“Slave Redemption”, Fraud and Naivety in Sudan: The Final Word?

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In February 2002, in an unprecedented international focus, four newspapers of record, ‘The Irish Times’, London’s ‘Independent on Sunday’, ‘The Washington Post’ and ‘International Herald Tribune’, chose to publish, or republish, articles exposing the deep fraud and corruption at the heart of claims of “slave redemption” in Sudan. (1) These articles are the culmination of deep, long-standing concerns about the activities of several organisations involved in what has become a Western-financed “redemption” industry in parts of Sudan. The claims by organisations and people such as John Eibner and the Swiss-based Christian Solidarity International (CSI) and Baroness Cox’s Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) to have “redeemed” more than 65,000 Sudanese “slaves” have also been sharply called into question. ‘The Washington Post’ reported that in numerous documented instances “the slaves weren’t slaves at all, but people gathered locally and instructed to pretend they were returning from bondage”. (2) ‘The Independent on Sunday’ reported that it was able to “reveal that ‘redemption’ has often been a carefully orchestrated fraud”. (3)

“The primary purpose, however, of luring and keeping thousands of boys away from their families and in separate boys-only camps was, in the judgment of Human Rights Watch, a military purpose. This resulted in the training and recruitment of thousands of underage soldiers who were thrust into battle in southern Sudan and briefly in Ethiopia.” (6)

In late 1994, Human Rights Watch/Africa and its Children’s Rights Project published Child Soldiers and Unaccompanied Boys in Southern Sudan. The report was based on a fact-finding visit to Sudan, Kenya and Uganda. Human Rights Watch/Africa documented the SPLA’s use and abuse of boys as young as seven years of age. Thousands of these children were held in SPLA camps in Ethiopia and elsewhere. Human Rights Watch/Africa reported that “the conditions in some of these camps have been described as ‘heartrending’: no schooling, no hygiene, few caretakers, ragged clothing, disease and little food.” Human Rights Watch/Africa returned to this issue in September 1995. In a press release it stated that:

The Irish Times’ set the stage for how “slave redemptions” had hitherto been presented:

“The slave redemption makes for powerful human drama. A line of women and children emerges from the African bush. A slave trader in front, wrapped in the white robes of an Arab. And before them, waiting with a bag of money at his feet, is a white, Christian, man. The procession halts under the shade of a tree. There is discussion, then money changes hands. Suddenly the trader gives a nod, the slaves walk free and there are cries of joy as families are re-united. Freedom at last. Who could fail to be stirred by this emotional sight?…The highly publicised redemptions have touched millions of hearts – and wallets – across the world but particularly in the US. Celebrities and politicians have chained themselves to railings in protest. Pop stars have given free concerts. Little girls have given their lunch money. “

The newspaper’s investigation reported, however, that: “[T]here is another side to the redemption story. According to aid workers, missionaries, and even the rebel movement that facilitates it, slave redemption in Sudan is often an elaborate scam.” ‘The Irish Times’ article also stated that in many cases “the process is nothing more than a careful deceit, stage-managed by corrupt officials”.

“In reality, many of the ‘slaves’ are fakes. Rebel officials round up local villagers to pose for the cameras. They recruit fake slavers – a light skinned soldier, or a passing trader, to ‘sell’ them. The children are coached in stories of abduction and abuse for when the redeemer, or a journalist, asks questions. Interpreters may be instructed to twist their answers. The money, however, is very real. CSI can spend more than $300,000 during a week of redemptions at various bush locations. After their plane takes off, the profits are divvied up – a small cut to the “slaves” and the “trader” but the lion’s share to local administrators and SPLA figures.”

The newspaper further made clear that:

“[T]he warning signs have been there for years. Within the SPLA, whispers of suspicion have swelled into a chorus of criticism in recent years. Acrimonious rows have broken out and accusations profiteering levelled at individuals. Outside the rebel ranks, aid workers have been puzzled. It seems almost incredible that tens of thousands of abducted civilians could cross a dangerous frontline undetected by government forces. Moreover, aid workers north of the line saw no evidence of large movements south, and their colleagues in the south saw no sudden demand for extra food or medicines by redeemed salves. Put simply, the numbers didn’t add up. And yet no questions were asked. The dollars rolled in and the redemptions continued.”

As the newspaper observed: “[O]utside observers of redemption do not, and cannot, see everything. The entire operation is controlled by the SPLA, which provides communications, transport and interpreters, and it is conducted in great secrecy.” The newspaper further noted that “this makes it extremely difficult for outsiders to drop in unannounced on a redemption.” One accidental exception was Father Mario Riva, an Italian Roman Catholic missionary, who proved to be a devastating witness. Father Riva, who had spent several decades in the area said to have been subjected to “slave” raiding and “slave redeemers”, and who was fluent in the local tribal languages, said that he had personally witnessed rebel interpreters misleading John Eibner with regard to “slaves” and “slave redemption”.

Father Riva said that the incident happened near the village of Mariel Bei in the late 1990s. He saw Eibner standing under a tree with a group of “slaves”, some of whom Father Riva recognised as his own parishioners. Father Riva stated that: “The people told me they had been collected to get money. It was a kind of business.” Riva also overheard what was being said during the “redemption”. He reported that Eibner would ask if a slave had been held in captivity. The official interpreter would translate the question as “have you suffered in the war?” The villager would emphatically reply in the positive. The translator would then tell Eibner that the man had been abducted by Arabs, treated inhumanely and was grateful to CSI for saving his life. (4)

‘The Irish Times’ also questioned the involvement of Baroness Cox and Christian Solidarity Worldwide in “slave redemption”. CSW was said to have redeemed three thousand “slaves”. The newspaper reported Cox as having admitted that the process was open to corruption but that she remained convinced that every redeemed “slave” was genuine. The newspaper went on to report that “[o]n the ground, however, aid workers were seeing things differently. One nurse with a European aid agency witnessed a first-time redemption by a small American Christian group – not CSI – in late 1999. The nurse stated: “They brought the kids to be redeemed to a clearing under the trees. I knew two of them by name. They were wearing our [feeding centre] bracelets. And the logistician recognised the Arab guy as someone from the district who worked with the SRRA [the Sudan Relief and Rehabilitation Association, the rebels’ relief-coordination wing].” (5)

In an open letter in 2000 senior SPLA commander Aleu Ayieny Aleu stated that “slave redemption” had become a “racket of mafia dimensions”. He also revealed, as an example, that one of his lighter-skinned relatives, SPLA captain Akec Tong Aleu, had been “forced several times to pretend as an Arab and simulate the sale of free children to CSI on camera”. (6) Aleu declared: “It was a hoax. This thing has been going on for no less than six years”. (7) Doctoral candidate Annette Weber, a human rights activist, while researching her thesis in 1999, reported that she came across evidence that rebel officials were instructing parents to “lend” their children to pose as abductees to inflate the numbers of “slaves” for visitors to “redeem”. (8) This account, ‘The Washington Post’ stated, “coincides with descriptions of the scam offered by Sudanese officials and Western aid workers, who said the sheer volume of money flowing into the south made corruption inevitable.” (9) The newspaper also reported that “prevalent fraud is acknowledged by senior rebel officials”. The newspaper stated: “By many accounts, individual rebel commanders are deeply involved in redemption scams”. ‘The Irish Times’ observed that one SPLA commander has earned enough from the scam to acquire forty wives. (10) Other SPLA figures were said to have built houses or financed businesses with their cuts. (11)

Senior SPLA official Dr Justin Yaac has admitted that the SPLA has purchased thousands of gallons of fuel, 27 Land Cruisers and ten thousand uniforms with some of their proceeds from the “slave redemption” fraud. (12) It is worth noting that all this would have supported the activities of an organisation described by ‘The Economist’ as “little more than an armed gang of Dinkas…killing, looting and raping. Its indifference, almost animosity, towards the people it was supposed to be “liberating” was all too clear. (13) ‘The New York Times’ has also gone on record to observe that the SPLA: “[H]ave behaved like an occupying army, killing, raping and pillaging” and was led by one of Sudan’s “pre-eminent war criminals” (14).

In December 1999 “slave redemption” fraud was focused upon during a meeting of SPLA leaders. The issue was raised by the then deputy commander of the Sudan Relief and Rehabilitation Association (the SPLA’s “aid” wing), Mario Muor Muor. Interviewed in October 2001, Muor stated that a number of the southern Sudanese accompanying CSI’s John Eibner into southern Sudan – mostly SPLA officials – were selling donated medicines as well being involved in redemption frauds: “redemption is just a scandalous act”. (15)

There are clear questions about the role taken by John Eibner and Baroness Cox in these “slave redemptions”. Despite numerous concerns about CSI’s activities, ‘The Washington Post’ confirmed that CSI continued with the practice “even after other humanitarian groups have ceased the practice, citing concerns about corruption.” (16) While CSI’s John Eibner claims “[w]e have our own mechanisms in place to ensure there is no fraud”, ‘The Irish Times’ reported that “members of the SPLA, which plays a key role in every redemption trip, say otherwise”, quoting SPLA spokesman Samson Kwaje: “The racket is there, right from the top”. ‘The Washington Post’ noted that CSI had accepted a $100,000 check from the National Association of Basketball Coaches in March 2001, and quoted SPLA spokesman Samson Kwaje as saying: “The money comes from those American kids, [but] who gets the check? These people give $100,000 to John Eibner, I don’t know how much of that gets to Twic County…Ten thousand? Fifty thousand?…Who gets what?”. (17)

In any instance Eibner’s defence was spectacularly disingenuous: “Sure, wherever there is money there is the possibility of fraud. What I find most odd is that they journalists and independent researchers that came with us did not find the same.” (18) The somewhat obvious response to that question is that, in common with John Eibner, Baroness Cox and other “slave redeemers”, these foreign and overwhelmingly Western “journalists and independent researchers”, many of whom eager for sensationalistic “scoops”, do not speak Dinka, or any other tribal language or dialect or even Arabic. They were just as reliant on local “interpreters” “provided” by the rebel movement. As the Catholic priest quoted in ‘The Independent on Sunday”s article stated: “Interpretation was key to the deception.”

Baroness Cox’s assertions have also been called into question. In a very disturbing development, the veteran southern Sudanese politician Bona Malwal, a man described by Baroness Cox herself as “one of the well- respected elders of the Dinka tribe” (19), directly challenged Cox’s claims to have “redeemed slaves”. In a letter to her Malwal stated that:

“On at least three different occasions, you have come into Twic County without the permission of the local leadership, using Messrs Stephen Wondu and Martin Okeruk [SPLA officials] as your license to do so. You then say each time that your mission was to redeem slaves and that indeed you have done so, when in each instance this had not been the case. The latest episode was in October [1999] when you landed at Mayen Abun without even the courtesy of informing the local area representative….I know that you have put out for propaganda, and maybe for fundraising purposes as well, that you redeemed slaves at Mayen Abun in October when nothing of the sort happened. I sincerely hope that this type of game stops…I sincerely hope that you do see the harm that could be caused and that you will refrain from this activity in the future.” (20)

Malwal’s standing within the southern Sudanese community is unassailable. He is the publisher of the anti-Khartoum ‘Sudan Democratic Gazette’. He is a former Minister of Information and Culture and was the editor of the ‘Sudan Times’, the largest English-language newspaper in Sudan before 1989. Malwal went into exile when the present government in Sudan came to power a decade ago and teaches international affairs at Oxford University.

The deeply disturbing questions that come out of the articles published in ‘The Washington Post’, ‘International Herald Tribune’, ‘The Irish Times’ and ‘The Independent on Sunday’ have not been in any way adequately addressed by John Eibner or Cox or the organisations they are associated with. The most benign reading of the situation is that these people and organisations have been amazingly naéve, and out of their depth in what is an incredibly intricate situation, and that this meddling has aggravated circumstances. There are also, of course, the questions raised by veteran southern Sudanese figures such as Bona Malwal and SPLA figures such as Dr Samson Kwaje. It is for the reader, and those who have donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to groups such as CSI and CSW, to draw his or her own conclusions about the implications of Bona Malwal’s letter to Baroness Cox and John Eibner’s activities.

Notes

“The Great Slave Scam”, ‘The Irish Times’, 23 February 2002; “Scam in Sudan – An Elaborate Hoax Involving Fake African Slaves and Less-than-Honest Interpreters is Duping Concerned Westerners”, ‘The Independent on Sunday’, 24 February 2002; “Ripping Off Slave ‘Redeemers’: Rebels Exploit Westerners’ Efforts to Buy Emancipation for Sudanese”, ‘The Washington Post’, 26 February 2002; “Sudan Rip-Offs Over Phony Slaves”, ‘International Herald Tribune’, 27 February 2002. “Slave Redemption” has also been extensively questioned. See, for example, Richard Miniter, “The False Promise of Slave Redemption”, ‘The Atlantic Monthly’, July 1999; ‘The Reality of Slave Redemption’, European- Sudanese Public Affairs Council, London, March 2001; ‘The Use of Intertribal Raiding as “Slavery” Propaganda in Sudan: A Statement of Concern to Mrs Mary Robinson: The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights’, European-Sudanese Public Affairs Council, London, March 200, all available at http://www.espac.org. Christian Solidarity International’s Sudan activities have long been seriously questioned. See, for example, ‘Time to Speak out on Christian Solidarity International and Sudan: An Open Letter to Anti-Slavery International’, European-Sudanese Public Affairs Council, London, June 2001; ‘Prejudiced and Discredited: Christian Solidarity International and Sudan’, European-Sudanese Public Affairs Council, London, 2000, available at http://www.espac.org; David Hoile, ‘Sudan, Propaganda and Distortion: Allegations of Slavery and Slavery-Related Practices’, The Sudan Foundation, London, March 1997.

“Ripping Off Slave ‘Redeemers’: Rebels Exploit Westerners’ Efforts to Buy Emancipation for Sudanese”, ‘The Washington Post’, 26 February 2002.

“Scam in Sudan – An Elaborate Hoax Involving Fake African Slaves and Less-than-Honest Interpreters is Duping Concerned Westerners”, ‘The Independent on Sunday’, 24 February 2002

“The Great Slave Scam”, ‘The Irish Times’, 23 February 2002.

“The Great Slave Scam”, ‘The Irish Times’, 23 February 2002.

“The Great Slave Scam”, ‘The Irish Times’, 23 February 2002.

“Ripping Off Slave ‘Redeemers'”, ‘The Washington Post’, 26 February 2002.

“Ripping Off Slave ‘Redeemers'”, ‘The Washington Post’, 26 February 2002.

“Ripping Off Slave ‘Redeemers'”, ‘The Washington Post’ 26 February 2002.

“The Great Slave Scam”, ‘The Irish Times’, 23 February 2002.

“Scam in Sudan – An Elaborate Hoax Involving Fake African Slaves and Less-than-Honest Interpreters is Duping Concerned Westerners”, ‘The Independent on Sunday’, 24 February 2002.

“The Great Slave Scam”, ‘The Irish Times’, 23 February 2002.

‘The Economist’, March 1998.

‘Misguided Relief to Sudan’, Editorial, ‘The New York Times’, 6 December, 1999.

“Ripping Off Slave ‘Redeemers'”, ‘The Washington Post’, 26 February 2002.

“Ripping Off Slave ‘Redeemers'”, ‘The Washington Post’, 26 February 2002.

“Ripping Off Slave ‘Redeemers'”, ‘The Washington Post’, 26 February 2002.

“Ripping Off Slave ‘Redeemers'”, ‘The Washington Post’, 26 February 2002.

‘A Response to the Sudan Foundation’ s “Questions” and Criticisms of CSI’s Work in Sudan’, CSI Magazine, Issue 90, December 1997 available at http://home.clara.co.uk/csiuk/90page4.html.

Letter from Bona Malwal to Baroness Cox, 23 January 2000 posted on South Sudan Net.

The European-Sudanese Public Affairs Council sent this media contribution to Media Monitors Network (MMN)

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