Where Slavery is Not a Metaphor

Michael Gerson
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Posted: Apr 02, 2010 12:01 AM
Where Slavery is Not a Metaphor

ROUM ROL, South Sudan -- For those used to seeing the faces of slaves in Civil War-era tintypes -- staring at the camera in posed, formal judgment -- it is a shock to see the face of slavery in a shy, adolescent boy.

Majok Majok Dhal, 14 or 15 years old (many former slaves have no idea of their exact age), dimly remembers his capture in the village of Mareng at about age 5. "I ran a little and was taken. I was carried on horseback." He recalls seeing other captives shot and killed after refusing to march north with the raiders into Sudan proper. His master, Atheib, was "not a good person." He forced the boy to tend goats and live with them in a stable. Majok was beaten regularly with a bamboo stick, "if I was not quick and fast." He recalls once being feverish and unable to work. The master "stabbed my leg with a knife. He said, 'I will cut your throat.'" Majok shows me his poorly healed wound. He was forced to address Atheib as "father."

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Relating his experience, Majok shows no anger -- until asked about the master's own children. "When they beat me up, I couldn't raise my head. If I tried to fight back, the father would kill me." He recounts their taunting. "They would say to me, 'Why don't you go to your own home and eat?'" Majok's voice rises: "If he brought me all the way to take care of goats and cattle, why did he not employ his own children?"

I talk to Majok through an interpreter, under a large tamarind tree, in a setting as bleak as his story. The scenery tests every possible shade of brown: reddish brown, yellowish brown, greenish brown. It is a landscape of thatched, conical huts, circling scavenger birds, rutted mud roads and wandering goats. A haze of fine, red dust blurs the horizon.

Nearby, about 125 recently released slaves are being interviewed by Christian Solidarity International (CSI), an organization that has helped redeem and resettle tens of thousands of captives during the past 15 years. Though no more slaves are being taken by northern militias -- the raids generally stopped with the American-sponsored peace treaty in 2005 -- an estimated tens of thousands more are still held within a hundred miles of South Sudan's northern border.

The background of each man, woman and child at the makeshift camp is recorded, reflecting a determination by CSI that none of these people, and none of the crimes they have experienced, be forgotten. A woman is missing teeth from being tied and thrown to the ground. Others reluctantly admit that their genitals were mutilated. One woman tells me, "Sometimes I run out when I dream."

Slavery is only the most extreme legacy of Sudan's two decades of civil war. With patience, nearly every personal encounter reveals a story of struggle. A pastor tells me how his congregation met for 15 years under a tree so they could quickly move to avoid bombing raids. Cattle herds -- the main source of stored wealth in South Sudan -- were decimated. An estimated 40 percent of people in this region depend on food aid of some sort. There is almost no public health infrastructure. A Sudanese doctor informs me that he diagnoses a new case of leprosy about every two weeks -- a condition almost unknown in the West. Women in rural areas play fertility roulette -- a local aid official estimates that one in six will die from complications during childbirth.

Just months from South Sudan's likely vote for independence, its humanitarian challenges seem overwhelming. International relief organizations provide many services, but the greater need is the building of local capacity -- agricultural development, trained government administrators, a credible national teaching hospital. Direct international aid in the form of cash can encourage local corruption. But technical assistance to build specific capabilities may be the only way to avoid the destructive failure of a new nation. Still, as one U.S. State Department official recently vented to me, "We are doing about 10 percent of what we need to do."

Meeting a Sudanese goatherd released from slavery, it would be difficult to experience greater cultural distance without leaving the planet. But my main impression of Majok was his profound resemblance to my sons of similar age. It is a hopeful thing about humanity. In a timid smile, in a turn of the head, we see similarity, we see family. We should also see responsibility.