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
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
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.