Escape from Slavery
Francis Bok (with Edward Tivman)
St. Martin's Press 2003
284 pages $24.95
Francis Bok was seven years old when Muslim raiders from northern Sudan stormed the small Dinka village where Bok was selling eggs for his mother. They murdered all the men and kidnapped the womenand children to serve as slaves for wealthy Muslim farmers. Bok was enslaved for ten years finally escaping the clutches of his master in 1996. He immigrated to the United States about one year later.
In "Escape from Slavery" Bok writes that he was one of thousands of enslaved Dinka children. The war against the Dinka tribes by the Muslims of northern Sudan has caused the death of two million southerners and displaced four million more - many of them forced into slavery. Raiders routinely kidnapped children as young as seven often brutalizing and torturing them including cutting off an arm or leg if they tried to escape. One ten year old had nails driven through his knees. Bok was sometimes beaten and fed little more than garbage for ten years.
It's difficult to comprehend this type of horror, especially when it is perpetrated on children. How can a child possibly endure this kind of suffering and dislocation? What unleashes this type of brutality? Closer to home, what can America do to stop it?
For years, the Western world was largely ignorant of the Sudanese human rights catastrophe. The fog began to lift when Charles Jacobs founded American Anti-Slavery Group (AASG). Jacobs read about the plight of Dinka children and became an abolitionist. Today Bok works with the AASG speaking to groups around the country about modern day slavery.
Bok reveals how slavery exacts a terrible price including the death of family and childhood before their time. It's profound moving story that compels us to see our own children and families as Bok tells us of his. Bok speaks with the simple wisdom that comes from suffering that clarifies what a monstrous evil slavery is. The book is simply written and easy to read, but it stirs the conscience in ways that few books do.
Fortunately people have been moved to action. Through the work of Bok, AASG, and others, the Clinton administration grudgingly acknowledged that slavery existed in Sudan, which elevated the problem into national prominence. The Bush administration worked harder and in 2002 the Sudan Peace Act was passed which made Sudanese slavery an international issue subject to international sanctions. From the United Nations however, there is only silence.
"Escape from Slavery" enables the reader to grasp a measure of the sorrow, suffering, and pain that the Dinka people have endured. Bok is a Christian and mentions in several places that his faith in God gave him the strength to prevail - even as an enslaved child. His faith may also account for the absence of any rancor and bitterness a reader might otherwise expect from someone who has suffered such brutal hardship.
What drives some Muslims to brutalize others in the way Bok experienced? Bok says the factors are racism and religion, with religion being the greatest. The Muslims of the north always regarded southern Dinkas as abeeb - an Arab word meaning both black and slave. This historic animus mixed with Muslim fundamentalism has unleashed a savagery that can only be attributed to ideological fanaticism, explains Bok. It is part of the jihad that has overtaken some of the Muslim world.
"When you add religious fanaticism to an ancient feeling of superiority of one people to another, you have a deadly and extremely cruel combination - as Americans found out on September 11," Bok writes. "Before 9/11 this argument was not an easy one to make. And while Osama bin Laden strikes most Americans as a crazy terrorist from Saudi Arabia, we Sudanese remember that before he went to Afghanistan he lived in Sudan protected by the equally fanatical Islamist government that remains in power. Imagine a country filled with Osama bin Ladens...it has been the reality of Dinka life for decades," he adds.
Bok writes to witness to the truth. Real freedom will return when Bok can finally go back to his country, he writes. In the meantime, we who hear Bok's eloquent testimony and resolve to add our voices to his can lessen the suffering of people still enslaved.
Read this book to comprehend human fortitude, the deep longing for freedom among those who don't have it, and the high cost of the modern slave trade. Then visit the AASG website (http://www.iabolish.com) to learn more.
Fr. Johannes L. Jacobse is a Greek Orthodox priest and edits the website www.OrthodoxyToday.org.
This review was published on the Town Hall website.