When Francis Bok was seven years old and living in southern Sudan, he was kidnapped by militiamen and forced into slavery. At 17, he fled his captors in northern Sudan, first to the capital, Khartoum, then north to Cairo and on to the United States. Bok, now 23, was in Toronto last week promoting his new book, Escape from Slavery (St. Martin’s Press).
When I was 14,1 asked Giemma Abdullah, my master, why he call me abeed, which means black slave in Arabic. After seven years living with Giemma, I knew nobody, I hadn’t gone to school once nor had I played with another child. He said I was an animal. That’s when I decided I was going to run away.
My first two escapes when I was 14 ended in failure. Giemma beat me up and threatened to kill me if I tried again. I didn’t care. I knew I would rather die than be a slave. I stayed three more years, all the time plotting my escape. When I was 17,1 was very lucky to find my way to a refugee camp in Khartoum.
When I first arrived in the U.S., I didn’t think I would be able to talk about what was happening in Sudan. I was trying to start a new life and forget what happened to me. Then an anti-slavery organization in Boston heard about me through the Sudanese community. They asked me to give speeches on my experiences. I spoke to a senate committee, I spoke alongside Coretta Scott King [Martin Luther King’s widow] and I met President George Bush.
My father used to call me muycharko, which in my language means 12 men. I used to tell my father I wanted to be just like him because, in our village, he was considered to be a rich man. Like him, I wanted to help make other people’s lives better. That’s where the courage came from to escape. Even when I learned my parents had been killed by the same militiamen who took me, I knew I could not give up. I knew one day I could equal the strength of 12 men.
A lot of people in the West think slavery ended a long time ago. They don’t realize that 27 million people around the world still live as slaves. The U.S. signed the Sudan Peace Act that recognizes there is slavery in Sudan and that genocide has killed nearly two million people there. So there is hope that something might change... but we’re still only at the beginning.
If I ever had the chance to meet Giemma again, I would tell him: Look at what your animal is doing. I would tell him that what he did to me was wrong. I don’t care about his skin colour. I don’t care that he is Arab and I am an African. We are both human beings and he needs to know that. I wanted my book to be called / Am Not an Animal, so that Giemma will know that I am not a beast.
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