A U.S. congressional panel is highlighting the plight of an untold number of Southern Sudanese people still being held as slaves in northern Sudan after being kidnapped in their southern villages by Arab militiamen. 18-year-old Ker Deng, who was blinded by his slavemaster while in bondage in Sudan, is now free and told his powerful story on Capitol Hill.
Republican Congressman Chris Smith of New Jersey introduced a very special guest at a news conference on Capitol Hill.
"Ker Deng has suffered unspeakable treatment at the hands of people from the Republic of Sudan who kidnapped him and his mother and held them in slavery until very recently," said Smith.
Ker Deng shared his story with reporters and then later at a House hearing on the victims of slavery in Sudan.
He said that when he was a toddler, Arab raiders from the north came and invaded his village, burning their huts, killing the men and tieing the women and children to camels and dragging them to a life of slavery in the north. His slave master was named Zacharia. Ker's mother was forced to be a concubine and to work in the garden, and Ker was forced to gather red hibiscus leaves for tea and to tend to the goats. Ker spoke with the help of an interpreter.
"So at night, Zacharia would tie me to the goat so that I would not leave the room where the goats are," said Ker Deng.
Ker said he was treated worse than the animals he tended. He was beaten every single day, and was fed grain just like the horses. But he said the worst thing that his slave master did was, in a fit of rage, he tied Ker upside down to a tree and rubbed hot chili peppers in his eyes, blinding him. After that, he was no use to Zacharias any more, and a neighbor took him in, before he was recently brought to the United States. Ker said his mother is still enslaved, like many others.
"And my mother is still in that horrible situation," he said. "I really have no clue where she is right now."
Several groups and individuals are now helping Ker. Dr. Julia Haller of the Wills Eye Center in Philadelphia is one of the surgeons who operated on him to try to help restore at least some of the vision in his right eye - the left eye has been permanently damaged.
"Virtually every part of the eye was impacted by his injuries," said Dr. Haller. "So all of the different tissues that make up the complicated organ that gives us our sight were involved."
It will take several months to know how much vision Ker will regain. The organization LIghthouse International is working with Ker to teach him to perform ordinary daily tasks in a city, and to teach him English. Mark Ackerman, President and CEO of LIghthouse International says Ker also has other talents.
"And Ker, as it turns out, has a natural music ability," said Ackerman. "He is taking piano lessons, drum lessons, a number of other things - you can see him smiling, this is what he enjoys the most!"
The United Nations estimated in 2000 that there were as many as 15,000 southern Sudanese held in bondage in northern Sudan after being abducted in raids on southern villages. No one is sure how many southern Sudanese are still being held, but more than 100,000 have been liberated by groups such as Christian Solidarity International.
Congressman Smith called on the U.S. government and other countries to speak out so that the plight of those still being held as slaves in northern Sudan is not forgotten. And Ker Deng asked members of Congress to help his mother and all of the others still in bondage, saying "you are powerful men and women, please find a way to help."