By Charles Jacobs
The stars in Wanyjok’s sky blazed so bright it seemed as though God himself had switched on the lights in the vast blackness. I hadn’t seen a sky like this since I was a boy in the New Jersey countryside. It helped me understand how men from time immemorial have sought patterns in the stars—signs from the Creator of what was to come. I felt that here, in southern Sudan, God was signaling a miracle.
I flew to Sudan on January 6 to witness the birth of a nation. Historically, the Arabs have dominated Sudan. In 1983 the Khartoum’s Islamists imposed Shariah throughout the country provoking southern rebellion. For decades, the north assaulted the African Christian/animist south. Over 2 million have been killed and tens of thousands enslaved.
To break the resistance, the regime sent Arab militias to enslave southern women and children. Girls were used as domestics, boys as cattle herders, women as concubines and sex slaves. The right not to be owned by another human is second only to the right to life. Yet none of the establishment human rights groups screamed out about these slaves.
With an op-ed in the New York Times, and help from Muslim and Christian Africans, I launched an anti-slavery movement. (www.iabolish.org) We built an unlikely left/right coalition – from Pat Robertson to Barney Frank to the Congressional Black Caucus.
I always viewed the Southern Sudanese as “the Jews of our time”—murdered and enslaved—while the so-called civilized world stood by. At a meeting once with Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, I asked why America refused to use the word genocide when describing Sudan. Did we not make the same mistake 60 years ago when we ignored the annihilation of Europe’s Jews? The answer: By law, if we call it genocide we have to act. We were not going to act, so we couldn’t call it genocide.
When UNICEF blasted our partners Christian Solidarity International for redeeming slaves, I argued the group was following Jewish law. When it suggested the slaves must wait for liberation until hostilities ended, I responded: “That’s exactly what the West told the Jews about Auschwitz.”
CSI freed slaves through an existing Dinka-Arab peace treaty. Arabs who needed Dinka wetlands for grazing would travel north and retrieve the slaves. CSI supported the treaty by providing cash to the retrievers.
In 2005 President Bush stopped Khartoum’s war by imposing a peace treaty. The south was granted autonomy and an opportunity to vote for self-determination in 2011. The Southerners I interviewed unanimously planned to vote for secession. The results, just in—confirmed by Jimmy Carter no less—had it at 98% for separation. Why? “They stole our children and our wives. They stole our cattle. They murdered us.”
The north recognized the results and the south likely will be free. But what of the slaves?
An estimated 35,000 remain in the North. We trekked to the liberation sites freeing 397 slaves. We wrote about the liberation in The Wall Street Journal and posted slaves’ photographs at www.iabolish.org.
Their stories are heart-wrenching. Many report hard labor, daily death threats, beatings, racial insults and forcible conversion to Islam. Women are ganged raped and genitally mutilated; their children sold off or given away as a gift.
Who would we be if we left these people in bondage?
It was good to be a Jew in southern Sudan. An airport guard, upon learning I was Jewish, brightened with a smile and a hug: “Welcome, you are one of God’s chosen people,” he said. And several Dinka men marveled at Israel’s defeat of Arab armies.
We’ve come a long way. Years ago, when an escaped Sudanese slave Francis Bok watched The Ten Commandments, he grew tearful. “God opened the Sea for the Hebrew slaves, but He’s not yet redeemed my people,” he said.
Go look now, dear Francis, at the stars in Wanyjok.
Charles Jacobs is President of the American Anti-Slavery Group