WANYJOK, Sudan (JTA) — 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 Bahr el Ghazhal province in South Sudan, God was signaling a miracle.
I flew to Sudan on Jan. 6 to witness the birth of a nation.
In 2005 President Bush, pressed by an unusual American grass-roots human rights campaign, forced a peace treaty on both sides of the bloody conflict between the Arab-Muslim North and the mostly Christian South of Sudan, Africa’s largest country. The treaty gave the South autonomy and said that in six years it could decide if it wanted to separate from the North.
We had reached that moment with this month’s referendum, whose official results are slated to be announced Feb. 14. Indications are that 99 percent of voters opted for independence.
From the start, I viewed the South Sudanese as the Jews of our time, targeted for mass murder and slavery by the government in Khartoum while the so-called civilized world sat on its hands.
Since the British granted Sudan independence in 1956, the North had dominated. Swept up in the surge of Islamic fundamentalism, Sudan’s leaders in Khartoum sought to impose Islamic law throughout the country. The South rebelled, and over the decades an estimated 3 million were killed and tens of thousands enslaved.
Though the British largely had suppressed the enslavement of blacks in Africa, the practice was rekindled by Khartoum’s war. Slave raids were used as a weapon of terror to break southern resistance. Arab militias, armed by the government, stormed African villages, killed the men and captured the women and children as religiously sanctioned war booty. Little 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.
In 1994 Mohammed Athie, a Mauritanian Muslim refugee, and I published an Op-Ed in The New York Times telling the story of a modern-day slave trade in North Africa.
The response was overwhelming. We launched the American Anti-Slavery Group and built a bipartisan abolitionist coalition, including Christian evangelist Pat Robertson, gay Jewish congressman Barney Frank (D-Mass.), the NAACP and more. We got Al Sharpton to go to Sudan to witness the liberation of slaves. Francis Bok, an escaped slave, published a book and spoke at churches, synagogues and schools across the United States. We testified before the U.S. Congress.
At a meeting once with Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, I asked why the United States refused to use the word genocide when describing Sudan. Did America not make the same mistake 60 years ago when it 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 the real heroes of this story — the brilliant and brave John Eibner and Gunnar Wiebalk of Christian Solidarity International — were criticized for redeeming slaves with unorthodox methods, I invoked Maimonides in their defense.
CSI sought to free slaves through an existing peace treaty between Dinka tribes, whose people were being targeted in southern Sudan, and local Arabs who needed Dinka wetlands for their cattle. To secure those grazing rights, the Arabs would go north and retrieve Dinka slaves, returning them to the South. CSI further motivated the return of slaves by providing cash to the Arab retrievers.
When criticized for “incentivizing more slave raids,” I argued that this Christian group was following Jewish law. Jews, the Sages said, are required to redeem Jewish captives. When UNICEF blasted us for redeeming slaves and suggested the slaves must wait for liberation until hostilities ended, I responded: That’s exactly what the West told the Jews about Auschwitz.
On Passover 2000, I participated in a CSI liberation trip to Sudan. I brought matzah and explained to the slaves that my people had been held in bondage long ago not so far from where we were.
On our trip in January, we interviewed dozens of people at the polls. All voted for separation, for independence. Why? They said of the North Sudanese: “They stole our children and our wives. They stole our cattle. They murdered us.”
President Obama sent Sen. John Kerry to the country to ensure that Khartoum would abide by the vote. South Sudan likely will be free. But what of the slaves?
Bush’s treaty had no provision for the emancipation of slaves still serving masters in the North. We remain pledged to set them free. So we trekked to the liberation sites last week, meeting and photographing 397 retrieved slaves. We posted the account of our trip at The Wall Street Journal and video interviews of slaves at www.iabolish.org.
They are hard to watch. In one, a woman named Achol Yum Deng recalls being captured in a slave raid. She was threatened with death, gang raped, genitally mutilated, racially and religiously insulted, and forced to convert to a religion not her own. She lost sight in one eye when her master thrashed her face with a camel whip for failing to pray. Achol also lost the use of one arm when her master attacked her with a machete for failing to grind grain properly.
Who would we be if we left these people in bondage?
It was good to be a Jew in Juba, South Sudan. An airport guard, a Balanda tribesman, 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 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 the president of the Boston-based American Anti-Slavery Group.)