Sudanese author Mende Nazer says she wrote a memoir to help end slavery around the world. Her book, Slave: My True Story, describes how raiders attacked Nazer’s home village in the Nuba Mountains of Sudan when she was a young girl in the early 1990s. She was taken to a home in Khartoum where she says she suffered physical and sexual abuse at the hands of a wealthy family with ties to the government. Later, writes Nazer, she was forced into slavery at a Sudanese diplomat’s home in London, where she now lives after escaping and successfully applying for asylum in Britain in 2005. She has since become an anti-slavery advocate, combating human trafficking around the world. In the third part of a series on new African authors, Darren Taylor reports on the Mende Nazer story.
“What I do, I do for the people of Sudan. I write and I speak against slavery because it is still happening, even though the authorities deny it and the world does not know about it,” says the soft-spoken Mende Nazer.
She has a new life in London, but Nazer admits that her mind “still belongs” to Karko, the tiny village in the Nuba Mountains, an arid area that straddles the disputed border between southern and northern Sudan. And she cannot exorcise the memories of the night when a “large gang of men with guns” descended on the settlement.
It was at the height of a civil war between the government of Sudan and the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A), and Nazer says she was “12 or 13 years old” at the time. In the chaos that ensued, she became separated from her family. One of the raiders dragged her to a “place in a forest. People were being slaughtered right in front of me. Shot and hacked to death. At night, the men raped the girls.”
The children who survived the horror were later herded to a town called Geling.
“We waited there for long,” Nazer whispers. “We did not know what would happen. Then a man came to the camp and pointed at me and some other girls. He chose us to go with him. He took us in his car to a house in Khartoum. There, I was given to a woman. She paid about $150 for me. I ended up working as a slave for this woman and her family. I was beaten by the man regularly, even for things that were not my fault.”
Nazer washed, cooked and cleaned for the “rich” Sudanese family and took care of five small children. The only part of her new life as a slave that she enjoyed, she recalls, was “playing with the kids. I was a child myself, so I liked playing.”
After almost seven years of “abuse,” she was told she was leaving Sudan. One day, she was put on a plane to London to work as a slave in the home of a Sudanese diplomat.
He denies her allegations that she was abused while in his service.
“After several months working in London, things were just as bad for me as they had been in Khartoum. I was treated like an animal. Later, some fellow Sudanese people I met helped me to escape. After a long and painful process, I received permission to stay in London and now I even have a British passport,” Nazer told VOA.
After she escaped and received shelter from human rights activists in London, British journalist Damien Lewis began helping her write a memoir, with the aim of highlighting slavery in Sudan and around the world.
According to the United Nations, about 15,000 people – mostly from southern Sudan – have been abducted and sold into slavery by militias loyal to the Khartoum government.
When her friends first suggested that she write a book about her life, Nazer says she asked herself: “How is my book going to help to save lives?”
It was a question that constantly bothered her, she says, even while Lewis was helping her craft her narrative. Then, earlier this year at an international conference against slavery, one of the main speakers approached Nazer with a message: “This woman told me my book is helping a lot. She mentioned to me two countries that have slaves, but they just released them because they read the book, and they said: ‘This book, it’s causing a lot of trouble; we better release those slaves.’ I was so happy to hear that, that just by reading the book, to release some people is really inspiring to me, to hear that kind of news. Just to frighten them by reading the book. I wasn’t quite sure how it’s going to help, but somehow, it will help.”
At talks she gives around the world, Nazer says audience questions are often dominated by the fates of the people who allegedly kept her as a slave.
“I think people want justice; that is why they ask me such questions. They want the people who abused me to be punished,” she says.
Nazer says the Sudanese diplomat has since returned to Khartoum with his family.
“They’re not happy about the book. They’re causing a lot of trouble about the book. They try to deny everything and what happened and this and that.”
Nazer says nothing has happened to the family who enslaved her in Khartoum.
“Because in Sudan it’s normal to have someone as a slave at home and to abuse them.”
People also sometimes wonder why she never tried to escape from her captors in Khartoum. Nazer responds that she had “nowhere to turn.” She says she often thought of escaping, but at such times “one question” would enter her mind: “Who is going to help me? If I need help, I have to go to the police. But the police are the people who are involved in my trouble! Nobody was going to help me! Because the people who attacked my village, those are the people, the police, who were sent by the Sudan government themselves! So they’re all one network. So, who was going to help me?”
In London, though, she gained the courage to flee her circumstances – even though she couldn’t speak a word of English at the time – through “support” from Sudanese refugees she’d met in the English capital.
After her escape, Nazer began a concerted effort to learn English.
“I was quite determined that I have to know how to speak the language – then at least I can speak out (against slavery). So that was the way I learned, just to have the courage and the determination. Still my English is not that good, but I can get across my message, so that people can understand. And I’m still studying, so I have a long way to go.”
Nazer acknowledges that if it wasn’t for Lewis, her book would “never have been written.” Publisher’s Weekly has described Slave as a “straightforward, harrowing memoir” and a “profound meditation on the human ability to survive under virtually any circumstance.”
Since her various ordeals, Nazer has returned a few times to the Nuba Mountains but says she’s always “afraid” to return to the country of her birth.
“When I go back, I do not go back via Khartoum. I fly from Kenya to Nuba Mountains, which is safer for me. All the people there are against the Sudan government and they have all suffered like me. Everybody there in Nuba Mountains gave me a warm welcome. I will not receive such a warm welcome in Khartoum. The people there hate me. They hate what I am doing, working in western countries.”
Nazer says militias loyal to the government continue to attack villages in the Nuba Mountains, in contravention of a peace accord signed between the state and the SPLM/A in 2005.
“The same thing that is happening now in Darfur has always happened in the Nuba Mountains. But because it’s a smaller area than Darfur, no one talks about it much,” she says.
Khartoum denies that it is involved in attacks in the Nuba Mountains, and says any such incidents of violence are the result of “tribal disputes.”
Nazer says her parents, who survived the attack in the early 1990s that led to her being sold into slavery, are slowly rebuilding their lives at Karko. During a visit to the region last year, she says, she was amazed to find that refugees who had fled the conflict in Darfur had settled in the Nuba Mountains. They’d made the journey across many miles of desert to escape the violence that has so far claimed at least 200,000 lives.
“This shows how bad the situation is in Darfur, if the people there are willing to travel so far over all the deserts to get to Nuba Mountains, which is a place that also has little food and water,” Nazer sighs.
She’s outspoken when discussing what she considers the reasons behind all the violence in Sudan.
“It has nothing to do with religion – Muslim versus Christian – it is a racial war. People in Darfur are Muslims, people in Nuba Mountains (are) all Muslims. But they are the ones being attacked. The Arabs are never attacked – only black people are attacked.”
She’s adamant that Sudan is a “black country. Sudan is Africa! It is not an Arab country!”
Nazer believes that the government of Sudan is “motivated by fear” that the “black people are growing bigger and that they will be stronger. That’s why they are trying to get rid of black people, and to get Sudan to be the Arabic country. But it will never be Arabic country.”
Khartoum has consistently denied that it is conducting a calculated campaign of ethnic cleansing in Darfur, and also rejects that this was its motive in waging war in southern Sudan for more than two decades.
Much like her homeland, Nazer says her life continues to be characterized by struggle – despite her authorship of a book. She says she’d like to be a full time anti-slavery activist. But, instead, she finds herself working as a hairdresser at the moment.
“It’s not what I really want to do, because it’s not going to help anybody. I want to do something really connected with the people to help them. I’m going to work towards my aim and towards my ambitions…. I didn’t decide yet, but hairdresser is just a stage,” she says.
Hairdressing in a London salon is just one of the many strange – and sometimes terrifying – turns Mende Nazer’s life has taken so far. When asked to predict her immediate future, she just laughs and says: “I cannot say. All I can say is that life has taught me to live in today, and not in tomorrow.”