In a halfway house run by a Dinka tribal chief, 14-year-old Shama Amal waits for the day when he will see his mother again.
If that day ever comes, it would put an end to an ordeal that began nine years ago, when the Dinka boy, then 5, was kidnapped by an Arab cattleman and made a slave. Shama escaped after his master put burning coal in his palm - punishment for letting livestock stray.
In this impoverished African nation, some 14,000 southern Sudanese children and women have been abducted in recent years, according to government figures.
Officials in the capital, Khartoum, say the kidnappings are simply part of intertribal conflicts. But critics insist that the abducted, whom they call "slaves," number far greater and that their enslavement is part of a government-sponsored program of forced Islamization - an accusation Sudanese officials dismiss as false propaganda.
Human rights organizations, as well as Christian church officials, allege that the fundamentalist Islamist government is involved in abducting southerners of animist and Christian backgrounds. Since 1983, the predominantly African southerners, most of them of the Dinka tribe, have fought for autonomy from the Muslim north.
A spokesman for the Sudan Council of Churches says that the "regime's goal is to establish an Islamic state and society in Sudan that means churches will have to be marginalized, squeezed."
Other Christian leaders, who also asked not to be named, say "slave-like practices are going on not only in Sudan's countryside, but also in the capital Khartoum, and it has become a big business." They allege that children are brought from the south and given to government "bosses" as servants. Then they are taken to government "peace camps" where, they claim, the boys receive Muslim names and Islamic indoctrination through intense study of the Koran.
Recently the US envoy to Sudan, Harry Johnston, told the UN Human Rights Commission in Geneva that slavery "is still rampant" in Sudan, and Christian Solidarity International has reported buying freedom for 4,968 slaves for $35 each, the local value of two goats.
"Our sisters and brothers in Sudan are hurting, oppressed, dying," says the Rev. James Goode, head of the National Black Catholic Clergy in the US. "Many are slaves ... and they are crying out for our help and assistance." Fr. Goode is set to address a Sept. 9 gathering at the UN organized by New York City churches and other groups to focus on Sudan.
In May 1999, following widespread criticism, the Sudanese government formed the Committee for the Eradication of the Abduction of Women and Children (CEAWC). The establishment of the CEAWC has earned tempered praise from human rights groups.
Amnesty International has called the committee's establishment a "very important and positive step," but its Sudan representative, Annette Weber, cautions that mechanisms must be set up "not only to bring people back, but to work for preventing further abductions."
Ahmed Mufti, CEAWC director, says that since his office opened, "there has not been one single case of abduction reported," He adds, "We are not only interested in addressing the symptoms of abduction, but abduction itself, and the root causes. There is no point in returning these abductees if tomorrow you have another abduction."
Slavery in Sudan has deep roots in the country's past of repeated wars, including the current civil war, which has dragged on for 17 years.
The largest number of abductions reportedly take place in Bahr el Ghazal, Darfur, and Kordofan. There, Arab tribesmen, collectively known as baggara (cattle herders) carry out raids on mainly Dinka land, but also parts of the Nuba Mountains. Human rights groups allege that the baggara are armed and protected by the government.
The attackers take livestock, belongings, and harvests - and need carriers to transport the goods. Consequently, captive women and children become part of the baggara's workforce. They fetch water and firewood, herd livestock, and do heavy manual labor.
"The identity of people is changing dramatically," Ms. Weber says. "If a girl was abducted when she was five years old, and now she's 20, her name may be changed to a Muslim name or another name suggesting a family bond has been established."
The CEAWC collaborates with the Dinka Committee, headed by chief James Aguir. Mr. Aguir works with other tribal leaders to track down missing people. He also runs the Khartoum halfway house where rescued slaves stay until relatives are found. The United Nations Children's Fund and Save the Children are overseeing some of CEAWC's activities in field research, and CEAWC has received a $1,400,000 donation from the European Union.
Still, solutions are elusive. The head of UNICEF, Carol Bellamy, has voiced concern that buying back slaves will only encourage more trafficking. Says Aguir: "What we need now is peace. If there is no peace in the future, then these abductions can happen again."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society