August 24, 2006
Ghosts haunt forgotten former Sudan slave
By Opheera McDoom
KHARTOUM, Sudan (Reuters) - Ezekiel Ibrahim spent nine years working as a slave in Sudan's South but even after escaping his captors, he was shackled to the ghosts of his past.
Images of his captors tormented his mind and drove the 17-year-old to attempt suicide by slicing at his throat with a blunt knife.
"They came to me at night and they wanted to kill me, so I cut my throat but I felt nothing," said Ibrahim, who has been diagnosed with psychotic depression. A dirty shirt had been tied around the infected wounds in his neck.
In the 19th century, Sudan was at the center of a slave trade that saw northern, mostly Arab tribes capture non-Arab southerners to sell to Western countries to work on plantations or farms.
During a north-south civil war that lasted two decades from the mid-1980s, abductions and slavery re-emerged as the government armed Arab nomadic tribes to fight mainly animist or Christian southern rebels.
The nomadic tribes, known locally as "Murahileen," abducted women and children who were used as workers, sex slaves or forced to marry their captors.
Ibrahim was taken when he was just 7 years old.
He had been separated from his family when they fled a government attack on his village in the Nuba Mountains area in the late 1990s. Alone, he stumbled across a camp for displaced people and eventually, he says, an Arab man said he would adopt him until he found his family.
"They tricked me," said Ibrahim. The man's family hired him out to another tribe, the Misseriya, to work as a cattle herder for three years. After that, he was rented out to cut wood and to farm. But the Arab man took the money Ibrahim earned.
Ibrahim, a Christian, was also forced to convert to Islam -- the religion of his captors -- and taught by Islamic teachers every day to memorize the Koran. He was renamed Mohamed.
"They used to write verses and then wash off the ink and make me drink the dirty water," he said.
The Islamic teachers still haunt his sleep.
"All I want for the future is to get better, then for them to forget me, so I can farm my own cattle and go to school," he said.
Sudan's north-south war, which killed 2 million people and forced more than 4 million to flee their homes, ended in January 2005 with a peace deal.
A separate conflict has ravaged the western region of Darfur, where violence continues despite a May peace accord.
Ibrahim said he knew many other children like him who were forced to work for Arab tribes during the civil war.
"Some were treated well, some were not treated so well."
After years of denying the problem, Sudan's government formed the Committee for the Eradication of the Abduction of Women and Children (CEAWC) in 1999.
While Khartoum will not use the word "slaves," it has returned to their families 6,000 of 14,000 southern "abductees" from the Dinka tribe who were identified in 1999. But it has not searched for more people in captivity or people from other tribes such as Nubans, like Ibrahim.
Under pressure from the government, most United Nations agencies and aid groups also refer to abduction rather than slavery in Sudan.
"The international community should speak openly about slavery," said John Eibner, a member of the Christian Solidarity International group, which campaigns against slavery.
"The interests of the victims are not promoted by respecting the taboos of slavers and their partners," he said.
This year, CEAWC was forced to stop work because of a lack of funds.
"We have received $3 million from the government and $1 million from international donors, but that money has finished," said the organization's head, lawyer Ahmed al-Mufti.
He said he did not know if this was because of a dispute within the power-sharing coalition government -- made up of northerners and southerners -- about who should fund the group.
Mufti also denies the existence of slavery, saying those abducted were treated well and that some of them did not even want to return to their true families.
Sudan is ranked among the worst offenders on a U.S. list of states that traffic in people.
"The Sudanese Criminal Code neither specifically outlaws trafficking nor covers all of the worst forms of trafficking in persons," a U.S. 2006 report on trafficking in persons said.
It says that while specific articles do outlaw abductions, no one has ever been prosecuted under these articles.
Ezekiel Ibrahim wants his own form of justice, says his cousin Shemoun Suleiman.
"He's so angry all he talks about is how he can find the person who kept him captive and kill him."