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Mende Nazer had an idyllic early childhood with her loving family in a small village in the Nuba Mountains of Sudan, until she was brutally kidnapped by the Mujahidin. She was kept as a domestic slave by a woman in Khartoum without any pay or a single day off. Mende endured this harsh and lonely existence without knowing whether her family was alive or dead, for seven long years. In the spring of 2000 Mende was passed on by her master, like a parcel, to a relative in London. Eventually she managed to make contact with other Nuba exiles who, with British journalist and filmmaker Damien Lewis, helped her escape to freedom. In 2002 she was awarded the Human Rights Award by CECRA, the Spanish Coalition Against Slavery for her work in making slavery a public issue.
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After her escape from slavery, Mende Nazer has been granted asylum in the UK, and works to publicise the plight of modern-day slaves around the world.From The Washington Post:
Few places evoke otherworldliness like the Nuba Mountains of central Sudan. I will never forget seeing the endless miles of cracked earth stretching to the horizon when I flew to the region to cover the Nuba's struggle for self-determination in war-torn Sudan in May 1998. To this day, I have not reported a more remarkable story from a more distinctive part of the world.
The Nuba's homeland serves as the backdrop to the early chapters of Mende Nazer's harrowing tale, Slave. Nazer's book describes her oddly idyllic childhood; her subsequent capture and rape during an Arab raid on her village; her years of enslavement in the home of a well-to-do Arab family in the capital of Khartoum; and later, her life in London, where she served as the slave of a high-ranking Sudanese diplomat, also an Arab, before her ultimate escape, with the help of co-author Damien Lewis, a British journalist, in September 2000.
The Nuba became world-famous in the 1960s, after German fascist Leni Riefenstahl published photographs of their ancient traditions of body-painting and ceremonial wrestling in two renowned coffee-table books, The Nuba and The Nuba of Kau. Nazer provides beautiful and at times heart-wrenching accounts of the Nuba's traditions, from their annual wrestling matches to her horrific circumcision at the age of roughly 11. (The Nuba keep no record of birth dates.)
Geographically isolated from their black Muslim, Christian and animist allies to the south and largely cut off from foreign aid by the Islamic fundamentalist government to the north, the Nuba remain fiercely independent and almost completely removed from the rest of the world. The early chapters of Nazer's book reflect this. She recalls, for example, being utterly shocked at the sight of a group of white people who came to deliver food aid to her area, on what was in all likelihood an illegal flight.
Nazer grew up fortunate by Nuba standards. She never wanted for food, enjoyed the warmth of her loving family and attended a government-run Muslim school until the raid on her village abruptly changed her life. Prior to that, she had no direct experience of the devastation the Nuba suffered during Sudan's bloody civil war, which began in 1983 and is Africa's longest conflict. Nazer remembers only occasionally overhearing adults speak of "the militia" or recall with horror the raids in far-off villages she had never visited. Her pre-slave life was exceptionally untroubled: The Nuba, who joined the war in 1988 on the side of the southern rebels fighting for self-determination, have seen half their population displaced, hundreds of thousands starved or killed and whole villages wiped out. According to the United Nations, some 2 million Sudanese have died, and more than 4 million have been displaced in the past two decades. The Nuba, more than half a million of whom have fled their homeland, are on the verge of extinction.
According to Nazer, she and 31 other children were captured during a 1993 raid on her village. After her abduction, she was raped by an Arab raider as they made their way to a government-controlled military base, a crime made even more painful because she'd been literally sewn shut by infibulation, the most damaging form of female circumcision. She was then separated from her fellow captors and sold to a wealthy Arab family in the capital of Khartoum.
For the next seven years, Nazer says, she grew up in some of the most horrible circumstances imaginable. She slept in a shed, was fed the family leftovers, was worked to the bone, and verbally, sexually and physically abused on a regular basis. What's worse, she lived in almost complete isolation. The near complete denial of human affection to which she was subjected is perhaps the most tragic aspect of her story. Only a brief stay at the hospital under the care of a loving Nuba nurse or the rare afternoon spent with a fellow slave accompanying her master on a visit offered her any relief. Not surprisingly, her entire emotional life existed in the past -- and Nazer survived largely by living in it, remembering her wonderful family life back in the Nuba Mountains. In time even those memories faded, and she plunged into a deep depression.
The Sudanese government claims it has little control over the trafficking in slaves, though human-rights groups say the government arms and sanctions the makeshift militias made up of Muslim guerillas who conduct the slave trade. Sudan is a poor but oil-rich nation of roughly 38 million people. There is no prohibition against slavery in Sudan's criminal code, though the country's right-wing government has ratified a number of international treaties outlawing slavery.
A number of evangelical Christian groups have tried to trade on the emotional revulsion Americans feel toward slavery, raising tens of thousands of dollars to "emancipate" Sudanese slaves. Many of these "emancipations" have been exposed as frauds, some perpetuated by the very southern Sudanese rebels whose people are frequently preyed upon. For this reason, Human Rights Watch opposes such "slave redemptions."
What's odd about slavery in Sudan is that it has drawn so much attention here and in Europe, allowing a book like Nazer's to gain immediate widespread attention. According to Human Rights Watch and other humanitarian organizations, slavery exists almost completely out in the open in nearby Mauritania, and trafficking in child slaves is a growing problem in other West African countries such as Mali, Ivory Coast and Nigeria, yet it takes place with significantly less international outcry. That's not to discount the power of Nazer's story, but simply to point out that the immense tragedy of Sudan's civil war draws more attention to the problem of slavery there.
In 2000, Nazer alleges, she was shipped to London under false pretenses to serve as the slave of a then high-ranking Sudanese diplomat, whom she names. After nearly a year, she escaped with the help of several southern Sudanese, the first of whom she met on a trip to shop for the family that enslaved her. One of Britain's leading newspapers, the Sunday Telegraph, reported the story after her alleged escape, but without speaking with Nazer. The former diplomat filed a libel suit against the paper, and even claimed to have letters written by Nazer to her family that refuted her story. The paper eventually paid damages and published an apology declaring Nazer's story false. This complicated her political asylum request, which was initially rejected but ultimately successful.
Nazer's book was published in England in 2002 with this added controversy surrounding it. The success of the libel case brought against the Telegraph damages the force of her story, if not its credibility. Yet the media flap should not allow anyone to overlook the reality of slavery in Sudan, or the possibility that if ongoing peace talks between rebel groups and the government are successful, the practice could finally come to an end. Unfortunately, due to the Telegraph debacle, Nazer's account, which is difficult to verify and by its very nature stretches the boundaries of our belief, runs the risk of being compared to I, Rigoberta Menchu. Menchu's 1983 narrative, written, like Nazer's, with the help of a journalist when she was in her early twenties, was exposed as largely fabricated after she won the Nobel Prize for Peace. Yet Menchu's story still spoke to the experience of countless poor Mayans in Central America.
The Sudanese government has been extremely reluctant to investigate Nazer's claims, however, and given its obvious stake in wanting damning evidence of the country's slave trade refuted, this silence certainly lends credence to Nazer's story. If the experiences Nazer recounts here prove true, they will stand as an important reminder of the real, lived terrors of thousands of black southern Sudanese whose stories will never be told, and whose freedom may never be won.
Reviewed by Alex P. Kellogg
Copyright 2004, The Washington Post Co. All Rights Reserved.
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