The highly publicized practice of buying the freedom of Sudanese slaves, fueled by millions of dollars donated by Westerners, is rife with corruption, according to aid workers, human rights monitors and leaders of a rebel movement whose members routinely regard slave redemption as a lucrative business.
"The more children, the more money," said Mario Muor Muor, a former senior official in the Sudan Peoples Liberation Army (SPLA), the leading southern rebel group in Sudan's 19-year-old civil war. Insiders say that SPLA commanders and officials have pocketed money paid to buy captives' freedom and in some instances stage-manage the transactions, passing off free southerners as slaves.
The SPLA, whose leaders, troops and supporters are drawn from southern Sudan's black population, remains locked in a conflict with the country's Islamic government, based in the north and dominated by Arabic speakers. Since 1983, an estimated 2 million people have died in the war, but the conflict gained prominence in the United States only with reports that the government had revived the centuries-old practice of slave raiding.
International outrage over the practice generated a surge of support for the rebels, especially among U.S. Christian groups and African Americans. Millions of dollars have been raised in grass-roots campaigns, then carried into southern Sudan by emissaries. A scene that became a staple of news photos and anti-slavery Web sites has been played again and again: A Western visitor meets in a remote village with a man whose face is obscured by a turban -- the middleman, an Arab trader who has smuggled the slaves from captivity in the north. Between them are stacks of local currency. Under a nearby tree, scores -- and lately, hundreds -- of children and women wait to be told they are now free.
But in some cases, according to witnesses and rebel officials, the slaves weren't slaves at all, but people gathered locally and instructed to pretend they were returning from bondage. An aid worker told of recognizing several children in such a group in the village of Turalei in late 1998. Two of them were still wearing plastic wrist bands that entitled them to meals from the local feeding center, the worker said.
Impostors also have appeared in the role of the Arab middleman. A prominent former rebel commander has publicly complained that a light-skinned relative who is a captain in the rebel army "has been forced several times to pretend as an Arab" for cameras.
"Many times it's a trick," said the Rev. Mario Riva, an Italian Catholic priest who spent decades in one area frequented by slave raiders and, in recent years, well-intentioned "redeemers." Riva, who is fluent in the local tribal language, said he once watched as an interpreter supplied by the rebel administration apparently duped a visiting American who had come to buy the freedom of slaves.
"The white man wanted to know if the boy was really a slave," said Riva, recalling the scene near the village of Mariel Bei in the late 1990s. "The translator said something else: 'Did you suffer long ago?' "
John Eibner, the man Riva said was being misled, said that the redemption process is largely aboveboard. Eibner is a senior official of Christian Solidarity International, or CSI, the Swiss-based advocacy group that led the drive to publicize the revival of slavery in Sudan, where Arabs have harvested captives from black southern tribes for centuries.
CSI also has led the campaign for funds to buy the freedom of captured southerners. Last March, the group accepted a $100,000 check from the National Association of Basketball Coaches during halftime at the NCAA basketball finals.
More common are contributions from individuals, including schoolchildren handing over their lunch money, whose donations in recent years have generated considerable sums. During several dozen trips into southern Sudan since 1995, CSI claims to have purchased the freedom of 60,000 slaves. At a cost of $33 to $50 per slave, that many transactions would total between $2 and $3 million.
"Sure, wherever there is money there is the possibility of fraud," Eibner said in a telephone interview. "What I find most odd is that the journalists and independent researchers that came with us did not find the same."
Prevalent fraud is acknowledged by senior rebel officials. The rebel officials and commanders offer detailed accounts of intrigues among SPLA officials jockeying for access to the bricks of cash CSI has continued to bring to southern Sudan, even after other humanitarian groups have ceased the practice, citing concerns about corruption.
Samson Kwaje, the SPLA spokesman, said he recently advised an Ontario-based church group called Crossroads to give up redemption and spend its contributions on other projects, such as digging wells.
"The money comes from those American kids, [but] who gets the check? These people give $100,000 to John Eibner, I don't know how much of that gets to Twic County," said Kwaje, naming an area that has suffered slave raids. "Ten thousand? Fifty thousand? . . . Who gets what? And how much goes to redemption?"
"The best thing would really be if we stopped redemption," Kwaje said. "But there is the moral issue of people being abducted and of the movement being seen as insensitive to its own people."
Critics of the redemption process point out that no one knows how many people have been taken in raids. The more than 60,000 slaves that CSI says it has paid for is four times the number of slaves compiled by name by one group of tribal chiefs -- and eight times the number of active cases estimated by the British branch of the group Save the Children. "Active" cases are defined by Save the Children as abductees taken recently enough that they would still be counted as children.
What no credible expert disputes is the existence of slavery, and many warn that corruption associated with redemption should not dissuade efforts to eradicate the practice. "This is completely sort of an offshoot of the slavery phenomenon, but it doesn't mean there is no slavery," said Jemera Rone, Sudan specialist for Human Rights Watch, the New York-based watchdog group. "It wouldn't be possible if there weren't slavery."
Although Sudan's Islamic government insists on the word "abduction" rather than slavery, it describes the same violence: From north of the war's front line, Baggara tribesmen swoop down on villages to the south, taking captives from among the dark, tall Dinka. The two groups, both cattle herders, long have bumped against each other in conflicts that sometimes ended with women and children carried away. But historically, such captives were routinely released through traditional exchanges.
That changed with the renewal of civil war, when the Sudanese government provided automatic weapons to the Baggara and encouraged raids on Dinka villages.
The situation was further aggravated with the government's creation of militias, called Popular Defense Forces, in which young Baggara were given a gun, a horse and instructions to "clear" a corridor through Dinka lands for the government train that twice a year supplied garrison towns in the south. As payment, the militias were allowed to keep whatever they looted, including human beings. Captured women and children were routinely packed onto the train for the return trip north, some reportedly to lives of servitude around the capital, Khartoum. Others remained in bondage in Baggara areas.
At its peak in the late 1980s, this practice remained all but unknown to the outside world. Left to their own devices, Dinkas living freely in the north discreetly worked to locate abducted children and negotiate their return. Meanwhile, from the south, Dinka husbands and parents journeyed across the porous front lines -- or engaged go-betweens -- with what money they could gather to buy their relatives' freedom.
This was the model Eibner and others encountered on a fact-finding visit to the area in 1995: money for freedom. The Western Christians began ferrying in cash that year, while spreading the word of the revival of slavery. The only controversy it inspired was the concern, most prominently voiced by UNICEF, that the redeemers' infusion of cash was fueling the market for slavery.
In the front-line villages of southern Sudan, similar concerns were being voiced, but with a twist. Doctoral candidate Annette Weber, while researching her thesis in 1999, interviewed displaced Dinka women in the village of Ameth who said they were upset that CSI had spoiled the market for buying back abducted children by boosting the market price beyond what mothers could afford.
But one woman, Weber said, pointed out that the redeemers had also given mothers a new source of income: Rebel officials instructed parents to lend their children to pose as abductees to inflate the number of slaves for visitors to purchase. In return, the parents were given a small share -- equivalent to a few dollars -- of the proceeds.
"You can then use that money to buy your sincerely abducted children back," Weber quoted the woman as saying.
The account coincides with descriptions of the scam offered by Sudanese officials and Western aid workers, who said the sheer volume of money flowing into the south made corruption inevitable. Scores of relief agencies brought aid into southern Sudan. But only the redeemers brought dollars.
Turning those dollars into Sudanese currency was also lucrative, said Justin Yaac, a senior SPLA official who often accompanied Eibner into Sudan until early 2000.
"There was a lot that has been done with the money, with the profits from the currency exchange," said Yaac. He listed rebel officials' purchases in just two of three affected counties: 26 Toyota Land Cruisers, more than 7,000 uniforms, plus fuel -- all purchased for the war effort, Yaac emphasized, brushing aside allegations of personal enrichment.
"It is none of the business of CSI," Yaac said, "because if I exchange money with you, it is none of your business to know what I am going to do with it."
In December 1999, the corruption issue erupted during an annual meeting of elected SPLA leaders. At the center of the debate was Mario Muor Muor, at the time second-in-command of the Sudan Relief and Rehabilitation Association, the rebel agency that deals with outside aid groups. In an interview four months before his death this January, Muor said a cadre of southerners who accompanied Eibner into the south -- most of them SPLA officials -- were selling donated medicines, skimming hard currency and inflating the ranks of real slaves with impostors.
"Redemption to me has lost meaning," said Muor. "It has become a business since people are profiting. So for me, redemption is just a scandalous act."
After the debate, the SPLA's chairman, Col. John Garang, wrote a letter forbidding Eibner's earlier escorts to travel with him. CSI and other redeemers were to work instead with the rebels' relief arm. The change failed to quell suspicions, however, because the relief arm's chief executive had been among the original Eibner escorts.
"You may be changing one mafia for another," said Kwaje, the SPLA spokesman.
In July 2000, former SPLA commander Aleu Ayieny Aleu circulated an open letter complaining that rebel captain Akec Tong Aleu, who was also a relative, had been coerced by rebel officials into posing as an Arab middleman. "It was a hoax," said Aleu, now head of OSIL, a land mine clearing agency here. "This thing has been going on for no less than six years."
In Turalei, where the aid worker recognized children wearing feeding center bracelets, a colleague recognized the purported slave trader as a local rebel relief agency official, according to the aid worker, who asked not to be further identified for fear of retribution by rebel officials.
By many accounts, individual rebel commanders are deeply involved in redemption scams. Several southern Sudanese and senior officials singled out Paul Malong Awan, a front-line commander in Aweil County whose wealth is quantified in wives, which are said to number near 40.
"There are some commanders who you, more or less, call them warlords," said Kwaje, who mentioned Awan. "They can more or less do things without accountability."
Neither Awan nor Capt. Akec Tong Aleu could be reached for comment.
Meanwhile, some Christian groups have distanced themselves from redemption. Christian Solidarity Worldwide, which formed when an English baroness, Caroline Cox, left CSI in 1997, now ferries medical supplies into Sudan's ravaged south instead of cash.
"We're aware the system is open to abuse," said Tina Lambert, the group's advocacy director.