split this country into two – into believers and non-believers.

In the small village of Abugroon they’re celebrating one of the most important festivals for Sufi devotees of Islam. Today according to their beliefs the prophet Mohammed ascended to heaven. Members of the Islamic Brotherhood gather in front of the mosque.

The Sufis believe in Allah the all powerful. He defines their daily life – from sleeping, to eating, from fortune to fate.

The highest ideal, for the secret brotherhood, is to go to God in absolute truth. The Sufi consider themselves true believers and nothing will keep them from prayer and belief in God.

Unbelievers are considered outlaws and they can be either converted or killed. These believers are convinced the rebels in the south are financed by the west and Israel.

Many Sudanese Muslims believe they’re the victims of a Western crusade against Islam.

Hassan Abugroon
Village chief
Sudan is treated unfairly because now we are applying Islamic laws and Islamic culture and Islamic future. We want to apply Islamic law to all our life aspects. Koranic, social, culture, everything. We know that the western countries don’t want this. Therefore they stand against Sudan. They talk about the war in the south, human rights and so on, and it’s all not true.

Foreigners and those of other faiths are always to blame and fanaticism is widespread in the north. The government lets journalists into the country but they determine what will be filmed, and only that which shows the north and Islam in a good light is allowed.

Recently installed in the presidential palace is a new turncoat. Some rebel leaders have at times come to an arrangement with the government but Khartoum then tries to play different rebel groups off against one another.

Riek Machar
The Khartoum peace agreement is a strong agreement and that’s why we have difficulties implementing it. There are sections within the government, resisting some aspects of this agreement, and therefore the implementation is slow.

So slow that the Khartoum peace agreement of 1997 has not been recognised and signed by all rebel factions. So slow that it hasn’t brought peace to the south and especially not in the Nuba mountains. At regular intervals the government bombs this rebel-controlled SPLA region.

Only the Sudanese church and a German aid organisation are helping the Nuba and delivering relief aid. The Nuba mountains are classified as a prohibited area by the Khartoum government. They obstruct the delivery of humanitarian aid and they don’t want any witnesses to document human rights abuses.

Abraham Abud
The north in the south is playing a very dangerous game. They want to sit on everyone’s head, they’re not giving us our rights. There’s a lot of injustice going on. They take people and they go and recruit them. And after recruiting them they bring them back to kill their own brothers and sisters. Some are sold as slaves, some are recruited.

This area is regularly attacked by Antonov aeroplanes. During this attack in February this year, 14 school children and two adults were killed. Amongst them were seven Moslems.

The last census in Nuba in 1989 showed there were 1.5 million people in the area. The American Committee for Refugees estimates 300’000 Nubans have died in the last 11 years.

Elijah Omar
School pupil
I thought the plane would fly past but then bombs came down. We all fell down amongst one another. Some lay dead on the ground. He had wounds on his face and the back of his head.

One of the bombs didn’t explode and still lies here. The children find it hard to imagine that a piece of metal can kill so many people.

Many children are refusing to go back to school so they have to meet with the headmaster in the mountains. Many of the children are refusing to go back to school with the memory of the killing still too painful.

The Khartoum government maintains the schools are used to train children as soldiers.

Moses Arad Baruk
School headmaster
Like this one – this small boy, and this small girl. How can they hold a gun? How can they fight? I know they are fighting for their books only, for knowledge, not for anything else.

This service in one of the three churches in the diocese of El-Obeid in the Nuba mountains, is being held to commemorate the children who’ve lost their lives in the battle against the north. Many of the Nuba are Muslims or animists. But belief doesn’t matter here. The Nuba and all faiths are at war with the Khartoum government.

This young school girl was not at the church service. She’s still in a hospital, run by the courageous assistance of the German Aid Organisation. In 1998, the old hospital was bombed over a period of two weeks and it had to be abandoned. Now the hospital is hidden in the mountains where over 2’000 patients a month are treated and ten thousand children have been vaccinated.

Henrik Sauer (in German)
Medical worker
If the Antonov flies very low over us, like it did this morning, then all the people, including patients who were on drips, run to find somewhere to hid, behind doors, rocks. It is not a shock, but this fear you can never get rid of in your whole life. We can leave, go home and forget what’s happening here. But people here who have seen their children blown apart and killed, they can never forget it. This is the terror the government imposes.

The Nuba were sedentary farmers, living in southern Kordofan. The bombings forced them to create new fields in the mountains. The bigger agricultural fields in the valleys had become bombing targets.

Hasham lost his brother in the bombing.

Hasham Ismail Mansur
School student
When I came out I looked down and I saw my brother – he was dead. I looked around, I couldn’t see anywhere to go to hide myself. I run, up, up to the hills. When I came back I found many students who had died.

Ismail Mansur
The north wants all Muslims to go there. They see us as black unbelievers, despite the fact we have the same faith. We’ll never forget what the government has done to us. We’d rather die here than go to them.

The Nuba are divided into 10 major ethnic groups with around 50 different languages. The traditional animists have mainly gravitated towards Islam. But no one understands why Khartoum is treating them so harshly.

Ousmane Dameri
Those in the north should stop killing us and kidnapping our women and children. I’m angry but what can we do? We’re helpless. They’re killing innocent people.

Until 1983, the Nuba were spared the civil war. Then the fighting started between the SPLA and government troops, and the Nuba were dragged into it. Today nowhere has seen the same level of suffering as in the Nuba mountains.


Jogot Makwar
SPLA commander
Every week soldiers are wounded or killed. Women and children are abducted. Peace will have to wait. We are doing our best to fight against the north. The government is using religion to separate Sudanese. That’s why they’re bombing Moslems as well as Christians.

This solider was shot by government troops. Hundreds of thousands of Nubans have been moved from their homes and gathered together in so-called ‘peace villages’. The Nubans call them government concentration camps.

Achmed Kuku Ismail
Prisoner of war
In the north it was drummed into us that the blacks in the rest of Sudan are against the government. When the SPLA took me prisoner, I realised I was killing my own people. Other prisoners try to escape. I’m staying here.

Life is tough for the Nubans. Their fields are destroyed, their cattle stolen, their villages burnt. There’s not much on offer at the market. The area is under siege leaving the Nuba cut off from the rest of Sudan.

Many children suffer from stomach diseases like tuberculosis and diphtheria. UNICEF isn’t prepared to do an immunisation programme. Because they’re keeping to an agreement with Khartoum that no aid flights or operations are allowed in this area.

Adam Moussu
This year we don’t have enough to eat. Some Nubans have given up and gone to Khartoum, just to survive. A lot of Nubans are leaving their villages and going into the mountains. It’s safer. We want to stay, but we need help.

Christian Solidarity fly into the restricted zone of northern Bahr-e-Ghazal. Here the military arm of the SPLA has the upper hand. This region is also out-of-bounds, says Khartoum but in contrast to the Nuba Mountains there’s more aid here. Never the less it’s isolated and inhospitable and difficult to have rain. CSI delivers medicines and more controversially negotiates to buy back slaves.

John Eibner
CSI human rights NGO
Either the freed people will be waiting their for us or surely they’ll come to see us shortly.

Gunnar Wiebalck
The last time there was bombing in this area and the people were all scattered and not everybody could come. But today it looks peaceful.

We’re not far from the railway line and the trains that the regime in Khartoum uses to transport troops to the south. The closer a Dinka village lies to the railway line, the more dangerous it is for the people.

These women and children were taken as war booty to the north. They’ve had their freedom bought by the CSI. After every raid from the north the village chief makes a list of the missing.

Every redeemed slave is called up. Some are questioned. They relive the terrible things that have been done to them.

Abdon Agaw Jok Nhial
Opposition leader
It’s an ordeal which is almost unspeakable. Typically they are driven along with many others, first of all forced to drive their own animals, their sheep, cattle and goats which have been stolen by the raiders, and en-route every single women from any imaginable age is raped.

This woman was threatened with a knife by her Arab slave owner and wounded. The scar will be a life long memory. Children with Arab fathers are brought up by the Dinka, despite the fact their light skins makes them immediately recognisable.

The Arab traders are well paid, but they risk their lives if they are caught with slaves of government soldiers. Before CSI started to finance buying back slaves in 1995, there had already been an agreement in operation for four years between the Arabs and the Dinka. In return for grazing rights in the south, slave traders would bring back enslaved children.

Slave trader
Before, as a trader, I didn’t earn much money. The Dinka asked me if I could find their children. It’s dangerous.

Money and not injustice is what counts here.

Yell Arou Jel
Former slave
I always wanted to go back home. They took my clothes. I had to watch the cattle naked.

The Sudanese government has often pronounced unilateral cease-fires against the rebels in the south. They want to show western governments they too desire for peace. But residents of the border region have not been spared from raiding.

Commander Salva Kiir Mayardit is the second most powerful figure in the Southern Sudanese Peoples Liberation Army. Since 1983, all peace negotiations between the fundamentalist regime in Khartoum and the black African SPLA have come to nothing.

Salva Kiir Mayardit
SPLA commander
The international community’s turned a blind eye on Sudan. This is why the Sudanese government hasn’t been condemned for all the atrocities they are committing on their people. There is no other government which has waged a war against its own people.

The scars of war. This is what the villagers see after a raid by the mounted militias of the peoples defence force. This old, blind woman, was one of the few found left in the village. She was hacked with an axe.

Bona Malwal
Former minister of Information
It’s important for us to pursue this self-determination for the people of the south. And, we’re asking the international community to recognise that if Sudan remains as one country for as long as it lasts, it will be in a state of war.

The rebels sing their battle songs. They want to fight until the last man – even if they die doing it. The fighters in their varied uniforms have their machine guns and rocket launchers at the ready. A garrison of north Sudanese soldiers is not far away. Since the mid-80’s the government has been slave raiding during the dry season. The military want to create a Khartoum controlled security zone over the water rich lands of southern Sudan and the oil fields of Bentiu.

Here, former opposing combatants sit at the same table. A former major general of the Sudanese army is now fighting with the rebels.

Abdelgadier Hamid Mahdi
Former major general
The north sees only their own interests. I warned the government in Khartoum. If they don’t give up this struggle there will be a lot of blood spilt in this whole country. We have a huge army that can hit in a short time. The year 2000 will be decisive.

The centuries old Christianisation of Sudan gained new impetus at the beginning of the century when Great Britain was the colonial power. In 1923, Sudan was divided partly to suppress the slave trade. Missionaries were encouraged by the British to spread Christianity. The southerners were to become a part of the black African people with a safe distance from the Arab region in the north. In 1947, the British rulers reintegrated the north and south. This was when the problem started. The South wanted to separate from the North and the fighting broke out.

William Chan
The situation at the moment, this is a good moment we have in this area. In the rainy season we are just worshipping, people are free they are not in panic they are not disturbed because security is OK especially in a place like this. But, in the dry season we always in panic because people are expecting raids from time to time. At any moment the raids can be made, carried out by the Arabs, the militia, of course sponsored by the government.

Since the ‘80’s the UN Human Rights agency has been documenting human rights abuses such as torture, executions, detention without trial, and slavery. The Sudanese regime insists its’ record is better than the West makes out.

Apuk Lual and her children were abducted by the Arab militia six years ago. Now, she’s searching for her husband and has managed to find a few members of her family.

Many people were killed when her village was raided. Other victims report new forms of cruelty.

Apuk Lual
Former slave
The Arab masters’ wife was jealous of me. She beat both of us. I was very sick. The master was always forcing me to have sex. If I didn’t want to, he would beat my son.

I was branded with an iron which had been held in the fire, so I couldn’t flee.

So far the Christain Aid Organisation CSI has helped to buy back 25 000 slaves.
The war in the Sudan has taken on the dimensions of genocide.

CSI is often attacked for freeing slaves UNICEF and the UN Human Rights Commission claim the buying back of slaves has actually led to an upsurge in the slave trade.

John Eibner
One of the main reasons for example UNICEF will not support what we do and the UN agencies is because the government of Sudan is effectively a shareholder. The United Nations is an organisation of states, it exists to defend the interests of states as part of the international state system. So, there are various interests that are at play here that means western governments tend to turn a blind eye to what is going on here. What is going on here are crimes of humanity committed systematically and on a massive scale. Crimes against humanity which would not be tolerated if they were to take place in Europe.

Practically all the redeemed slaves are women and children. And nearly all have been badly abused.

Abuk Arol had to suffer beatings, death threats and rape. After seven days walking she finally reaches her home and goes straight into labour.

She’ll be called Nyibak. It’s a sad name meaning ‘the survivor’.

Abuk Arol called her child this name because she’d lost her other two children on the march with the Arab militia. They died of hunger and thirst.

Abuk Arol
Former slave
I’ve lost everything, my house, my cows and my children. I was in the north for three years. I heard that traders could bring us back to the south again. I ran away, even though I was pregnant.

Hopefully this girl will never suffer the torment of being enslaved. However, in Sudan, the war continues, and the world is still likely to continue to turn a blind eye.


Reporter : Marion Mayer-Hohdahl
Camera : Jeff Taylor
VT editor : Marc Wehner
© 2023 Journeyman Pictures
Journeyman Pictures Ltd. 4-6 High Street, Thames Ditton, Surrey, KT7 0RY, United Kingdom

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