For me it feels like a lifetime ago.
It was 2008 and a massive humanitarian crisis was building in Africa in a place in western Sudan called Darfur, a place of nightmares. At the time, this crisis was competing for headlines with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. And while I have reported from both war zones, the struggles these people were facing on the African continent demanded my attention.
I traveled to Southern Darfur at the time to cover a story about modern day slavery and the different approaches organizations were employing to address the problem. In particular, I was covering a small controversial group that was actually buying slaves outright or trading things the captors wanted in order to free slaves from captivity. And yes, slavery still existed and continues to exist in the world.
According to the Borgen Project, 29.8 million people are living in modern day slavery. 78 percent of those are kidnapped for labor while the other 22 percent are abducted primarily for rape and sex trafficking. Of these, 26 percent are children. And these numbers seem to hold up in the regions where I was reporting.
This controversial group, which I agreed not to name, had made an agreement with Muslim militia groups to trade cow serum for the lives of some 40 men and boys who were enslaved to work the cattle fields in the north. The militias also agreed to trade another 10 to 15 women whom they’d enslaved for rape. And as shocking, they allowed me to come along to cover the exchange.
In order to get to this location was an odyssey in its own right. A flight from the States to Nairobi, Kenya through Zurich, Switzerland. From there, a not so quick but harrowing flight to Juba, a regional capital in Southern Sudan, now South Sudan, and then a brutal flight aboard an ancient airplane that threatened to fall out of the sky at any moment to Aweil in the northeast of the region. From there, to a place called Gok Machar in Northern Bahr el-Ghazal. Finally, a relaxing six hour plus ride in the back of a truck through the bush in 115 degree heat traveling down jaw jarring and kidney bruising dirt roads until we came to a stop amidst dust, rocks, scrub, and nausea.
I jumped out of the truck and started walking through the broiling heat, the dust clouding my vision and sticking to my skin as sweat fell from me in sheets. Eventually, I came through a ravine and dried out river bed and up the other side. And there they were. The men and boys, huddled together under a tree trying to avoid the intense heat. They were all clothed in rags of various colors of despair. The women sat separately under another tree all looking at their feet, clearly terrified. They were sharing sips of putrid water the color of human waste from a discarded plastic bottle. Certainly not enough to keep a quarter of them alive but sharing nonetheless.
The exchange was made in front of me. We actually just bought people or at least the people I was with did. Please let that sink in. Think about what that means.
As I approached these newly freed slaves, they all looked at me through eyes showing both deference and fear. After all, from their perspective, I was one of the people who just purchased them, right? Was this new Kawadga (Dinka word for white) owner going to be worse than their last tormentors? It was insane. The only word that fits.
As I interviewed these survivors, they were all haunted, lost, brutalized. All had scars, injuries and signs of abuse but the women seemed by far the worst. Stories of torment, pain, gang rape. You could see it in their eyes. Suffice it to say, I have had nightmares for seven and a half years about that day and what I saw, about what happened to them, whether they even survived afterward.
So here we are today. As a reporter, when I decided it was time to return, it was not without trepidation. I’ve come back to this place after almost eight years to see what has changed. And it has changed a lot and yet it is still the same. I guess I’ve changed, too. But I have to tell you something: I’m scared. I admit it. You see, I’ve dreamt about this place too much even though I’ve seen a lot throughout the world, maybe too much, since my first trip here. Wars. Humanitarian crises. More . . . But I hope that my brush with slavery is in my past and not in my present. I’m not sure I have the strength for more.
With so many possible stories to chase, some just present themselves. Today, I end up back in Aweil in Northern Bahr el-Ghazal covering a story about modern day polio in the region and what this non-governmental organization is doing to help.
While talking to some of these people, I’m drawn to one of the young men here living with it. As he sits in his wheelchair/bicycle, I have this very strange feeling that I can’t place. I follow my instincts and chase it.
His name is Anwit. He’s in his early to mid-twenties and seems tall although he sits in a wheelchair. In his red shirt and black trousers and thin but strong face, he has a presence. We speak in mostly English with a little Arabic thrown in just to keep me on my toes. But the more we speak, the more the feeling persists. I ask him about his story, how he ended up here, about his family.
Slowly, he describes being enslaved when he was only 8 by raiders from the north who took him to the Khartoum area and then back to Darfur until he finally gained his freedom after some 8 years. I start to hyperventilate and I can feel my heart pounding in my ears.
“How did you gain your freedom?” I ask.
He explains that Kawadga bought him and freed him.
As flashes of my reoccurring nightmares cascade across my mind, I am almost too scared to ask … Couldn’t have been me. Too many people. No way . . .
“When?” I ask with my voice cracking.
“Early 2008”, he says very solemnly.
Fuck, fuck, fuck. Please, no!
I ask him to describe what happened. And he describes the scene with a detail that I have tried to make go away since that day.
“We sat under a tree. A bunch of us.”
He remembers one of his saviors was a man with cameras wearing a dirty yellow hat. He looks at me hard in the face and touches the hat I’m wearing.
A dirty yellow hat. My hat. A good luck charm from Iraq years earlier that I’m still wearing as we sit across from each other. He points at it again and smiles. Shit.
I start to wipe tears that blur everything in front of me, my hands starting to go numb a little and the place starts to spin on the edges of my vision. Seriously.
But then something quite extraordinary happens. Anwit starts to talk about how lucky he is. About how he has freedom and a future. How he is going to school. How he wants to help other people now who have polio like he does. He calls them his “colleagues.” How he wants to make a contribution to the world.
As I sit in front of him, I’m completely confused and overwhelmed. I’m trying to reconcile what I’m hearing. His years as a slave. Losing his childhood. Losing his family. The abuse along the way. And then, as if that isn’t enough he then gets polio. How is this even possible?
Then ... I get it. It feels like a cold, hard slap across my face. It isn’t about the slavery, the abuse, the loss, the physical limitations. Putting it simply, it isn’t about the past. Rather, it is about the future. It is about what Anwit can do now regardless or maybe even because of all of it. But I know in my heart, as deeply as I have ever felt, that it is about me too and that I am privileged beyond measure. It is about what I can do. It is about what I can accomplish now. It is about possibilities.
The United Nations is against buying back or trading items for slaves. Essentially, it’s kind of like paying for hostages. If you pay, what you are doing is creating a market for slaves that will result in taking more and more. It could actually make things worse. And I get it. I do. It makes complete sense. Tens of thousands, more, have been enslaved in this part of the world and with some 30 million taken worldwide, anything that exacerbates that problem should be curtailed. Right?
And yet, here sits Anwit in front of me, alive. If we hadn’t traded for his life, would that be the case? Would his tormentors have released him out of the kindness of their hearts? I think not. And I’m guessing Anwit wouldn’t have demanded to stay a slave until the other 30 million were released and until slavery was abolished worldwide. Would I? Would you?
So, here I sit in South Sudan on the African continent trying to understand this place. And I guess I know I can’t save the whole world by telling stories. And clearly, I don’t possess the power to stop all wars, feed the hungry, deal with global warming, free the enslaved, or make the Kardashians get along, but I do know one thing.
I haven’t had one nightmare since we met again.
Bless you my old and my re-acquainted friend. Bless you.
For me it feels like a lifetime ago.