Where is outrage about slave states of Africa?

August 05, 1998

John Carlson; News Tribune columnist

The most talked-about movie in the country right now is Steven Spielberg's "Saving Private Ryan," an unflinching look at World War II as seen through the eyes of soldiers storming the European continent during D-Day in June 1944.

Last summer another Spielberg movie was the talk of the country even before its release: "Amistad," which chronicled the famous slave revolt of Cuba-bound Africans who pinned their hopes for freedom on a country conceived in liberty but bearing the birth defect of slavery itself.

The film was not as successful as "Private Ryan," nor was it as truthful. Most of the rebellious slaves from the Amistad became Christian converts in America and learned to read. Upon their return to Africa they founded a mission that exists to this day, a reality never addressed in the film. Spielberg probably wanted to downplay the importance of religion in that saga in order to emphasize the awfulness of one person being owned by another.

But if we want to focus our attention on the evils of slavery, we can focus on two countries that still allow it in 1998: Mauritania and the Sudan, both on the African continent. The Sudan offers a particularly chilling view of how cheap human life has become in some places.

The Republic of Sudan, just south of Egypt on the northern tip of Africa, is about one-quarter the size of the United States. About 32.5 million people live there, of which only 2 percent live to their 65th birthday. Just over half the population is black, and about 40 percent is Arab. There has been conflict between north and south since the British left in 1956, but a particularly brutal civil war has continued for the past 15 years, costing the lives of 1.5 million people. That's 4 percent of the population dead.

Another million are facing starvation this summer from a famine that is entirely man-made by the National Islamic Front, which controls the government in Khartoum. The NIF has choked off supply routes for food in order to quell resistance from the south, which does not want an Islamic dictatorship imposed on it. The use of food as a political weapon has also been used in the past decade in Ethiopia and Somalia.

But in the Sudan, slavery has also emerged in the past decade. The British had abolished it 100 years ago, but over the past decade government militias have raided villages in the south Sudan, particularly the Bahr al-Ghazal province, seizing thousands of Sudanese, mostly women and children, who are put to work in the fields or used as sex slaves. The government first denied, then downplayed it, but the existence and expansion of slavery has been thoroughly documented.

Our government has known about this for years. Yet when President Clinton traveled to Africa just a couple of months ago, what did he say about this atrocity? Nothing. The president's unofficial envoy to Africa, Jesse Jackson, has been all over the African continent over the past two years. Has he spoken out? No. This, despite the fact that Jackson is an ordained Christian minister and many of the kidnapped slaves are black Christians.

One person who has spoken out is Louis Farrakhan, the leader of the Nation of Islam. Farrakhan traveled to the Sudan and praised the National Islamic Front, whose militias carry out most of the slave raids.

What is going on here? In the '80s and '90s, this nation condemned South Africa for its policies of racial segregation and helped hasten the end of apartheid. Civil rights leaders spoke out. The media spoke out. Politicians spoke out. Rock stars spoke out. Hollywood spoke out. Liberals especially spoke out.

Yet on the same continent today, a government is cruelly starving hundreds of thousands of people and enslaving the survivors. Where are all the anti-apartheid activists? Is segregation worse than slavery?

Washington Post columnist Nat Hentoff writes about a fifth-grade class at an elementary school in Denver that decided to do something about this. They heard about Christian Solidarity International, a Swiss-based organization that buys slaves back from their captors (slaves can be purchased for between $50 and $100). The class has now raised close to $9,000, which will buy freedom for more than 150 slaves.

Think about that. A classroom of 10-year-olds is doing more than their own government to end slavery where it exists.

If there has ever been reason for people of different political beliefs to speak out together against an atrocity, this is it. One of the fifth-graders, Ashley Holmes, told the Denver Post, "I am not saying slavery is wrong because I'm black, but because it is wrong to sell people to other people."

That should be the policy of this nation's government. And it should act on that policy, like Ashley and her classmates.

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John Carlson is chairman of the Washington Institute for Policy Studies, a free-market research group in Seattle. His column appears every Wednesday. Carlson can be reached at PO Box 24645, Seattle, WA 98124-0645 or at 206-938-6300.

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