ONE YEAR AGO, just back from his 27-day "world tour" of African dictatorships and Middle East police states, Louis Farrakhan held a news conference at the National Press Club. Why, one reporter asked, did he defend the government of Sudan, an Iran-style Islamic junta that enslaves African natives from the country's southern provinces?
Farrakhan bristled. "Where is the proof?" he demanded. "If slavery exists, why don't you go as a member of the press? And you look inside Sudan, and if you find it, then you come back and tell the American people what you have found."
Farrakhan has long insisted that Khartoum's grisly traffic in black slaves is merely an unproved rumor. But there is no shortage of eyewitness testimony laying out in skin-crawling detail the atrocities inflicted on the southern Sudanese.
"What usually happens is that Arab armed militias go into the southern villages or the Nuba mountains," reported the London-based Observer in 1995. "They burn the villages. The men are killed if they don't escape, and the women and children are rounded up … and taken to the Arab north."
These women and children are black-skinned and often Christian, unlike their lighter-skinned Muslim captors. The slavery that awaits them is both race- and religion-based, and it is unspeakable: Hard labor in the fields. Domestic servitude. Whipping. Branding. Genital mutilation. Compulsory conversion to Islam. Rape and forced marriage.
Some masters sever their slaves' Achilles tendons, to keep them from running away. Countless African teenagers are impressed into the army, cannon fodder for Khartoum's jihad against the south. "The government's hands," says Macram Gassis, a Sudanese Catholic bishop, "drip with the blood of innocent people."
Yet Farrakhan, who routinely invokes 19th-century American slavery, persistently covers up for the perpetrators of 20th-century African slavery. His newspaper, The Final Call, calls reports out of Sudan a "big lie … another manipulative device to divide the Black and Arab people in America." On a PBS program, Farrakhan's spokesman Akbar Muhammad dismissed evidence of Sudan's slave trade as a Jewish conspiracy. "I know that the Jewish groups, the Zionists, have a problem with the Sudan." Shown footage of young black captives being whipped by Arabs, Muhammad shrugged: "That's their culture. They'll beat 'em."
In the year since Farrakhan issued his challenge, two major US media outlets rose to meet it. The Baltimore Sun and "Dateline NBC" sent several journalists deep inside Sudan. What they reported was harrowing — children ripped from parents at gunpoint, town squares where slaves are distributed like booty, a man shot in the face when for trying to save a child from capture. "Here in southern Sudan," wrote the Sun's Gilbert Lewthwaite and Gregory Kane, "there can be no doubt that slavery exists."
For their heart-stopping journalism, Lewthwaite and Kane — the former a white veteran foreign correspondent, the latter a black Baltimore columnist who had never before traveled abroad — may win Pulitzer Prizes. But in the Farrakhan fever swamp, the coverup goes on.
"The Sun is a Zionist Jewish daily," ranted The Final Call. "Reject the slavery propaganda against Sudan.… Don't let the Zionists get away with damn lies!" Farrakhan swore that in all his travels to Sudan, no one had told him about slavery. "A lot of what I have been reading when it comes to life in Sudan," he declared, "are vicious lies."
But the only lies in this tale are those told by Farrakhan. Because for all his denials and demands for "proof," Farrakhan was personally told at least three years ago about the enslavement of black Africans in Sudan.
In telephone interviews last week, two leaders of the south Sudanese resistance recounted their meetings with Farrakhan in the spring of 1994.
"For two or three days, we sat at breakfast every morning," said Bona Malwal, a former Sudanese cabinet minister, recalling the week he and Farrakhan spent in Nairobi. "We talked about the situation. We talked about slavery. It came up very often.He knew blacks in the south were being persecuted. He said he had been told about the slave camps." Malwal, now editor of the London-based Sudan Democratic Gazette, said Farrakhan vowed to intercede with the authorities in Khartoum, to "tell them the way they were treating the south was not right."
When he later met in Kampala, Uganda, with representatives of the Sudanese People's Liberation Army, Farrakhan was even blunter.
"We talked to him about slavery," recalled Steven Wondu, a key SPLA official. "About the racial issue, the religious issue. I will never forget what he said: 'When it comes to a choice between religion or the dignity of the black man'" — i.e., between the Muslim masters or the African slaves — "'I will choose my skin.' From that minute, we took him for a friend."
But Farrakhan was no friend. To speak out in behalf of Sudan's black slaves would be to forfeit the patronage of Khartoum's Arab dictators. That is a price Farrakhan won't pay. So a million African innocents bleed under the lash, and he goes on making excuses for the slavetraders who whip them.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe).
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