The Baltimore Sun, in a series concluding Tuesday described how two of its reporters ventured illegally into war-torn southern Sudan and bought the freedom of two African slaves.
the sun staffers, Gilbert A. Lewthwaite, a veteran foreign correspondent, who is white, and Gregory P. Kane, a black columnist, went by charter plane deep into the Sudanese interior to buy the boys for $500 each - the cash equivalent of five cows - from an Arab trader in Manyiel, a remote village in the southern Sudanese province of Bahr el Ghazal.
In their three-part report, Lewthwaite and Kane wrote: “If we were Sudanese slaveholders, we might use such children for herding or for household chores in return for nothing but the crumbs from our table. We might give them Arabic names and convert them to Islam. We might use a girl for sexual pleasure, perhaps as a wife.
“But we are not Sudanese Arabs. We are visitors … and our mission is not to perpetuate slavery but to expose it.”
When Garang Deng Kuot, 10, and Akok Deng Kuot, 12, were returned to their family after their freedom was purchased by the Sun staffers, their father, Deng Kuot Mayen, an impoverished cereal farmer, said: “I call on Almighty God to love all my children and let them remain happy.”
The boys, according to their father, were seized six years ago in a raid on their village by government-backed Arab militia. The freed boys told the sun they were forced to work in the fields without any pay except scraps of food.
As part of the justification for actually buying the slaves to prove their case, the sun reporters cited efforts by U.S. abolitionist-era newspapers to help purchase freedom for slaves so their stories could be told.
“We take encouragement from this journalistic precedent as we contemplate our own mission,” the reporters wrote.
Over the years the United Nations, the State Department, and human rights organizations have reported on and denounced slavery - particularly of women and children - in Sudan. The fundamentalist Islamic government in Khartoum has denied that it sanctions slavery.
Last November the United Nations reported “an alarming increase … in cases of slavery, servitude, slave trade and forced labor” in Sudan. It accused the ruling National Islamic Front in Khartoum of “total lack of interest” in investigating human rights abuses.
In March, the Rev. Louis Farrakhan, head of the Nation of Islam, added his voice to the debate after visiting Sudan during a much-criticized tour of U.S. enemy nations, including Iran, Iraq and Libya.
“Where is the proof?” Farrakhan asked reporters after his stop in Khartoum. “If slavery exists, why don’t you go as a member of the press, and you look inside Sudan, and if you find it, then you come back and tell the American people what you found?”
To get that “proof,” the Sun reporters traveled to the front line of civil war, where a rag-tag band of African rebels faces the fire of jihad, or holy war, from the Islamic government’s army and its marauding Muslim militia.
Since 1983, the African rebels have been resisting the Islamization of their region and have demanded independence. As part of the war, the government has formed an unpaid militia force which is rewarded with the war booty, including men, women and children, it captures.
To purchase the freedom of the slaves the reporters participated in a buyback system agreed between the chiefs of the African Dinka tribe and the heads of the local Riziegat Arab tribe. Under the agreement, the Riziegats, in return for sanctioning the return of the slaves, are allowed to graze their cattle on Dinka land during the dry season.
The trader told the sun journalists that since 1991 he had freed 473 slaves, mainly women and children, returning them to their families for the set fee of five cows or the cash equivalent. An estimated 4,000 Dinkas have been seized since the fighting started in 1985, according to officials.
Confronted with the sun’s documentation of slavery, the Sudanese ambassador in Washington, Mahdi Ibrahim Mohamed, repeated the government’s denial of any complicity and said any abductions arose from local tribal disputes.
“Slavery is not a practice of the government of Sudan,” he said. “It is contrary to the value of the people of Sudan and the declared policy of Sudan.”
The sun reporters made repeated requests to interview Rev. Farrakhan after they returned from Sudan, but were told the Nation of Islam leader was not available.