WASHINGTON (BP) — Ker Aleu Deng waved his white cane in front of his body as he stepped cautiously into the second floor hearing room at the Rayburn House Office Building in Washington. He had come to speak for those who could not speak for themselves and plead with the American government for help on the issue of slavery in Sudan.
“Now that I have been very fortunate to get out of the situation, I still think about those who are in the same situation I was in,” Deng told the House of Representatives Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health and Human Rights.
A civil war rooted in religious differences tore apart what used to be the largest country in Africa. Fighting broke out in Sudan more than two decades ago between the Islamic, Arab-dominated north and predominantly Christian and animist south.
Frequent raids of villages in the south by militia from the north — as well as the enslavement of survivors — marked the conflict. A declaration of independence signed on July 9 finalized the Republic of South Sudan’s decision to secede and become the 196th country in the world.
Giving his testimony Oct. 4 through a translator, the Sudanese man told how he was blinded by slave master Zakaria Salih. Deng’s job was to sort hibiscus leaves and tend goats. When he was accused of allowing the leaves to get wet, letting the animals get lost and skipping Islamic instruction, his eyesight was the price to pay. He was beaten and hung upside down from a tree as Salih rubbed chili peppers into his eyes.
When Deng was “too little to remember,” murahaleen — government-trained militia raiders — invaded his village, burned huts, killed the men and stole livestock. He was then dragged along with his mother by camels into a life of slavery in northern Sudan.
The young man was beaten with a horsewhip on a daily basis, he said. He was not given food everyday, though the animals were. He was even prohibited from speaking his native Dinka language. His mother became Salih’s concubine and was forced to sleep in the garden to protect the crops from being eaten by animals. She was beaten as well if she resisted in any way.
Deng expressed his hope that Congress could assist those still enslaved in Sudan, including his mother, Angel Mangok Diing.
John Prendergast, cofounder of the ENOUGH campaign, gave a suggestion to Rep. Chris Smith, R.-N.J., the subcommittee chairman, about what needs to be done to eliminate these crimes against humanity in Sudan.
“We will have an opportunity in the next few months to push a more aggressive policy,” Prendergast said. “We just need to be there with a unified position about what the things are we expect from the Obama administration.”
Sudan’s 22-year civil war resurrected slavery. It was used, along with starvation and ethnic conflict, as a weapon of warfare. Ellen Ratner, a journalist for Talk Radio News Service, addressed the idea that slaves are sometimes considered prisoners of war and should be released.
“I spoke to some of my friends that are in the military who say whenever there is a war, prisoners of war are taken,” Ratner told the subcommittee. “Even if you don’t want to call it slavery, which it’s clearly slavery, people are returned. Why not return these people? The war is done. It’s now a separate country.”
While Ambassador Princeton Lyman communicated his belief that slavery in Sudan has been stamped out for the most part with the seceding of the south, he still called it “an ongoing issue.” Smith asked the special envoy to Sudan to raise the profile of the slavery issue.
The State Department’s Trafficking in Persons Report of 2011 called Sudan “a source, transit, and destination country for men, women, and children who are subjected to forced labor and sex trafficking.” It also confirmed there are still slaves who remain with their captors.
“You are all powerful men and women,” Deng said in his closing remarks to the subcommittee. “Please, find some way to help.”
Holly Naylor is an intern with the Washington bureau of Baptist Press.