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Slavery in Sudan becomes a 'cause' in US

African-American leaders call for a 21st-century global abolitionist movement.

Joe Madison says he doesn't cry easily. But in Sudan recently to witness the liberation of 400 women and children who had been held as slaves, Mr. Madison wept.

"They all jumped up in unison, screaming and hugging and running to their chief," says Madison, a Washington talk-radio host who accompanied an international Christian group that had paid ransom for the 4,435 captives. "I'm an African-American, the descendant of slaves. It was like I was in a time machine, watching my own ancestors in slavery. Only this is real and it's happening now."

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Almost overnight, the civil war in Sudan - a 17-year conflict that has claimed more than 2 million lives and raised humanitarian concerns about slavery - is becoming a cause clbre here in America.

Officials in the Sudanese capital, Khartoum, say that the abductions of women and children are simply part of intertribal conflicts.

But some Christian leaders have charged that the raids are part of a government-sponsored program of forced Islamization of the Christian and animist people of southern Sudan - an accusation Sudanese officials reject.

Estimates on the numbers of abducted vary. While Sudanese government figures record 14,000 southern Sudanese women and children kidnapped in recent years, human rights experts say that raiders armed by Khartoum have seized from tens of thousands up to 100,000 people and forced them to work as slaves.

The abductions occur against the backdrop of a civil war that has claimed more than 2 million lives. But it is slavery that's turning the crisis in the largest nation in Africa into an issue that matters to Americans.

Prominent African-American leaders, including Madison, have announced their own "21st-century abolition movement." Activists say tactics will include protests against nations condoning slavery and boycotts of the stock of companies doing business with them - much along the lines of the global movement to end apartheid in South Africa in the 1970s and '80s.

Last week, schoolchildren from Aurora, Colo., and former slaves from Sudan, Mauritania, and Haiti, testified before the US Senate Committee on Foreign Relations on the issue.

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Colorado teacher Barbara Vogel founded STOP (Slavery that Oppresses People) to raise money to buy back slaves in Sudan. The group appealed to senators to help in the effort.

"Today in Sudan and around the world, there are children who cannot sleep at night. They lie on the ground and they wait for strong people to come and free them. Senators, you are strong people. You have a big voice and strong arms. You can free the slaves," said Francis Bok, who was abducted into slavery in southern Sudan at the age of 7.

(Mr. Bok escaped his captors, made it out of the country, and is now attending school for the first time and working with the Boston-based American Anti-Slavery Group.)

Leaders of the new movement hope that by publicizing the abductions in Sudan they can focus world attention on the scope of the larger catastrophe in the nation.

"When 10 heads of human rights organizations met with US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright last year, we were told that the suffering in Sudan doesn't seem to be marketable to the American people," says Charles Jacob, president of the American Anti-Slavery Group.

As a result, some activists began exploring ways to "make noise on the street and build a constituency," he adds.

On May 23, organizations as diverse as the Salvation Army, the conservative Family Research Council, chapters of the Urban League, and the American Jewish Committee launched a campaign to end slavery in Sudan.

In July, the AASG framed its own version of a divestment campaign, to step up pressure on Khartoum to end the war. The campaign is intended to stop Western capital support for slave raids in Sudan. Targets include Talisman Energy, a Canadian oil company, and the China National Petroleum Co. The two are partners in a joint venture to develop Sudan's oil reserves.

More recently, the coalition has worked to extend its reach into American black churches and the civil rights community.

Last month, Madison visited the Sudan on a trip sponsored by the Swiss-based Christian Solidarity International, which has been leading efforts to buy back slaves in the region. The practice of buying back slaves, however, is controversial. Some human rights groups say it only increases incentives to take slaves, and also detracts attention from efforts to end the war.

Still, the Madison visit and his subsequent report "have become the catalyst that will bring together the spiritual descendants of Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, and Sojourner Truth, and the spiritual descendants of William Lloyd Garrison and John Brown in a 21st-century abolition movement," says the Rev. Walter Fauntroy of the National Black Leadership Roundtable, a Washington-based group that includes the heads of 200 national black organizations.

"This is a real breakthrough for our movement, because senior black leaders are now informed and clearly committed to this issue," says John Eibner, who leads redemption missions into Sudan for CSI.

Experts say some 27 million people are enslaved worldwide. Some, like those tens of thousands in Sudan, are caught up in a civil war. Others are knotting rugs in India, harvesting cocoa pods in Ivory Coast, or toiling as unpaid domestics in cities such as Washington, London, or Paris. What they all have in common is that they're held against their will, controlled by violence, and paid nothing for their work.

"Slavery, real slavery, has increased dramatically across the world in the last 50 years," says Kevin Bales, author of "Disposable People: New Slavery in the Global Economy." "It has grown rapidly, in part, because of the belief ... that slavery was ended in 1865." Rapid population growth and the dislocations of a global economy also led to an upsurge of slavery in the past five years.

Today, slaves cost as little as $10 in some parts of the world, he says. The going rate for redeeming Sudanese slaves is $35.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society


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