In a recent article 1 I
examined the question whether we should apologise for slavery, colonisation
and imperialism in the former British Empire. I said that far from Europeans
having invented African slavery, it was a feature of life there long before
European traders arrived. I should have added that, as we enter the 21st
century, some Africans still sell their own people as slaves.
This was borne out by a report from Robin Lodge
in Nairobi 2. Robin’s
report said that a United Nations agency had accused a Christian human rights
group of encouraging the slave trade in southern Sudan by handing over $100,000
(£64,000) to Arab traders to buy the freedom of more than 2,000 slaves.
Julianna Lindsey, a spokeswoman for the United Nations Children's Fund operation
Lifeline Sudan, said that while she appreciated the benefits to the individuals
concerned there were fears that paying money to redeem slaves could serve
only to support the market.
"The issue is the same whether
it is 500 or 2,000 slaves." she said. "Money in Southern Sudan
is very attractive and the people involved in the trade will use that."
Her remarks followed the announcement by Christian
Solidarity International, an organisation based in Switzerland, that it
had paid Arab middlemen the equivalent of $50 a head to obtain the freedom
of 2,035 slaves in a seven-day trip to southern Sudan - bringing the number
of slaves that it has redeemed to more than 11,000 since 1995. For the newly
freed slaves, this can mean an end to a life of appalling hardship and cruelty,
where unpaid hard labour is often combined with physical and sexual abuse.
The victims, mostly women and children from the Christian Dinka tribe, are
sold off by the slave dealers to Muslims in the north for as little as $15
each. Boys are forcibly circumcised and girls subjected to ritual genital
mutilation. Women abducted as slaves are frequently raped, and thereafter
forced to bear the children of the unknown men who violated them.
It seems that Arab militias, armed and organised
by the Government in Khartoum, come down from the north on horseback to
loot and burn, and also to abduct women and children to sell as slaves.
In the small southern village of Yargot Robin Lodge saw more than 600 slaves
gathered in the shade of a large tree to await their freedom. The boys told
of working as cattle herders, the girls as domestic servants in the north.
The young women reported stories of violence, rape and murder at the hands
of their Arab captors.
Ayak, aged 20, was pregnant when she was abducted three years ago from her village of Rianwei. ‘When
one woman tried to escape we were all beaten with axes and sticks,’ she said. ‘I fell unconscious.
When I woke my leg was paralysed and I was bleeding. Then I lost my baby.’ She still walks with
a limp but is lucky in one way. She has heard that her husband is still alive and hopes that he will
accept the young baby she has brought home with her, the product of rape by her Arab master.
The United Nations critics argue that the redeemers of the slaves are playing
into the hands of slave dealers. Carol Bellamy, the head of Unicef, wrote
recently: ‘At $50 a head in a country where most of the people subsist
on less than a dollar a day, the practice has encouraged more [slave] trafficking.’ There
are also reports that the well-meaning redeemers are frequently exploited
by people posing as slaves, who have never been abducted, as well as by
families willing to sell their children or other relatives to slave traders
several times over for financial gain.
This teaches that we British should not be so quick to abase ourselves
as wicked exploiters and racists.