Crouched under a lone tree on the dry Sudanese plain, a man known to me only as "Bols father" is waiting, hoping and praying. This is the day when his 10-year-old son might return. The boy has been missing for two years, reportedly sold into slavery to a Muslim master in northern Sudan.
Word has spread that a slave trader has made a purchase in the north and is bringing the "merchandise" women and children to this location. The throng of desperate fathers and mothers surrounding me are hoping for a miracle, a chance to "redeem" their loved ones. The price: $100 per woman or child.
This is my second trip to Sudan. Ive come to this rendezvous point on a hot July day, on behalf of Christian Freedom International, with enough American currency to pay for the redemption of but 50 people. I cannot possibly redeem every woman and child held captive in the north. I can only do enough to awaken the world to this horror.
Buying freedom for slaves isnt my only mission. Im here with a hand-held digital camera to document the abuses against Christians and other minorities, so that other Americans will know what can hardly be believed.
Flying below Radar
There are two ways for an American on a humanitarian mission to enter Sudan. One is by truck from Uganda; the other, by chartered plane from Nairobi, Kenya. For this trip, I hire a Cessna Caravan and an experienced bush pilot to fly me in below radar, at about 10,000 feet. If the National Islamic Front northern Sudans army spots us, well be easy targets.
Thats because the NIF is waging a "holy war" against the countrys Christians and other minorities. Soldiers from the Islamic north either government troops or marauders armed by the government are transported by train to the south, where they often kill unarmed civilian men and carry away their wives and children.
Since 1985, nearly two million people in Sudan, mostly Christians, have died from war, famine and genocide. Five million people have been displaced. Thousands more are dying today from famine and disease. The United Nations airdrops food and medicine elsewhere, but NIF wont allow U.N. planes to supply Christian-dominated regions.
My plane is loaded to capacity with a ton of food and medicine. We fly in the early dawn light. En route, we hear the engines of a Soviet-built NIF bomber high above us. My pilot is nervous, but the bombers crew does not spot us, thousands of feet below in the dim light.
We land safely near the areas lone tree a site secured by the rebel Sudanese Liberation Army in time for the arrival of the slave trader.
Profit and Compassion
The slave trader is motivated by compassion as well as profit. He disagrees with his governments policies; thus he embarks on dangerous, humanitarian missions. He negotiates for slaves with Muslim masters in the north, and transports his purchases sometimes for up to two weeks across parched, war-torn land to our rendezvous point. If he is captured by the NIF, he may be imprisoned, beaten or killed.
The slave trader believes he is doing good. Even so, this is his livelihood. Like professional herders, the slave trader and his colleagues use sticks to line up the women and children and beat back the crowd. A makeshift table is quickly erected under the tree as a base to conduct business.
James Ajing Path approaches the table. Before the war, James, 52, had served as a member of the Sudanese Parliament in the nations capital, Khartoum. Well-educated and a devout Christian, he now owns only the clothes on his back. Today, he serves as translator and middleman for me to purchase as many slaves as I can.
Twelve people are all the trader has for sale, (NIF troop activities make it difficult for him to bring more.) Among them is Bol Kur Kuol, 10, whose father is waiting. Their reunion is joyous.
The boy wears the scars of his ordeal. Like many others enslaved children, Bol has been branded; his master has carved two parallel lines under his right eye. The master also forced Bol to memorize the Koran and join in Muslim prayer rituals.
I pay for the 12 children, and leave funds with Path for the redemption of several dozen others. The slave trader said he would return to the north to collect more slaves. Many in the crowd left disappointed.
A couple days later, I still feel ill over what I have witnessed. The suffering and misery are overwhelming. But I plan to return. If we dont help them, who will?