It was the kind of excitement that made children uneasy. Grownups were pointing toward the river. Others were arriving at a run. The bustling atmosphere in the market place of the peaceful African town of Nyamlell in the Dinka tribal area in the southern Sudan was changing. Worried adults could see what a seven-year-old Dinka boy, Francis Bok, who had gone to the market that fateful day with older village children to sell his mother’s eggs and peanuts, could not: “a storm of smoke” rising from a nearby village. Sellers frantically began to gather up their wares and hurry away with the buyers. The adults understood. They recognized the approaching signs of the dreaded scourge that most people believed had disappeared from the pages of African history long ago: a slave raid.
It was 1986 and Bok was about to see his happy world of family and village shattered forever by a centuries-old, barbaric practice that has never died out: the violent capture and enslavement of black Africans by Arabs.
“The Arab militias were told to kill the men and enslave the women and children,” said the now 28-year-old Bok, who was himself captured and enslaved that day, to an audience of 80 people at the University of Toronto recently where he had been invited to speak by the campus organization, Zionists at U. of T.
Bok, who would spend the next ten years working as a child slave, then outlined for his college listeners in horrifying detail the savage hurricane of violence he next witnessed when the Arab slavers attacked.
“I saw many people on the ground, shot…I saw people with their heads cut off with swords and shot in the head. People were lying on the ground like they just wanted to relax for a moment. I saw blood pouring like a small stream,” the 28-year-old Bok recounted in a voice that still quivers with emotion.
Unknown to him at that time, Bok was also an innocent victim of the decades-long, savage civil war between Sudan’s Arab Muslim North and the country’s African Christian and animist South. Based in the capital, Khartoum, the North’s Islamist government, which also hosted Osama bin Laden in the 1990s, had promulgated sharia law in 1983 for the whole country in its quest to Arabize and Islamicize the non-Muslim South. Also as part of this goal, the Khartoum government armed Muslim militias and sent them in the 1980s and 1990s to wage jihad against the infidel southerners. However, the spears and hippopotamus shields of the South’s Dinka and Nuer tribes, the war’s main victims, were no match for the Kalashnikov-armed Muslims, who went on to kill two million southern Sudanese, displace another four million and take tens of thousands of slaves in a silent genocide.
After the slave raid, Bok, a Christian, told the audience he was taken to the Muslim North to work for one of the Arab raiders’ families as a child slave for the next decade. During the pitiless trip north, the little Dinka boy witnessed the depth of racism, cruelty and religious hatred of his captors and their world towards black Africans when an Arab slaver cut off the leg of a Dinka girl who would not stop crying because she had seen her parents butchered in the market place. Upon his arrival at his master’s home, Bok was to experience himself this racial viciousness when he was immediately surrounded and beaten by the masters’ children who called him “abeed” (slave), an Arabic word also used for black Africans in general.
And a slave Bok was in every sense of the word as he worked for his master without a day off and without payment for the next ten years, often laboring from four in the morning until after the family had gone to bed that night.
“I was supposed to look after the goats; there were about two hundred goats,” Bok told listeners of his first days as a seven-year-old slave. “My master knew all the goats. He would ask: ‘Where is this goat? Where is that goat?’ If I answered: ‘I don’t know. He would beat me…He had a favorite stick to beat me. When I had done something wrong, even when I had done nothing wrong, he beat me.”
Lonely and isolated, Bok said he was made to sleep in a shelter near the animals and was never allowed to talk to the Dinka slaves owned by other Arab families. The child slave even received a beating, Bok told the audience, when he asked his master one day why he calls him ‘abeed’ and why no one loves him. He was told never to ask that question again.
The treatment Bok received from his master’s wife, however, was even worse. She would, he related, not allow her ‘abeed’ to look her directly in the face and would spit in his, often calling on her children to spit on the Dinka boy too.
“That hurt,” said Bok. “I asked her why? She said: ‘You are my slave and this is my house.’ She would also grab a knife and say she would kill me like a chicken.”
For ten long years, Bok told his listeners, he would lie awake at night and wonder who was going to come and free him from this hopeless, helpless life of a slave where he was told he was just an animal. Even his forcible conversion to Islam, outwardly in Bok’s case, did not bring any improvement in treatment. Only his faith in God, the Dinka slave stated, and his desire to see his parents again kept him going.
“I hated the way they treated me and the way they treated the other slaves,” said Bok, recounting his humanity was never once recognized during all those years with the Arab family, his only value being the work he could do.
This was hideously emphasized by a nightmarish incident that convinced Bok to take matters into his own hands and escape. On a visit with his master to his master’s friend, Bok said he was instructed to talk in the Dinka language to another boy-slave, who had had his leg cut off.
“I asked him what happened,” Bok remembers. “He started crying and said he had refused to go to work for one day. He told his master he was sick and wasn’t going to work. His master told him he had to go to work. There was no excuse. The boy continued to argue with his master, so his master cut his leg off.”
At age 14, Bok told a silent audience he was caught escaping twice and badly beaten, and nearly killed the second time. Waiting until he was 17 to make another attempt, Bok successfully made it to Khartoum with the help of a kindly Muslim truck driver who took him home and bought him a bus ticket. From Khartoum, the young Dinka made it to Cairo where he was eventually allowed to come to America as a United Nations refugee in 1999. Today, the former African slave is a proud American citizen.
In 2000, sponsored by the American Anti-Slavery Group, Bok began speaking of his experiences to audiences across the United States, especially at schools and colleges, giving as his reason the fact he could not forget those Dinka slave boys he remembered seeing in the Sudan. In his anti-slavery advocacy, Bok became the first escaped slave to appear before the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations and has spoken to other politicians, including Colin Powell and George Bush, whom he and most Dinkas, he says, hold in high regard for his assistance to the southern Sudanese cause. The new African American, grateful to America for the second life it has granted him as well as for the opportunity to speak about his people, also wrote a highly engrossing book about his days as a boy slave, Escape From Slavery: The True Story of My Ten Years in Captivity – and My Journey to Freedom in America, that should be required reading in every high school.
About the only setback for Bok in America occurred when he discovered his father had been killed and his mother and sisters went missing in the same Muslim militia raid that saw him enslaved. His brother, however, was still alive and a member of the southern Sudanese, anti-government army.
As for the Sudan today, Bok says the problem remains the same in that the government is still trying to impose sharia law on its non-Muslim citizens, whom, he says, will never accept it and the second-class status it confers on non-Muslims. Bok, who is not against independence for the African South Sudan, also says he did not believe in the 2005 peace treaty between the North and the South that ended the war.
“It was a big deal for the Sudanese; but I didn’t even smile,” he said. “I knew it wasn’t the real thing. I don’t see it as a real peace. Why is it a peace when there is still a war (Darfur) in the country? They (the government) shifted the war to another region.”
Bok says he plans to return next spring to the Sudan for the first time since his escape and would like to teach English to refugees in Darfur. Asked what he would say to his former master if he was standing in the same University of Toronto lecture room with him at that moment, the supposedly ‘half savage’ ex-slave said he would tell his former tormentor that he was “absolutely wrong” to do what he did and never to do it to another person.
“I don’t want to do anything bad to him or to his wife who hit me,” he said. “The only thing I could do is point a finger at him and say: ‘This is the man who took my childhood away from me.’ Other than that, I forgive him.”