he Rt. Rev. Macram Max Gassis, the Roman Catholic Bishop of El Obeid, Sudan, is vexed. After years of silence about Sudan's self-declared jihad against non-Muslims and the subsequent government-sponsored revival of slavery the Washington Post on February 26 published a front-page article alleging that slave redemption was an elaborate hoax.
So determined was Nairobi correspondent Karl Vick to make his point, in fact, that he did not even feel it necessary to interview either former slaves or perpetrators of the alleged fraud.
The gist of Vick's article was that (unnamed) black Sudanese community leaders were defrauding the human-rights organization Christian Solidarity International by elaborately stage-managing slave-redemption scenes, involving tens of thousands of false slaves and scores of false Arab retrievers. Bishop Gassis condemned the Post's report as "unprofessional and immoral."
Gassis has been the most vigorous Sudanese anti-slavery campaigner since the self-proclaimed "Great Imam," former President Jafaar Nimeiri, revived state-sponsored slave raiding in the mid 1980s. For years, Bishop Gassis's message has been: Slavery is not only morally repugnant, but is also a "crime against humanity."
Slavery is not just the manifestation of tribal conflict. The same Sudanese government that for years sheltered and supported Osama bin Laden, now arms and directs Arab militias who comprise part of the official Popular Defense Force. These militias raid villages in the borderlands between predominantly Islamist northern Sudan and predominantly Christian and animist southern Sudan. Farms are burned, men are slaughtered, and women and children are captured, often being raped and mutilated in the process. The slaves (UNICEF and Save the Children, seeking not to antagonize Khartoum, calls them "abductees") are routinely beaten, forced to work without pay, forcibly converted to Islam, and given only a subsistence diet.
Sexual abuse is common, even for young girls. Rape, gang rape, and female genital mutilation are widespread. Many slaves are executed. If Vick had bothered to talk to victims of the slave trade, he would have seen they are far from being merely women and children rounded up from villages to put on an elaborate show, but are rather victims of stabbing, slashing, burning, and torture. Even as UNICEF consulted "at the highest levels," and well-paid U.N. bureaucrats drank Perrier in plush conference rooms, Christian Solidarity International determined it better to enable local community leaders to pay the price of a goat in exchange for the freedom of a loved one, rather than leave them in bondage.
UNICEF director Carol Bellamy argues, "Historically we know that when you start paying to get people back, that just sends a message, 'Well, let's take some more and maybe we'll get some more money.'" But when Newsweek's Marcus Maybry traveled to Sudan in 1999 to investigate slave redemption, he interviewed redeemed children and their relatives. He recorded the moving scene of a weeping mother, Lual Gerang, falling for joy upon her two boys, who had just been redeemed from bondage by CSI. This mother has no problem with slave redemption. Asked by Maybry whether slave redemption was bad, she retorted: "How is it bad that my children are here under my arm?" Apparently, Bellamy and the Washington Post think their freedom is very bad indeed.
Bellamy does not understand that Sudan is not a free market, and slave-raiders not mere entrepreneurs. They are government-armed and -transported, and are engaged in a government-declared jihad. Not surprisingly, Bellamy's willingness to engage Khartoum even paying the Islamist government to set up "committees" to address the issue has only telegraphed the message to President Omar al-Bashir that the international community is not serious. UNICEF pays the raiders; CSI pays the redeemers.
To the dismay of Bishop Gassis, the Washington Post's story ricocheted around the world. But after Pittsburgh Post-Gazette columnist Tony Norman wrote a column critical of slave redemption based on Vick's story, I asked him to investigate the issue more thoroughly. He read our critique of Vick, then met with an eyewitness to a slave-redemption mission and examined their photos of scarred, tortured slaves (available at www.iabolish.com). His conclusion: "If there ever was a column I wish I could retract, it's that one."
What were the Washington Post's sins of omission?
WP never witnessed any slave-redemption activity.
On the basis of his investigation, Norman concluded that the offensive Washington Post article was nothing more than a hatchet job. Dan Rather, ever conscious of ratings, decided to rehash the story for 60 Minutes. Rather went so far as to tell viewers that Fr. Riva was "easy to trust." He did not trouble to investigate the story, but accepted it blindly.
Peter Arnett was fired for voicing a story based on false witnesses: To CNN, accuracy was more important than celebrity or ratings. Unfortunately, such is not the case at the Washington Post and 60 Minutes, where armchair reporters and anchors are immune from accountability so long as they tow the correct political line and augment ratings.
Charles Jacobs is president of the American Anti-Slavery Group.