The Lost Children of Sudan
American reporter Maria Sliwa attempts to shed light on the horrific abuses endured by the children in southern Sudan, including being forced into the army and into slavery.
Thousands of miles away, militant groups are raiding villages in southern Sudan and destroying lives. For most Americans, the troubles in Sudan remain a distant thought, but American reporter Maria Sliwa knows the children in Sudan are suffering, and she wants to bring their stories home.
Through her Freedom Now Communications Web site, her speeches in New York City and her articles on Web sites, such as WorldNetDaily and FrontPage Magazine, Sliwa attempts to shed light on some of the horrific abuses endured by many Sudanese children.
On one recent trip to a Nimule orphanage, Sliwa, 49, interviewed many former child soldiers who said they were forced to kill people. In 2002, at a village in the Bahr al-Ghazal region, she spoke with former slaves, who said they were raped by their Arab masters.
“These are physically and psychologically displaced people,” Sliwa said. “When the physical need is so great, many forget about the psychological need.”
Dennis Bennett, executive director of Servant’s Heart, a Christian aid group in southern Sudan, said any news in Sudan is difficult to publicize.
“NBC and CBS consider news in Sudan inconvenient,” he said. “Journalists have told me they’d love to cover [stories in Sudan], but it’s too dangerous, and it doesn’t have much ratings.”
With minimal press coverage, Sudan, the largest country in Africa, has been locked in civil war with the northern Sudanese who want to dominate non-Muslim, non-Arab southern Sudanese, according to The World Factbook on the CIA Web site. Since 1983, civil war and famine have led to more than 2 million deaths and more than 4 million people displaced, the Web site said.
After becoming dissatisfied with her job as a private investigator, where she said she was “making money for rich people,” Sliwa sought more fulfillment from her job. Encouraged by friends, she became more involved with the issues in Sudan and started a Web site in 2000, which promotes awareness of human rights violations in the world. Sliwa also decided to travel to Sudan to better understand what was happening there.
Recently, Sliwa, a 5-foot-1-inch woman with blonde hair, sits on a couch in Carter Hall at New York University. Sliwa returned to school as a graduate student in journalism to advance her work in southern Sudan and plans to graduate this May.
During her trip to Nimule in September 2004, she interviewed former soldiers at an orphanage. Sliwa spoke with Simon, 16, who was living at the orphanage for two years and had been a former soldier for the Lord’s Resistance Army, a paramilitary group operating in northern Uganda.
“Simon told me he was forced to chop up, cook and eat people,” she said. “If he threw up, he said [the LRA soldiers] would kill him. He says he still has nightmares about it.”
The Lord’s Resistance Army abducts children in Sudan and forces them to become fighters against the Ugandan government, according to Global Security, a Web site that promotes world peace and security.
Under the leadership of self-proclaimed prophet Joseph Kony, the young soldiers have murdered thousands of innocent Ugandans and Sudanese, Sliwa said. Many soldiers have raped, maimed, killed and ate their victims.
The government of Sudan is funding the LRA to weaken Ugandan borders and to fight against the Sudan People’s Liberation Army, the rebel fighters against the Sudan government, according to the Global Security Web site.
Sliwa traveled through Africa with the humanitarian aid group, World Missions. She went with the Rev. Samuel Childers to a refugee camp in Gulu, Uganda, to pick up six Sudanese children, who were former soldiers, and bring them back to the orphanage in Sudan.
Childers, founder of the orphanage, hopes to reunite the displaced children with their families. He said he has retrieved more than 300 children in the last two years.
Sliwa said she came to Sudan ready to report as an objective journalist, but found the role challenging when the needs in Sudan were so immense, especially with the children.
“It’s really tough when everybody is begging and desperate,” she said.
Sliwa said the orphanage houses about 40 children, from infants to age 16, and most are females or former soldiers.
At the orphanage, she spoke with two soldiers, both about 10 years in age, who were abducted by the LRA for two weeks. They were catatonic, she said. Their voices would lower to whispers, and they would drift off. So Sliwa stopped interviewing them and pointed to a pig pen outside the orphanage.
“I asked them if the [LRA soldiers] smelled like pigs,” she said. “They laughed and opened up after that. They were so frightened after their village was raided.”
Sliwa is concerned with how the trauma of violence affects children and how it will affect succeeding generations.
“I want to tell them, ‘It’s not your fault. You were the victim,’” Sliwa said.
But the LRA is just one group abusing the children in Sudan. Government-backed Arab militia groups have abducted and sold many non-Arab children in southern Sudan to Arab masters living in the north, she said.
Sliwa said since the 2002 Sudan Peace Act, the slave raids in the south have stopped. But currently, Sudan is reported to still have the largest slave population with 200,000 slaves, according to southern Sudan civil authorities.
A former slave in Sudan, Simon Deng, who now lives in New York, said southern Sudan was going through a religious war.
When Deng was taken as a slave at age 9 by Arab Muslims, he was pressured to convert to Islam. In Sudan, the North is made up of 70 percent of Sunni Muslims, and the South is made up of 25 percent of indigenous beliefs and 5 percent of Christians, according to The World Factbook.
“A slave does the work usually done by a donkey,” he said. “My Muslim family was pushing me if I wanted a better life, I had to convert, but I had a huge family, and I wanted to go back to them.”
Deng said he suffered many beatings, but was able to escape three years later.
“I consider myself the lucky one,” he said.
In addition to beatings and long hours of labor, some former slaves told Sliwa they endured much graver offenses.
When Sliwa traveled to the Bahr al-Ghazal region of southern Sudan in 2002, she said she interviewed 27 former male Sudanese slaves who said they had been raped by their Arab masters. Sliwa said she was first to reveal this horrific story in an article on the Web site, WorldNetDaily.
“I interviewed many boys who were raped or saw other boys being raped,” she said.
Sliwa said that rape is a taboo subject in the Sudanese culture.
“They will be stigmatized for life if others find out. It’s hard to get the information out,” she said.
Sliwa said the boys shared these personal stories with her because she provided a safe, confidential space to conduct the interview.
“I told them they didn’t have to please me. I was trying to get an idea of what was going on.”
Dr. Charles Jacobs, president of the American Anti-Slavery Group in Boston, said Sliwa was able to maneuver herself in an unpredictable war zone.
“Maria found out things no one else found out,” he said. “It takes a certain person to get that out of people in this culture of machismo. Someone strong and tender.”
Sliwa, who lives in Garfield, N.J., also gives many speeches at New York and New Jersey universities and congregations to bring the distant world of Sudan a little bit closer.
“If everyone did what they could for other people instead of themselves, we would not be looking at these types of tragic situations,” she said.