SOUTH SUDAN: Newly emancipated slaves celebrate Passover

Some 150 people surrounded Rabbi Joseph Polak under the shade of a large mango tree in southern Sudan last week. Just days before, most of them had been slaves. Most were emaciated, and many disfigured. Some still bore fresh wounds. As Polak presided over an informal seder, the former slaves celebrated their liberation from northern Sudan with matzah and storytelling.

I Abolish -(H/T Rod F)- “You have been part of a miracle, and you have to thank G-d for that,” Polak told the freed slaves. Remember this day, he said. Commemorate it. During the 23-year Sudanese civil war – which ended in 2005 – militia forces from the Arab/Muslim North swooped down on villages in the Christian and tribalist South. They shot the men and captured the women and children as slaves.

The humanitarian organization Christian Solidarity International has managed to free some 100,000 slaves through a series of complex negotiations with their masters and intermediaries, trading at first cash and now cow vaccine for freedom. 

The seder was organized by Charles Jacobs, president of the American Anti-Slavery Group. Jacobs said he was approached with the idea several months ago by a New York-based Jewish philanthropist. For Jacobs, the trip for the seder was his second this year to Sudan. He was in the country in January, when southerners voted nearly unanimously to form their own country. On both that trip and a previous one – on Passover, 2001 – Jacobs witnessed the liberation of slaves. He said Christian Solidarity is trying to free as many of the estimated 40,000 remaining slaves as possible before July, when the secession becomes official. That event might, abolitionists worry, enrage slave owners. 

The Americans spent several hours with the Sudanese, listening to their stories. Most are Dinka, the largest ethnic tribe in southern Sudan. Before being captured, they had lived in small villages with thatched huts, farming and herding cattle. Many were forced to convert to Islam by their masters. One woman, who was enslaved for 21 years, told Jacobs and the Polaks of being repeatedly raped and beaten for refusing to say Muslim prayers.

Polak, 69, himself was a small child in the Westerbork and Berge-Belsen concentration camps. “I told them, be thankful to G-d and be thankful to man,” Polak said. “In the Shoah, no one came for us, but here the people did come for them. There is a systematic effort to reach these people.”