An interim agreement reached on Saturday between the Sudanese government and rebels of Sudan's Liberation Army has raised hopes that the country's long-running civil war may come to an end. If so, it is hoped the end of the war may also mean the end of slavery in Sudan.
Estimates of the number of slaves in Sudan vary widely, from 10,000 to as many as 100,000. But many observers believe, once the conflict is settled, slavery too will end.
Though it has deep roots in Sudan, records show that slavery was practiced by Arab and Turkish traders almost 200 years ago, slavery has been illegal in Sudan since 1924. But human rights activists have said the practice was revived shortly after the latest phase of the country's civil war began in 1983.
The conflict pits the forces of the Islamic government, which is strongest in the Arabic-speaking north, against the largely Christian, or animist, African rebels, based in the south of the country.
Earlier this year, a U.S.-led commission, as part of an effort to end the civil war, traveled to Sudan to investigate slavery. In a report on its findings, the commission blamed the majority of abductions on militia forces loyal to the government. It accused them of attacking rebel areas in the south, burning villages, stealing cattle and raping and killing civilians. It also said the militias abduct and enslave men, women and children.
According to the report, most of the attacks take place against civilians who live in the area of Bahr el Ghazal in the south of the country. The main rail line in Bahr el Ghazal links the south to the north, and the militias use it to bring goods they plunder and the people they abduct to the north. Once there, many of the captured women are forced to work as domestics and sometimes as sex slaves; the young men and boys are forced to do manual labor.
Numeiry Mohamed Ibrahim looks about 15-years-old. He does not know his exact age, nor for that matter does he know what name his parents gave him, nor whether they are still alive. What he does know is that he was captured as a child and taken north, where he was forced to work as a camel herder for an Arab man who was in the military. He speaks Dinka, the language of his tribe in Bahr el Ghazal.
He said he walks with a limp because his master hammered nails into his knees a few years ago to punish him for failing to complete some work.
After years of slavery, he escaped from his master during a trip to a market bordering the Dinka area. Now, he said, his life is better. He earns a living by helping out at a restaurant in Malualkan. He dreams of going to school, but he doubts he will ever get the chance.
The government in Khartoum denies that its militias play any role in the slave trade. Ahmed El Mufti heads an organization called CEAWC, The Committee for the Eradication of the Abduction of Women and Children, which was created by the government to eliminate abductions. He said only a few of the cases CEAWC handles, 200 out of thousands, can be blamed on the militias. He says the Sudan government maintains feuding tribes that are responsible for the vast majority of the abductions. He says CEAWC is doing its best to investigate these cases.
"The government is saying that this whole problem is a tribal problem. This is a small commission, a commission set up regarding these allegations, and measures have been taken on this concern," Mufti said.
Mr. Mufti said CEAWC, since it was created in 1999, has documented 2,500 abductions, and has reunified 700 people with their families.
The Dinka community in Bahr el Ghazal said it has the greatest success in tracking down and returning abducted people. Deng Yul Akwei heads one of the Dinka groups that is involved in rescuing slaves.
Mr. Akwei says, by working with Arab traders, these groups have freed as many as 15,000 slaves from the north.
Perhaps the group that has received the most attention for its efforts to free slaves is Christian Solidarity International. It said that since 1995 it has helped to free more than 70,000 people, largely by paying for their release.
But Christian Solidarity has its critics. Some say that by paying money, the usual fee is about $33, to redeem each slave, the group may actually be fueling the slave trade. But John Eibner, a Christian Solidarity official who was in Bahr el Ghazal in June on a trip to free slaves, says there is no evidence that CSI is encouraging slave traders. If this were so, he says, the people of Bahr el Ghazal, which has suffered the most from militia raids, would not support what his group is doing.
"The local chiefs know what is happening to their people. The local leaders here know what is happening. And, if what we do were to mean that their villages were being burned down, more of their people being killed, more of their people being enslaved, more of their cows and goats being stolen, they would say, 'Let's not do this anymore.' And they would prevent us, if we were to insist. But of course, our policy is to work in partnership with the local community here. They encourage us to continue, because they know that it does not fuel the slave trade," he said.
Recently, there have been more steps to end Sudan's slave trade. Last week, the U.S. special envoy for Sudan, John Danforth, announced that new monitoring efforts have begun in the Sudanese capital, Khartoum and in Rumbeck, in Bahr el Ghazal. He said it will now be possible to investigate reports of abductions more quickly.
"When there are alleged attacks on civilians and also with respect to the slavery initiatives, when there are allegations that either have occurred, then a fact-finding mission could be dispatched to find out the facts and bring the pressure of the world community to bear on that," Mr. Danforth said.
International pressure, or even attention, is something new for Sudan. Its civil war, though one of the longest in the world, has gone relatively ignored. Yet, it is estimated the war has cost the lives of about two million people, more lives lost than in Bosnia, Rwanda and Kosovo combined. There are no estimates, however, of how many Sudanese have died because of slavery.