because we were slaves
slavery abuse in sudan
This will be the final post in this series this season. Please take the moment to donate something to the TFHT. So far we have raised $610. Your contribution makes a big difference.

Thousands of people are gathered today in DC to protest international apathy in dealing with the ongoing genocide in Sudan.

The situation in Sudan is a complicated cocktail that I won’t do justice trying to explain here. But I would like to focus on one aspect of the mess for a minute.

You may remember Aaron Cohen, the rocker turned slave redeemer we were honored to have at JTB2. He has been to Sudan many times over the past 10 years in efforts to compile accurate information about the situation there to pass on to the state department.

Whenever he is there, he also tries to redeem slaves.

Sudan experienced a 20 year civil war which ended in 2003. During that same time large populations were uprooted from their homes so as to make room for drilling oil*. These two conditions, war and displacement due to oil companies, created a population particularly vulnerable to being forced into slavery.

Slavery has been a sleeping wartime practice in the Sudan for thousands of years. The practice was reawakened in 1983 when war broke out between the Islamic north and Christian south. When a warring fraction invades a village, the survivors, usually young men and women, are taken as slaves.

Male slaves are forced to work in agriculture, or are taken by the Lord’s Resistance Army to be child soldiers in neighboring Uganda. Girls are often taken as 3rd or 4th wives. Slaves are very often beaten, maimed, raped, malnourished, and brutally killed.

While most modern slavery takes the form of Debt bondage, slavery is Sudan is of the old fashioned Chattel kind, wherein people are bought and sold as goods and treated as property. This is akin to slavery of blacks in America.

Part of what Aaron does, in conjunction with the many other people involved is that when he travels to Sudan on a fact-finding mission, he consults with local Muslim and Christian contacts to find out if there are any slaves in the area to be redeemed. If possible, he negotiates to buy them and reunites them with their tribe.

Buying a human being in Sudan costs about $50

In the photo below, you can see Aaron shaking hands with the slave owner. Notice the pile of money in between them and the slaves in the back to the right waiting to be reunited with their tribes.

redeeming slaves

If you want to get in touch with the real experience of slavery and redemption in what could still be considered the Pesach seaon, pick up Escape from Slavery by former slave Francis Bok, a Sudanese man who was kidnapped from the Dinka tribe in South Sudan at the age of 7 and forced into a life of slavery and horrible cruelty only to escape ten years later

For a good overview to help you understand the situation in Sudan a little better, try reading this page from iAbolish.

To find ways to do something about it, check out

*With an output of 200,000 barrels of oil per day the Government of Sudan reaped an estimated $500 million last year (2000). Production is projected to double or triple this year and in the coming years. Oil extraction in the Sudan has fundamentally changed Sudan’s war. It has shifted the balance of military power in favor of the National Islamic regime and has made it to shun peace negotiations, believing strongly that the solution to the war rests on military victory over the Southern rebels and other opposition groups in the marginalized regions of the country. It has helped to insulate Khartoum from world pressure to end its brutal policies against the people of the South and the Nuba Mountains. Sudan’s military dictator himself has made it public that revenues from the oil will be used to procure military hardware such as modern bombers, helicopter gun ships and other weapons to be used to prosecute the war in the South. Source.

Previous posts in this series:
Slavery in your chocolate
Erev Passover
Israel’s Sex Trade Addendum
Israel’s Sex Trade
Avadim Hayinu

About the author

Laya Millman


  • I volunteered for the rally in DC and was astounded and moved at the number of people (Jews especially) who had traveled from Detroit, Vegas, and Atlanta to be there. I met a group of elderly Jews from Indianapolis who traveled all night to get here. Props to the JCCs and shuls that organized those buses, and individuals who took the initiative. Major props.

  • Muffti is wondering: while undoubtably Aaron Cohen’s heart is in the right place, are his methods at all morally qeustionable. In other words, is it ok to partake in the slave trade by rewarding slave holders through paying cash? Or does this reward the slave takers actions by showing them to be profitable? Muffti can see thne sense in redeeming slaves in one time cases by Darfur as described seems to be a case where the threat of slave taking is constant and any redeemed slaves can be made up for by a seperate round of capture.

    So, Muffti puts it out there as a genuine puzzle that he’s confused about: a) is it a good idea to redeem slaves in Darfur and if (a) gets a no, is it b) morally unacceptable to do what Aaron is doing since it injects cash into a system of abuse, making such a system profitable financially.

  • muffti – you raise important questions. I believe Aaron is off somewhere in Asia right now, so I cannot confirm this with him, but it is my understanding that a transaction takes place between the kidnapper and the slaveholder, and between one slaveholder and another anyway. As such, when Aaron buys the slaves from someone, it is just one more, hopefully final business transaction whereby he technically becomes their new slave owner, able to do to them as he wishes. What he wishes, of course, is to simply return them to their villages. To sum up, monetary transactions are commonplace and slave redemption has not introduced the concept.

    You ask if it is a good idea to redeem slaves in Sudan, given that they might just become slaves again. Let me ask you this – If you had cancer, would you want to go through treatment, even though the risk of the cancer returning away is there? Should a child be taken out of an abusive foster care situation, even though there is a possibility that the next home the child is in might beat or molest him too?

    I think the answer is yes. Threats to our lives and our safety are always present, but who would not opt for the chance at a better life, even though there are no guarantees.

  • Both Laya and Muffti seem right–that is, one should certainly do what one can to save an individual life, since one cannot know–as Rav said–whose blood is redder. And since we’re talking about small-time and small-quantity transactions, I don’t think imported American money will do so much to create market inefficiencies through crowding-out domestic cash.

    On the other hand, one should operate to ensure a structural change, so that such payments won’t provide incentive for further capture of slaves.

    As for the ethics of the matter, I tried to deal with the general question on obligation versus future-oriented-decision-making on BlogsofZion–but here you present a different issue which is just as interesting: is it ethical to help someone do a bad thing in order to do a greater good? I think so. But it deserves a bit more thought.

  • Thanks Ariel and Laya. Laya, Muffti has to take issue with yrou analogy becuase it is missing a crucial component. Muffti wasn’t merely suggesting that slaves could become slaves again, but that putting money into the slavery system makes it a more vialbe economy, suggesting that the slave trade can be perpetuated (Muffti isn’t sure htis is true, but it seems reasonable, esepecially if the redemption is yielding a high enough amount). So, its momre like asking, should we treat cnacer given that the treatment will make you more likely to have more cancer in the future, and the answer to that is rather hard to discern muffti thinks. muffti wouldn’t take a kid out of an abusive household if he knew that the kid was more likely to be abused worse in the new palce, or if he kenw that doing so would result in 2 more kids being abused. But Ariel may be right: perhaps the amount of money in totoal doesn’t do much to the internal economy of slave trade overall. We need stats on this to know.

  • muffti, I was taking the issues you raised as two separate points, and answered them separately. Sorry if that was misguided.

    Even though it is not the slave redeemers introducing the financial game, you raise an excellent point that I wish I could consult Aaron or someone else in the field on, as I really don’t know enough details to answer.

    I think that the hope is that situation in Sudan is temporary. Slavery is an easy crime to perpetuate given the fact that there is no law enforcement, no legal recourse, and no options for many individuals. If we can work to change the current situation, it would naturally change the nature of slavery in the area. It would then have to be addressed acourting to the new reality.

    In the mean time, while rallies and sanctions can help tackle the big picture, people like Aaron are just trying to help from the bottom up, one person at a time.

    As for your atrocious typos, I can’t help you there.

  • Muffti loves his typos, each and every one of them. The torah takes work to decipher – why should Muffti’s comments aspire to less?!?

    It wasn’t totally misguided but the questions were intedned to rely upon one another. What Muffti was thinking is that the slave trade is ongoing because it is profitable, and people are held responsible for a practice insofar as they either profit from it or help it be profitable. Muffti was asking whether or not Aaron fell into the latter category since he is technically participating in the economy of slave trade by adding funds to its overall economy. Muffti agrees that this would nto be a bad thing to do if we had any hope that the conditions under which slave trading can occur are on the way out: but Muffti sees no reason whatsoever to think so: world indifference is a sad thing to see but its clearly visible.

    So, yeha, Muffti would like to hear what Aaron has to say. No doubt the situation is much more complex and intricate both physically, economically and morally than any of us are making out. All Muffti meant to suggest is that, given that Aaron is a willing buyer, he woudl seem to be creating a market for slave taking: himself. Muffti supposes that utilitarian reasoning would then lead one to want Aaron to spend his money in ways that it woudlnt’ be pumped back into the slave trade economy. otherwise he’s not really convinced that Aaron is helping so much as hindering.

  • You are absolutely right that the situation is more complex than any of us fully understand.

    With that in mind, what it seems to come down to really is the question that while he is certainly helping individuals in the short term, is he in any way unintentionally harming the long term.

    Which is an interesting moral dilemma – do you let individuals suffer for the hope of a stronger stance in the long term?

    In this specific case, I would just reiterate that Aaron is not creating the market, so the question is simply is he contributing to it. It might also be worth noting that such missions happen very in frequently, maybe once a year.

    Again, I believe that in the long term goal for Sudan is and infrastructure with enforceable laws that would change the whole slave trade equation, but with that future uncertain at best the question becomes what is really in the Sudanese people’s best interest at the current time vis a vis slavery redemption.

    It’s really not a question I am qualified to answer. I’ll see if I can ask some of the people I know in that field who might know more.

  • Both Laya and Muffti are right. But some of what slave redeemers is wrong. This article says it only costs $50 to free a slave. What it does not tell you is that a northern Sudanese slave owner will only pay $15. This big difference is causing slave traders to kidnap people not for slavery, but just to sell them to the redeemers. It also sometimes causes southern Sudanese rebels to pretend that they had been enslaved when they had not been, just for the money. Slave redeemers may continue, but they should pay lower prices.