Michael Gerson

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.

Michael Gerson

Michael Gerson writes a twice-weekly column for The Post on issues that include politics, global health, development, religion and foreign policy. Michael Gerson is the author of the book "Heroic Conservatism" and a contributor to Newsweek magazine.
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