I got back from South Sudan a week ago, and on Tuesday, Chairman Chris Smith, R-N.J., held a hearing on South Sudan and slavery. Slaves were taken as war booty during the war of the Arab North and Christian and traditionalist South. The war went on for 22 years and killed two million people, mainly from the South. But unlike most “prisoners of war,” these slaves were not returned after the war. Only by efforts of the Arab-Dinka peace committees are some being repatriated to the South.
Ker Deng, a Dinka teen blinded by his slave master, was returned because he was useless. My brother and I worked to get Ker a visa so he could have surgery and get some of his vision back. He testified before Congress Tuesday, and his words speak better than mine. I am making today’s column his. Here, a bit edited, are Ker’s words of his experience of slavery in the North, what is now called Sudan. South Sudan became an independent country on July 9:
I slept with cattle and goats. I ate the grain that was fed to horses.
I was treated worse than the animals I slept with.
Like them, I was property. I was a slave held in what used to be called Northern Sudan.
But the animals weren’t beaten every day. I was, every single day, with a horsewhip. Sometimes on my front, sometimes on my back. Sometimes with my clothes on, sometimes not. But it happened every day.
The animals were fed every day. But I wasn’t.
To the man who owned me and my mother, the animals had worth. They were valuable. We weren’t.
My mother and I were captured when I was too little to remember.
My mother told me how it happened, of the day Arab raiders from the north came to our village. They burned our huts. They killed the men. They stole the livestock. They tied the rest of us to camels and dragged us to a life of slavery in Northern Sudan.
Our slave masters were named Zacharia and Mariam. They gave me a name: “Cattle-Keeper.”
That’s why I had to sleep in the shed with the goats and the cattle. They’d tie my ankle to a goat, so I’d be awakened if they tried to get free.
Zacharia and Mariam had five children, some of them older than I was, some younger.
When they went to school, I would go into the fields to pick tea.
I was fed with the horses whose grain I shared.
Once in awhile, I was given watermelon or vegetables to eat. I remember being told, “This is your food for the next few days.” Once I ate it, it was gone.
Zacharia drank. And whenever he got angry, I got a beating.
My mother could do nothing to help me. She’d be locked up, and if she resisted in any way, she was beaten, too.
When he was drunk, Zacharia would call me an infidel and make me recite Muslim prayers. I still remember them. I want to forget them. I’d like to forget all of it, but I can’t.
The worst thing Zacharia did was to blind me.
One day, I lost a goat, and I had to be punished. I was beaten and hanged upside down from a tree. Zacharia rubbed chili peppers in my eyes and built a fire under me so the smoke would make the pain even worse.
I was saved by a neighbor, an imam named Bakit. He felt sorry for me and cut me down from the tree. He took me to his home, and he let me stay there several years.
In the beginning, I could still see. Bakit even had me sort red tea leaves for him. But because of the peppers, my sight gradually got worse. After a while, I became completely blind. First, I lost sight in one eye and then in the other.
My mother is still being held in Northern Sudan, and she’s only one among many. I often saw other Dinkas in the same situation we were in, but was never allowed to talk to them.
My mother never gave up hope. She used to say to me, “I know we are living in a bad situation, but maybe something will work itself out.”
I think of my mother every day and what she is still going through. I pray to give her the strength to survive – and to give you the courage and wisdom to find some way to gain her freedom.
I would like the people of America to know that the Dinkas in the North are still being held, that they are still being treated like animals.
And I bring you a message from them and from me: I want to see my mother again, in freedom, along with all the others.
Ker’s testimony says it better than I ever could. If we can send drones to kill a specific person, than why can’t we do something to help the tens of thousands still held in slavery? I am not suggesting an invasion, but how about a little pressure?