The 'Slaves' of Southern Sudan - by Cecilia Bromley-Martin
"In the North they call us ‘slaves’," the young southern Sudanese priest told me. "They encourage one tribe against the others, as they want us to destroy ourselves. They say ‘Use a slave to kill a slave’."
The people of southern Sudan have not been branded with this terrible nick-name without reason. As long as there is war, there is no way to document the numbers, but conservative estimates place the total of Sudanese slaves at up to one million.
"The Arabs raid women, children and cattle, and bring them to the North, selling them to rich merchants or putting the children in Koranic schools for six or seven years to Arabise and Islamise them," explained Bishop Caesar Mazzolari of Rumbek. "The discipline is very strict – if they try to run away, they are beaten and chains are put on their feet. They learn to read, write and memorise the Koran. The women are sent on as wives or concubines of a very low degree, to do menial tasks."
Although a number of children do manage to escape, those who find their way back home often feel totally alienated from their culture. Some were taken so young that they do not even remember their own language, and can only speak Arabic. James Pareng Alier was 12 when he was kidnapped in southern Sudan. After he managed to escape, he said: "I was forced to learn the Koran and re-named Ahmed. They told me that Christianity was a bad religion. After a time we were given military training and they told us we would be sent to fight." James no longer knows where his family is.
"No one knows how to go about finding slaves and getting them back, but those who do escape reject Islam – some of them are strong Christians," added Bishop Mazzolari. "But they have to rebuild their entire life psychologically. They carry a deep scar for the rest of their lives, wondering what type of person they really are – wondering if they are worth anything."
It is a sentiment shared by many of the people in this war-ravaged country, bewildered as to why they are being ignored and abandoned by the rest of the world. "Do they not think we are human beings?" I was asked.
"Thousands are dying every year with this war, but we don’t have journalists coming here to cover these incidents," a local priest said. "I have the impression that the West is easily convinced by Khartoum."
It was the introduction of Sharia, or Islamic law, in 1983 which triggered rebellion in the animist and Christian South and led to this widely ignored war – of which the persecution of Christians remains an identifying feature. "There is high attendance at church celebrations, but in Yei we are bombed almost every Sunday, so as to scatter the people at Mass," Bishop Erkolano Lodu told me. "The government has chosen Sunday as the best day to bomb the churches because they are full. We are being bombed and humiliated. We have no way to defend ourselves. There is always a risk to life to attend Mass; they want to destroy and reduce the faith to nothing. But the rest of the world is very silent, as if nothing is happening. Many hundreds of thousands are dying but the world does not take note."
At the canonisation of Sudan’s first native saint, Josephine Bakhita, on 1st October last year, Pope John Paul II said: "My thoughts turn to the new saint’s country, which has been torn by a cruel war for the past 17 years, with little sign of a solution in sight. In the name of suffering humanity, I appeal once more to those with responsibility: open your hearts to the cries of millions of innocent victims and embrace the path of negotiation. I plead with the international community: do not continue to ignore this immense human tragedy."
And yet there remains scant mention of Sudan in the secular press, and I found that this sense of abandonment is felt very deeply in the country. "The world does not seem to know the terrible human tragedy of Sudan," said Bishop Caesar Mazzolari. "The war is a deterrent for most people who’d like to come and help. In the media we don’t exist: there is absolute silence. We have suffered too much from just being ignored – it is not the same for the Arabs in the North, who have created a feeling that all is well, that there is religious freedom, that there is no oppression, that slavery does not exist.
"The poverty of our people stems basically from the fact that they are an oppressed people living in fear of what tomorrow will bring," he added. "They do not believe they have human rights. They believe slavery can continue and that war is a way of life."
Walking through Bishop Mazzolari’s home town of Rumbek, it was not hard to see why so many have given in to despair. Numerous children, often with swollen stomachs, wandered around in rags or without a stitch of clothing on. Bomb-damaged and looted buildings punctuated each side of the dusty, pot-holed roads, while southern Sudan’s excessive unemployment was evident in the quantities of people simply sitting under the trees, taking refuge from the fierce African sun. Boredom is a big problem, especially among the adolescents: with no school for many teenagers, and no television, computers, cinema or other entertainment to distract them, they often turn to sex as a kind of diversion, and a large number of teenage girls end up pregnant. I asked one girl, Rosetta, what she does to fill her day; she replied with a resigned smile: "sitting".
With all the hunger, disease and various dangers these people face on a daily basis, I was struck that everyone agreed on what constituted the single greatest source of terror in their lives: the sound of the bomber planes heading their way. As Bishop Mazzolari explained: "The most frightening experience of war is the noise of the Antonov, which people can recognise from a distance. It freezes and paralyses them psychologically. Where the bombs will drop is not known. Who will be killed is not clear. It inflicts panic, not just physical destruction."
Usually the Antonovs drop cluster-bombs, which splinter upon landing, hitting their victims like heavy blades and easily removing a head or limbs. Sometimes the clusters are made of anti-personnel mines, which people find afterwards in the fields, or which children assume are toys, only to lose an arm – or their lives.
The utter dread which has come to be instilled by these bombers even affects the animals. "When monkeys and dogs run to the bunkers, then we know that in 15 minutes we will see the plane," explained Bishop Paride Taban of Torit. "They hear or sense the noise even half an hour before, and begin to move. They are sharing the situation with the people. They don’t run from the relief plane though, they recognise that it is not an Antonov."
The night before I arrived in the town of Maridi, the Antonovs had flown over. No bombs had been dropped, but a young priest showed me the ditches to which they had all run upon hearing the familiar drone of the engines. "Sometimes it can last three or four hours. It is a deadly thing: when you hear it, you hear death. They don’t target anything, they just drop up to 20 bombs, maybe more."
But the war and desolation in southern Sudan have also brought with them a fervent and sincere revival in Church life. As the singing and dancing continued long after Mass had finished one Sunday, the priest told me: "Experience shows that, in suffering, people depend more on faith and the spiritual life. They have nowhere to go except to give themselves up to God. What we see now is a genuine expression of joy from within."
It was an opinion shared by all the clergy. "The faith was not very strong before the war, but it is strengthened now," said Bishop Rudolf Deng Majak of Wau. "They are proud to call themselves Catholics."
Photo:- People demonstrate how they take cover in the ditches when the Antonov bomber planes come over their village.
Cecilia Bromley-Martin is the UK Press and Information Officer for Aid to the Church in Need.