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Freedom Eclipsed

Today marks the birth of an independent South Sudan. The celebrating had already begun in the South Sudanese region of Northern el Bahr Ghazal, less than 50 miles from Darfur, when I departed on Wednesday.

There was little for the new citizens to eat, no running water, or electricity. They live in grass huts if they are fortunate, but the expression of joy in these war-ravaged people was the deepest I had ever witnessed. It was as though they had been transfused with the lifeblood of the two million lives lost since the initiation of civil war in 1983. But just as the joy of July 4, 1776 was eclipsed by the brutality of slavery in our own nation, today, tens of thousands of South Sudanese citizens remain enslaved in Northern Sudan on this July 9, 2011.

The fate of those in captivity is unknown at this moment. For over a decade they have been brought in groups of no more than 200 at a time, a dozen times a year down from the north in exchange for cow vaccine.

Ironically, this vaccine was developed based in part of the efforts of the Kenyan-based Walter Reed Army Institute of Research (WRAIR).

Christian Solidarity International, (CSI) provides the financial and logistical support for this exchange. CSI also supports the only free clinic in the area. It is solely operated and staffed by Dr. Luka Deng Kur. Dr. Luka, as he likes to be called, diagnoses and treats 150 patients a day, including the repatriated citizens at liberation.

I was present for two of these liberations on a trip sponsored by Fox News Contributor Ellen Ratner, who has been working with CSI in South Sudan for three years. Each liberation brings the traumatized, beaten, raped, parasite infected and malnourished home. Arab traders bring them from the north. The march to freedom can take two weeks depending on the route. They walk at night and sleep by day in order to avoid re-capture. Most of them are barefoot, carrying nothing but their children. I suspect the innate human instinct to survive -- to go home -- propels them.

As a former member of the U.S. military, embedded journalist and now a medical student, I have seen the horrible wounds that one human being can inflict on another, but this was different. Most had not only been wounded during their capture, but had been systematically abused throughout their captivity. One woman showed us how her hands hand been bound with rope in front of her for the several day journey to the north after capture and now she was unable to flex and extend her fingers. These critical instruments of survival that we take for granted were now in a permanently disfigured state. Another revealed the scars of where a bullet had entered his chest and exited his back.

A young boy, who looked to be about twelve years old, had no idea where his mother and father were. He said that he only had his uncle, but the uncle had also been taken away recently. This young boy still had the open and inflamed wounds from where his master had beaten him for allowing goats to escape.

Dr. Luka treated the acute injuries and infections visible to the eye, but the patient questionnaire that had been previously filled by local interviewers revealed deeper wounds. These questions included rape, and gang rape, (specifying the number of attackers), female circumcision and number seen killed.  Most of the women answered in the affirmative, with the number of attackers as high as ten.

The vast majority of patients seen by Dr. Luka had seen someone killed in front of them, normally at least three. This is common among the entire population of South Sudan, numbering nine million in the latest census. The chronically abused had what Dr. Richard Brown, an innovative American psychiatrist who came to work with these victims called, “the thousand mile stare.”  It seemed to me that they had been forced to dissociate, to disconnect from the reality of their existence for so long that they were no longer able to even focus their eyes, let alone their hearts or minds on the present.

Our South Sudanese hosts told us that the government of Northern Sudan admits that there are still 35,000 South Sudanese being held in the north. It is likely the number is much higher. The Arab trader who brought the last group said that the ones remaining are the “expensive” slaves. When asked why he takes this risk, apart from the bounty of cow vaccine, he said that he believes the treatment of these people is against the teachings of Muhammad.

Many world leaders, even some of the members of our own House of Representatives, argue that the South Sudanese held against their will in the north are not slaves. My response to this politically motivated word game is, call them what you wish. I personally don’t know of a word in English that can accurately characterize the status or treatment of these vulnerable and oppressed souls. I have been to over 60 countries throughout the world, some of them in active conflict. I’ve seen indentured servants, sex workers, active fighting, poverty, war and disease ravaged children and public physical beatings. But the physical and psychological evidence of brutality I witnessed last week was more like what I read in the history books of the treatment of those captured and held during the reign of Hitler.

Just like the oral histories of the captives of Nazi Germany, these repatriated South Sudanese citizens recalled the details of years of abuse, back breaking labor, punishment, forced conversions and executions. One man we met agreed to convert to Islam and become an Imam. He explained that he was motivated to convert others so that they would not be abused. It was better for them this way—for their own safety. He performed his religious duties during the day and then had a second duty all night as a “guard” to keep the insects away from the cattle.

Some of those examined by Dr. Luka and Dr. Brown had been made to be “examples” for others. One woman was blinded by her master—her cornea completely destroyed. Traumatic blindness is not uncommon. One young boy, Ker, who has been free for almost a year, was brought to the liberation to address his people in order to hopefully comfort them in this time of immense uncertainty. Ker’s master poured pepper in his eyes and beat him in order to show his mother that worse would happen to her son if she tried to escape. He now only sees light in one eye. When asked if the group knew of Ker’s mother’s status, no one spoke. Ker waited in the hopes of a response and then one person shouted out, how would we know? If we saw another Dinka in a distance, we were not allowed to speak to them.

Whatever label one needs to put on these people to satisfy their own agendas, the undisputed fact is that the war is over. A peace agreement between the north and the south was signed. A free and fair vote for independence has been recognized worldwide, including in Khartoum. Those who were born in South Sudan must be free to choose their own destiny like the millions liberated in the previous conflicts. Failure to return these South Sudanese citizens is like allowing counterfeit currency to circulate. The peace and stability humans enjoy in the world is based on the stable “currency” of the rule of law—laws mutually agreed upon and enforced by opposing parties, often after choosing to end deadly conflict. There must be trust and faith that one’s people will be safely returned. Without this assurance, peace is temporary. Imagine if tens of thousands of Jews of Eastern Europe and prisoners of war had been forced to remain as chronically abused permanent laborers in the homes of post-war Germany.

The morning we were leaving Dr. Luka’s compound, Ker did not seem his usual joyful self. When asked about it he said that he had hoped his mother would be returned. We had also hoped for the same. He said it was very difficult to see people reunited with their families when his mother is still in the north. As of today, Ker’s motherland has achieved its birthright. It is time for his own mother to achieve hers.