MP’s Secret Trip

(Maclean’s article – April 2001)

The journey was dangerous, but for Jane Roy and her husband, Glen Pearson, of London, Ont., nothing could stop them from sneaking into war-torn southern Sudan for the second time in a year. Thousands of people, mostly women and children living on the rolling savanna, have been kidnapped by marauders backed by the government in the north and sold into slavery. Those who do not accept their fate are often butchered, raped or killed. Others are lucky — they are bought by Roy and Pearson and other volunteers with the Zurich-based human rights organization Christian Solidarity International, and set free.

Slavery is part of the Sudanese government’s campaign of terror to drive out local residents in the south, where a civil war is raging between government forces and insurgents. Also at stake is the region’s vast oil wealth, which the government wants to control. As a result, the conflict has embroiled Talisman Energy Inc. of Calgary, a major oil producer in Sudan. Although the company strongly denies the allegation, critics say government revenues from oil are financing the war against the south.

To assess the conflict, London Liberal MP Joe Fontana accompanied Roy and Pearson on their weeklong trip, which ended last week. Fontana, who chairs the parliamentary committee on citizenship and immigration, is to file a report to Foreign Affairs Minister John Manley and also plans to confront Talisman executives with his findings. Roy and Pearson kept a diary of their perilous journey with Fontana exclusively for Maclean’s. Their report:

DAY 1

As our plane descended towards a dusty airstrip, the scorched, rolling grasslands of southern Sudan seemed to become more forbidding with each passing second. The Nuer people of southern Sudan have crisscrossed the windswept plains for centuries, eking out an existence herding cattle and goats. Largely Christian, they have been fighting for autonomy since 1955 from the dominant Arab Muslim population of the north. As fighting accelerated, following a military coup in 1989 that brought the army to power, U.S. petroleum giant Chevron pulled out. Talisman purchased a large share of the oil-rich property in 1998 for $760 million and has been trapped in the conflict ever since.

We are nervous. Who knows what fate awaited us if government troops captured us? But our spirits had been buoyed shortly after we boarded our plane in Nairobi for Sudan when we encountered two men, Garang and Athian. Each had artificial arms, the result of an encounter in 1995 with a raiding party from northern Sudan the two had been secretly following after their wives and children had been taken captive. Garang and Athian were soon caught by the gang and had their arms hacked off. They were left to die as a brutal warning to others who might dare to intervene, but managed to survive with the help of local villagers.

When their story appeared in Maclean’s last year, there was an outpouring of anger. Christian Solidarity International responded by buying their families out of slavery in the north and procuring prosthetics for the two men. Now, we are delighted to discover they have been in Kenya, testing out their artificial limbs. And as our plane lands at Malwal Akon, a dusty village of 3,000 people in southern Sudan, hundreds of people race out of their grass huts to welcome the men home. They are among the true heroes in this brutal conflict, and we watch, overjoyed, as they wrap their new metal arms around their wives and children.

That evening, Deng Alor, the respected governor of Bahr El Ghazal province in southern Sudan, where much of the kidnapping is taking place, asks to meet with Fontana in the nearby village of Wanjok. The MP asks what Canada could possibly do to assist the people. Alor, who is responsible for overseeing everything from local courts to education, responds with one word: Talisman. He says oil development in the region has ripped the country apart, leading to the displacement of tens of thousands of people. Because Talisman is a Canadian company, he tells Fontana, Ottawa must do something to help.

DAY 2

We take a 50-minute flight from Malwal Akon to Maper and then hike for half an hour through 35o C heat to where Fontana meets with dozens of homeless Nuer. The north has used oil revenues to purchase modern weapons; Fontana hears of gunships that hovered overhead as the people were forced to flee their homeland. They tell him of relatives kidnapped and tortured by having their arms or hands hacked off. And tears well into Fontana’s eyes when the refugees recount how children and women were herded like animals and taken away to the north as slaves. (The children usually herd their master’s goats and sheep, while women are put to work doing household chores, although some will be used as concubines.) At one point, Fontana raises his hands in exasperation, telling the people he will carry their message back to Manley.

DAY 3

Near Maper, Fontana comes face-to-face with more tragedy: 60 former slaves. They have just been freed by volunteers with CSI’s slave redemption program, who paid $50 a head for their return and then released them. Though now back in their community, they bear the scars from beatings, stabbings and bullets. Many are dressed in rags or used clothing dropped by planes delivering aid packages.

As we watch Nyarup Manyiel Deng tell her story, our eyes fill with tears. She is toothless and looks much older than her 35 years. Her words are powerful: “Three years ago, I came to the airstrip for food. We were attacked by northern militia on horseback. I was caught with three of my six children, Nong, Achiel and Ariec. My daughter, Achiel, was 10 years old and was raped many times by many men. I think that is why she died right there. When I asked about my daughter, they beat me in the face with a bamboo stick and knocked out my teeth. Then the militia took me and my boys to the north. My oldest son, Ariec, and I were given to Abdul Mohammed. When the men came from the cattle camp at night they raped me many times and my son has many scars from beatings. They said he lost some cows. I hope I will find my other son up north and bring him back too.”

In Sudan, a slave costs 75,000 Sudanese pounds, or the equivalent of two goats. In Western terms, that is $50 — a life costs less than a pair of Nikes! The practice of slavery has been confirmed by the media, including Maclean’s, and the United Nations. Last year, Canada sent John Harker, a widely respected expert on Africa, to Sudan to report on human rights abuses, and he also confirmed the presence of slavery and concluded that Talisman’s presence in the region contributed to the conflict. Yet where is the Western response?

DAY 4

We fly back to Nairobi, where we are invited to attend a meeting with Catholic Bishop Macram Gassis at his compound. His diocese includes the disputed Nuba Mountains. During Easter, a Sudanese government plane bombed celebrants in the mountains, killing one man and forcing the bishop to flee. His wide, expressive face is filled with amazement at the fact that the Khartoum government would be so brazen on Easter Sunday.

“What should be done?” asks Fontana. The Bishop’s three-word reply is fierce: “Stop the oil.” Gassis then prods Fontana, a fellow Catholic, saying the carnage is something neither Jesus nor Allah would condone. “Go back,” he tells Fontana, “and in God’s name tell your government about the terrible things going on here.”