Jewish Journal


April 8, 2004

We Must Work to Free Today’s Slaves


Last week, I stood on stage at Milken Community High School with an escaped Sudanese slave, Francis Bok. We had come out to Los Angeles from Boston to thank the school's students for their help in our abolitionist campaign and their continued commitment to make a difference.

Francis described for the school his life as a slave after he was abducted in a slave raid -- a pogrom -- by Sudanese government militia in 1987. "For 10 years, nobody loved me."

His master was one of the slave raiders, Francis explained, an Arab man named Giema Abdullah, who told Francis: "You are an animal."

Francis was able to endure Giema's daily physical and mental abuse because he knew deep down that he was not an animal. He was strengthened because he prayed to God. He prayed to be rejoined with his parents and that perhaps, people might come to rescue him.

After 10 years, once he turned 17, Francis ran away, eventually making his way up to Cairo, where the local United Nations office resettled him as a refugee in North Dakota. Since arriving in America, Francis has become the leading international spokesperson on modern-day slavery, meeting with the president and publishing a gripping autobiography, "Escape from Slavery: The True Story of My Ten Years in Captivity and My Journey to Freedom in America" (St. Martin's Press, 2003).

As the students sat captivated by Francis, I recalled that our own ancestors were once enslaved just a bit north up the Nile River. Indeed, in this time of Passover, we read, "In every generation, we are commanded to view ourselves as if each one of us was personally brought forth out of Egypt." We eat maror to evoke the bitterness of slavery our ancestors experienced, and we are called upon to rise up against slavery and tyranny in our own time.

Three years ago, right before Passover, I flew to Sudan on a mission to help free slaves. On March 30, in northern Bahr el Ghazal in the heart of the slave-raiding area, I met Abuk Gar. She was sitting under a tree, along with hundreds of Dinka women and children who were rescued from bondage by friendly Arabs who want no part of Khartoum's policy.

When Abuk was 14, she awoke to gunshots, saw her parents cut down outside her home and was enslaved along with the boys and girls of her village. Abuk was tied by the wrists, roped in a line and forced-marched north.

Once outside the scene of plunder and murder, the rapes began. Four girls who resisted were dragged before all to see and, as a warning, had their throats cut. Abuk did not resist.

Abuk's story is one of millions of people who are enslaved today around the world. From Khartoum to Calcutta from Brazil to Bangladesh, men, women and children live and work as slaves or in slave-like conditions. There may be more slaves in the world than ever before.

There are the rug-weaving slaves of India -- little boys and girls shackled to their looms from dawn to dusk, from toddlerhood to adolescence, weaving the rugs that we walk on. There are the debt-bonded slaves of Pakistan, who were born into bondage through an inherited debt and who will surely pass that status on to their children.

There are the Bangladeshi camel jockey kids in the Persian Gulf states, the Trokosi religious slaves of Ghana, the trafficked boys and girls and women all over the world. Even in the United States, thousands are trafficked to these shores each year, according to CIA reports.

In Sudan, the trade in black slaves -- once extinguished by the British -- has been rekindled by a "holy war." Southern Sudanese like Francis and Abuk have been enslaved as part of a jihad waged by an Arab Muslim Taliban-like regime in the north. The ruling regime's goal has been to impose Koranic law throughout all of Sudan and destroy those who resist. As a result, 2 million people have been killed and 4 million made refugees.

After Francis spoke, I had to explain to the Milken students why Francis' people had been abandoned by the West, which normally prides itself on standing up for human rights. I explained "the human rights complex." The human rights [HR] community cares about oppressed people ... but only under certain circumstances, and in a certain hierarchy.

The HR community consists mostly of "decent white people" who are especially animated to act when people "like us" do evil. The best example is the anti-apartheid movement. The name of this tendency, now a slogan, is "Not in My Name."

But when decent white people see non-Westerners do evil, they become paralyzed. They think they don't have moral standing. "Who are we, who stole the land from the Indians and had slaves ourselves to criticize others?"

I have explained to Francis many times: "What the HR establishment -- and the media -- attend to is not determined by who the oppressed people are or by how bad the oppression is ... but by who it believes is the oppressor."

Francis' people have the bad luck of having non-Western oppressors. If the slavers were Westerners, we'd have had marches in the streets.

That's why we had to start our own abolitionist movement. Most of the world's slaves are not owned by Western masters. This means a new sort of human rights movement is needed, one which is guided by universal justice, not just expiation.

And so, as we celebrate Pesach this year, we must once again see ourselves as slaves in Egypt -- zecher litziat mitzrayim -- a remembrance of our own experience and our command to free others. This year, let each of us pledge to do something to help free today's slaves. Join the American Anti-Slavery Passover Project; be a part of its abolitionist army; learn how to help bring an end to an ancient scourge thought long ago defeated.

And when you do, then you will be able to say, in the tradition of Jewish law that is echoed in the words of the great black abolitionist, Harriet Tubman: "I have heard their cries, and I have seen their tears, and I would do anything in my power to set them free." Let us make this Passover not only zman cheiruteinu, the season of our freedom, but also zman cheiruteihem, a time of the freedom for all who are enslaved today.

For Passover-related material on modern-day slavery, visit www.iAbolish.com/passover .

Dr. Charles Jacobs is president of the American Anti-Slavery Group.

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