A Canadian couple spend their vacations buying people out of bondage in the African savanna

Barry Came April 10 2000


A Canadian couple spend their vacations buying people out of bondage in the African savanna

Barry Came April 10 2000
Like many a fellow nomad, Jongchol Dudi Mayar measures distance in days. He inhabits a trackless wilderness in southern Sudan, a vast sweep of dun-coloured grassland that rolls northward from the equatorial forests of the country’s deep south to wither and die amidst the scorched wastes of the Sahara. Home, he says, is “three days hard walk” from where he is sitting at the moment, seeking shelter from a blistering African sun in the meagre shade of a thorn bush. “It can take longer,” he adds, “if you move at night to avoid the gunships and the Antonovs, with their bombs.” The 32-year-old hereditary chief, a tribal leader of the cattle-herding Nuer people, has not visited his home for two years. And he does not expect to see it again anytime soon. “They chased us out,” he complains. “They don’t want us there, the khivadjya—the white men—who look for the oil. They come from far away; many, many days. A place that is part of the United States, called Canada.” Errant political geography aside, Jongchol’s assertion might jolt some Canadians, especially those accustomed, even proud, of the conventional shining image of Canada as a country exercising a generally benign influence on world affairs. But on southern Sudan’s sun-drenched savanna, among the spreading mahogany trees and towering coconut palms, the view is different. Bona Malwal, a former Sudanese cabinet minister now teaching international affairs at Oxford University, leans against the side of a dusty pickup truck, not far from Jongchol’s prickly thorn, and issues a warning. “Like it or not,” says Malwal, an occasional visitor to his homeland, “Canada is involved in our terrible war. The oil companies have dragged you into it. It may end, I fear, with Canadians getting killed, the way it did when the Americans were here.”

The war Malwal speaks of is certainly the longest and probably the most intractable in Africa, pitting Sudan’s Muslim Arab north against an array of black African tribes in the country’s south, many of them Christian but most still practicing the animist beliefs of their ancestors. The north wants control, the south autonomy, if not outright independence. Except for a brief hiatus in the 1970s, the conflict has been sputtering along more or less continuously since Britain’s colonial authorities left in 1955. Waged out of sight in the remote backwaters of Africa’s largest state, it is mostly invisible to Western eyes. But it is a deadly war nonetheless, having claimed, by all accounts, close to two million lives and rendered another five million homeless.

It is also a very dirty affair, even by the woeful standards of modern warfare. The strife in Sudan has revived an ancient African scourge—a slave trade has taken root once again on the continent as a direct result of the war. Human beings, mostly women and children, are suffering kidnapping, forced labor, physical punishment and rape. At the dawn of the 21st century, people are being ruthlessly trafficked, bought and sold like the Nuer’s long-horned cattle or the ubiquitous goats that roam Sudan’s grassy plain. “The proof is incontrovertible,” insists Hamouda Fathelrahman, secretary general of the Sudan Human Rights Organization. “Thousands of people, perhaps tens of thousands, have been enslaved and are being enslaved at this very moment.”

Like Malwal, Fathelrahman is another of Sudan’s many political exiles, a medical doctor imprisoned by the Sudanese regime, forced to flee to an uncertain sanctuary in Cairo. Unlike Malwal, a black African Christian member of the Dinka people, Fathelrahman is a Muslim and an Arab. But he, too, blames the revival of the slave trade on the dictators who seized power in a 1989 military coup. And he, too, finds fault with Canadian oil interests who, he claims, are exacerbating what is already a difficult situation. “There is absolutely no doubt,” Fathelrahman maintains, “that slavery is being employed as a weapon of war by the government of Sudan, both as a means to terrorize and demoralize their opponents in the south as well as a tool to clear the oilfields of potentially hostile populations in order to make them safe for the oil companies, including those from Canada.”

‘The price is $50 a head—what it would cost for a couple of goats at the market’

There is evidence aplenty to support Fathelrahman’s charges, much of it gathered by an unconventional Canadian couple who have been waging an unconventional battle to bring it to the attention of their compatriots. By day, Glen Pearson is a 49year-old firefighter from London, Ont. His wife, Jane Roy, 35, runs a local food bank. But in their spare time, Pearson and Roy collect funds for Christian Solidarity International, a small Swiss-based human rights organization. And for the second time in a year, they have taken the money and slipped clandestinely across Sudan’s southern borders to wander the grasslands, mostly on foot, humping backpacks and tents.

There, last month in the company of two colleagues—an American and a German—from CSI’s Zurich headquarters, they buy slaves, thousands of them, and promptly set them free. “The price is around $50 a head,” Roy tells a Macleans reporter who accompanied her for 10 days during her latest foray. “About what it would cost for a couple of goats at the local market.” Since 1995, CSI has purchased and liberated 30,021 slaves, the vast majority of them women and children. It is a risky venture, conducted in defiance not only of the outraged Sudanese authorities, but also in the face of condemnation by some of the world’s major relief and humanitarian organizations. “But it is well worth it,” affirms Pearson, “especially if we can do something to influence the oilmen and the policy-makers back home, never mind the government of Sudan.”

That government, or military junta, is headed by Gen. Omar Bashir, who rules in a sometimes uneasy alliance with the religiously hard line clerics and civilians of the National Islamic Front. Its seat is Khartoum, a grimy, dust-blown city on the edge of the Nubian desert, 800 km to the north of the oilfields and the slave markets. The White Nile and the Blue Nile meet at the Sudanese capital, joining forces for the long, slow run down into Egypt.

Canadian interests in Sudan converge there as well, the result of an Oct. 8,1998, acquisition by Calgary-based Talisman Energy Inc., the largest independent oil and gas company in Canada—and one of the largest in the world. Since then, Talisman has invested $760 million to buy a 25-per-cent stake in the Greater Nile Petroleum Operating Co., an international consortium whose other partners are the national oil companies of China, with a 40 percent-share, Malaysia, 30 per cent, and Sudan, five per cent. The purchase gave Talisman access to a massive sea of oil, a concession with potentially lucrative reserves that have recently been upgraded from an estimated 450 million barrels to more than 800 million, nearly twice the size of the Hibernia field off Newfoundland.

The snag is those reserves lie beneath southern Sudan’s rolling savanna, in the borderlands straddling the two Sudanese provinces of Kordofan and Upper Nile, smack on the front lines between the country’s warring factions. The government’s authority does not extend much beyond Khartoum, the main towns and a few isolated military garrisons.The bulk of the oil-rich area is under the sway of either armed Nuer militia bands, most of which are aligned against the government, or the 30,000 uniformed troops of the Sudanese Peoples’ Liberation Army, the Dinka-dominated guerrilla force that has been in the forefront of the struggle against the authorities in Khartoum.

Sudan’s grasslands have been a battleground since time immemorial. Arab north meets African south on the savanna, home not only to the Dinka and Nuer tribes, but also to a populous Arab clan known as the Baggara. All—Dinka, — Nuer and Baggara—are semi-nomadic cattle herders, much given to murderous feuds over grazing rights and water access. Slavery is endemic in the region. The commerce in Nubian slaves was already infamous when the pharaohs reigned in Egypt. Even the British, during their colonial regime, could not manage to stamp it out completely. Down through the centuries, the Dinka and Nuer have been the main victims. The Baggara, now as in the past, enjoy a supreme tactical advantage, the mobility afforded by the horse. They are skilled horsemen, accomplished horse-breeders. In Dinka and Nuer territory, there are no horses. The animals cannot survive the long, twice-yearly rainy seasons, when much of the southern savanna is transformed into swampland's infested with malaria, yellow fever and battalions of venomous spitting cobras.

While the savanna has always been an inhospitable place, it was the discovery of the riches lying under the long grass that turned it into a red-hot war zone. The U.S. petroleum giant, Chevron Corp., was the first to find oil in the region in 1979. Almost as soon as Chevron began extracting, it quickly became apparent that the Khartoum government of the day had no intention of sharing the profits with the southern Sudanese. That, in turn, provoked the rise of the Sudanese Peoples’ Liberation Army, under the overall command of U.S.-educated Col. John Garang, and the resumption of the civil war, which had been suspended by a seven-year ceasefire. Soon, the SPLA, along with other rebel groups in the south, were targeting Chevron’s operations. In 1984, the inevitable occurred when three American oil workers were killed. Chevron halted work, eventually pulling out completely in 1990.

Calgary’s Talisman is now occupying Chevron’s place, raising the alarming prospect, as predicted by Bona Malwal, that Canadian oil workers in Sudan—roughly 150 at the moment—may soon receive the same mortal threats as their American colleagues. “Of course that’s a concern,” the company’s chief executive officer, James Buckee, acknowledges in a telephone interview. “But I wish that instead of talking about killing expatriate workers, they would talk about the benefits that can come from the oil project.” He denies that the company is either fueling the civil war in Sudan or violating anybody’s human rights in the country. On the contrary, Buckee maintains that Talisman is actually contributing to Sudan’s development. “There’s a whole raft of initiatives,” he says, pointing to $ 1 million invested in building roads, airstrips, a hospital, an orphanage, two medical dispensaries and drilling 43 water wells. Even more important, by entering a partnership with the Sudanese authorities the company is better placed to influence events from the inside. “Talisman brings Western eyes and Western conscience,” says Buckee. “Boy, have we done that! We’ve brought Western scrutiny in a big way, which, in the long run, will benefit the political process.”

That, however, is not the conclusion drawn by John Harker, the internationally respected Africa expert dispatched last fall by Foreign Affairs Minister Lloyd Axworthy to report on the “human security” situation in Sudan. In his report, issued in February, Harker maintained that foreign oil company activities in Sudan, including those of Talisman, had, in fact, “intensified the conflict.” Despite company denials, Harker says authorities cleared civilian populations to ensure the safety of oil workers and the security of the oilfields themselves near the town of Bentiu. Even more damning, Harker found evidence that Sudanese government helicopter gunships and Russian Antonov makeshift bombers were regularly flying from, as well as being rearmed and refueled at, an airstrip constructed by Talisman. “It is a prominent perception of southern Sudanese,” Harker wrote, “that Talisman is in active collaboration with the government of Sudan, economically, politically, militarily. It is also the perception of these southerners that the government of Canada is either supportive or indifferent to that collaboration. In short, they identify oil extraction not as a positive development, but as a major grievance with a Canadian label.”

War tally: close to two million dead and five million homeless

That label may prove difficult to erase. Pearson, for one, worries that Talisman’s endeavors could irrevocably alter the balance of power in the country’s civil war. “I think there is a very real possibility,” he told Macleans, “that the revenues Talisman is earning for the government of Sudan may eventually allow Khartoum to win this war. And I don’t think that would be very helpful, especially for the long-suffering people in the south.”

Whatever the accuracy of that judgment, there are few indications of major changes in Talisman’s programs in view of the recent failure of a months’-long attempt by four Canadian non-governmental organizations—World Vision, Project Ploughshares, the Steelworkers Humanity Fund and the United Church of Canada—to persuade the company to mitigate some of the negative effects of its endeavors in Sudan. At the same time, Canadian government attitudes seem set, even if Talisman’s partnership with the Sudanese regime threatens to undermine Axworthy’s much-touted humane security foreign policy at the very moment when Canada assumes, later this month, the rotating chairmanship of the UN Security Council. By all accounts, the foreign minister is scheduled to utilize the high profile of the UN occasion to deliver what his aides are describing as a “hard-hitting” speech, including references to the ongoing violation of human rights in Sudan. But no matter how strong the rhetoric, Axworthy’s words are likely to ring hollow, given the enormous scale of human misery on the grasslands of faraway Sudan.

It is the dry season on the savanna now, the time when the sense of dread almost shimmers in the air along with the rising waves of heat. The grass is dust yellow and the plains are bone-dry, baked as hard as concrete by the relentless African sun. Ideal conditions, in short, for the Sudanese military to resupply its isolated garrisons as well as launch what has become, since the discovery of oil, a bloody annual offensive.

The oil-rich savanna of southern Sudan

The government’s forces come in the air, on-board helicopter gunships and an aging fleet of Soviet-era Antonov cargo planes, refitted to drop bombs, inaccurate and thereby indiscriminately devastating for civilian populations. They come by barge down the Nile and its tributaries, by rickety train along the single track that loops down from Khartoum to terminate at Wau in the southern reaches of Bahr el Ghazal province. The regular Sudanese troops are never alone. They are always reinforced by local militia, known as Popular Defense Forces. Most fearsome of all, however, are the murahaleen, a relic from Sudan’s past. They are marauding horseborne irregulars, recruited from the ranks of the Nuer and Dinkas ancient enemies, the Baggara Arabs. And they possess what amounts to a government license to loot, pillage, rape and enslave.

“The murahaleen are the worst,” says SPLA Maj. Ring Mawien Nyikoc. “They have no mercy at all.” The major delivers the remark as he stands amidst the smouldering evidence of murahaleen handiwork. Two days earlier, it had been a village called Malith, home to 350 Dinkas a few kilometers south of the Bahr el’ Arab River in northern Bahr el Ghazal province. Now, there is absolutely nothing left save for a few crumbling mud walls and dozens of circular patches of blackened, burned soil, marking the spots where the Dinkas tukals—their distinctive round houses with conical thatched roofs—once stood. “They came in the morning,” Nyikoc recalls, “700 PDF soldiers on foot and 300 horses, each with two murahaleen. I only had a company of troops here, 240 men, so we had to withdraw after an hour-and-a-half fighting. I lost eight good men. So far, we’ve counted nine dead enemy, seven dead horses.”

Malith’s inhabitants fared worse. When the combined force of PDF and murahaleen moved back north across the muddy waters of the Bahr el’ Arab, they carried with them 120 women and children, all destined for the slave markets in southern Kordofan and Darfur provinces. There is no mystery about the fate awaiting them there. “Most of the women will probably be raped on the way north,” says John Eibner, the American in charge of Christian Solidarity’s operations in Sudan. “In the north, they will be sold or distributed among the PDF and murahaleen. The women will be put to work on household chores, cleaning, cooking, fetching water and firewood. Some will become concubines for their masters. The children will be sent to look after the master’s goats and cows.”

They Cut my wrist with a knife and ran a rope through it, right around the bone. I never saw my boy again’

Eibner speaks from experience. He is chief architect and principal manager of what amounts to a Sudanese version of the 19th-century Underground Railway that once spirited American slaves north to safety and freedom in Canada. In Sudan, the main—and most controversial— difference is that Eibner and his colleagues at CSI regularly cart duffel bags full of cash into the country to service a clandestine network of Arab slave dealers. The traders, mostly Baggara tribesmen, travel the north, quietly purchasing slaves, then lead them south, where Eibner buys them. The price per head is fixed at 50,000 Sudanese pounds ($50, down from $75 a year ago), “to avoid creating a market,” says Eibner.

Still, the practice has been widely condemned. It infuriates the Sudanese government, which denies that slavery exists within its borders. Last year, the government managed to gather enough support at the United Nations to have CSI stripped of its observer status at the world body. UNICEF’s executive director, Carol Bellamy, has described CSI’s slave-redeeming endeavors as “absolutely intolerable.” The Swiss-based organization is also the target of much privately voiced criticism among the 40 or so relief agencies currently at work in Sudan, who claim that CSI’s efforts are merely a band-aid for a problem that will not be ultimately solved until the country’s civil war draws to a close. Others say the actual buying of slaves by westerners encourages others to enslave people for sale. But Pearson maintains that criticism does not stand up because slave raids are down from previous years.

Even worse, there are oft-repeated suggestions, alluded to in the Harker report, that CSI’s slave redemption's may be a charade, with the same so-called slaves being recycled by unscrupulous traders. That particular accusation clearly stings. To counter it, Pearson and Roy are fingerprinting all of the slaves they are purchasing and freeing. “The plan is to build a database,” says Pearson, standing in the southern Sudan’s withering heat, patiently pressing fingers into an ink pad, then onto previously prepared sheets of squared paper. “I’ve got some friends in the police back in London, who will run all of these prints through their computers. Hopefully, sometime in the future well be able to instantly recognize whether any of the prints match.”

Neither Pearson nor Roy pretend that their endeavours in Sudan are likely to bring an end to the strife that has plagued the country for more than 40 years. “We don’t have any big solutions,” acknowledges Roy, digging into a tin of cold beans after a long, hot day on the trail. “But I have been around a bit and can recognize human suffering when I see it. All we are trying to do here is ease some of that suffering by bringing people out of bondage. I think that’s worthwhile.” She makes the comment near the end of her mission during which CSI funds were used to purchase and free 4,968 slaves. for more pictures and links

Nobody knows how many slaves may be in the country. In his report, Harker estimated the number at 15,000. Eibner thinks there may be as many as 100,000. Whatever the actual number, their individual stories are as similar as they are appalling.

Adut Yor Mawien’s tale is typical. The 26-year-old woman rests against the trunk of a gigantic tamarind tree near the village of Mabok Tong in northern Bahr el Ghazal. Her belly is swollen in pregnancy. At her feet, her naked threeyear-old daughter sits listlessly in the dust. Both the unborn child and the little girl were fathered by a man she knows only as Saleh, her master for eight years in the village of Meiram in southern Kordofan. “I hate him,” she says, with venom. “He was very bad to me.” She stretches out a wrist, where there is a huge patch of thorny scar tissue. It happened, she recounts, after she was captured by murahaleen and was being led northward. “I could not keep up because I had a little boy then,” she recalls. “So they cut my wrist with a knife and ran a rope through it, right around the bone. I never saw my boy again.”

Not far away, Manut Atem Amet, 15, sits in the same village of MabokTong, describing the incident that cost him his arm. “I lost my masters bull,” he says. “He cut off my hand when I could not find it again.” Further east, in the village of Akoc, another teenage boy, totally naked and covered in fine dust, wanders aimlessly away from a fingerprinting session with Pearson and Roy. His name is Tong Tong, he says. He recounts his capture by a murahaleen raiding party that attacked his native village of Mair Noon. “I was running with my father when they got me,” he says. “They took me to Meiram and sold me to Khalil. Khalil sent me to look after his goats.” He glances down at his body. “I had clothes then, but they fell apart. Khalil would not give me any more.”

Garang Deng Yel and Athian Athian Athian were never enslaved. But their wives and children were, in 1995. And both men are living testimony of the perils involved in venturing northward to retrieve loved ones. Neither has any arms below the elbow. “They caught us outside Meiram,” recalls Yel, “chopped off our arms and left us to die.” A group of sympathetic local women stumbled upon the men and nursed them back to health. But Yel and Athian sometimes wish they had never been rescued. “I am like a child,” Yel tells a visitor in the town of Malwal Akon, where both live. “I cannot do anything by myself or for myself. I could die of thirst even if there was water nearby. I might be better dead.”

It is the sheer brutality of events in Sudan that shock, not to mention the distinct possibility that the re-emergent slave trade in the country is not only being encouraged by the authorities but is actually a state-sponsored initiative. Fathelrahman of the Sudan Human Rights Organizations has no doubts on the issue. “The tire process is orchestrated by the Sudanese military,” he claims. The dreaded murahaleen are, in Fathelrahman’s view, government recruited and trained. “They focus on the younger Baggara,” he says, “offering new recruits a horse, an AK-47 automatic rifle, 50,000 Sudanese pounds and two sacks of wheat or sorghum. You cannot imagine the attraction for a young Baggara male. In that society, to own a horse of one’s own is to be a knight.”

While the Sudanese government denies there is any slavery in the country, it concedes, however, that there may be a chronic problem with what Harker calls “abductees.” But that does not explain those ragged, foot-sore thousands freed from bondage by the efforts of people like John Eibner, Glen Pearson and Jane Roy. Nor is it much of an answer to the questions posed by the severed limbs of Garang Deng Yel and Athian Athian Athian. “They are heroes in my book,” Pearson quietly remarks, watching a young Dinka hold a cup to the lips of each of the two armless men. “Maybe it might help to change a few minds back home, if certain people in our government could see these guys and talk to them.” Maybe it might.