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My Life as a Modern-Day Slave

By Joseph Winter

The following article appeared on the Intercessor's Network on 1/27/04

 On the surface, Mende Nazer is a bright, bubbly, confident young woman, quick to break into a beautiful infectious smile, which lights up her whole face.  Nothing to suggest that she spent eight years of her life as a slave after being captured from her village in Sudan's Nuba Mountains.  But the smile soon disappears when she talks about her past and her eyes start to well up with tears.  "I still have nightmares," she told this reporter in London three years after she managed to escape to freedom.   

"Unclean"

She was just 12 when one night her village was targeted by Arab slave raiders, who snatched her away from her loving family to be a slave in far away Khartoum.  The story of her capture and life in servitude, published in her book Slave, reads like something from the Middle Ages.  It happened in the early 1990s and she says there are is still the lot of many young girls from southern Sudan.  

She worked from first thing in the morning until late at night, washing, cleaning and ironing, without any pay or days off, sleeping in a locked shed in the garden.  At first, her mistress thought she was unclean and diseased, so she wouldn't let Mende touch the children.  But after a while, looking after the children and cooking for the family were added to her list of duties.  

She only ate the scraps left by her mistress' family - "like an animal," she said.  Eating these leftovers on her own in the kitchen was particularly demeaning for her, as sharing food is a central part of her Nuba culture, where no one eats alone.  She was often beaten and on one occasion, after preparing fried eggs instead of poached eggs, her mistress "seized the ladle out of the frying pan, and thrust the burning hot metal against my forearm.  "I cried out in agony, as she ground it, sizzling, into my skin," she wrote.  Her left arm is still badly scarred.  

"Terrified"

This is the life she was leading at the start of the 21st century.  Then, a train of events began which would eventually lead to her freedom.  Her mistress' sister, married to a Sudanese diplomat in London, had twins, so she was "given" to her to help her out.  "Well, it's easy for us to get you another abda [slave]. . . whereas I understand it's impossible for people to find one in London," the wife of a slave-dealer told her mistress.  Her new "owners" returned on holiday to Sudan, leaving her in the custody of some colleagues and she realized this was her chance to escape.  

But she spoke no English and had no concept of claiming asylum or how to survive in a bustling city of eight million people.  She went up to anyone she saw on London's streets who looked like they could be from southern Sudan and greeted them in Arabic.  After receiving endless quizzical looks and dismissals, she found someone working in a garage from Sudan and who knew someone from the Nuba Mountains.  A few days later, they waited for her outside her owner's house and told her to run away.  

What was that first taste of freedom like?

"I was terrified that they would come and capture me again," she says.  After eight years of being beaten and threatened into submission, physical freedom was one thing; mental emancipation would take far longer.  

Family reunion

When she first escaped, her family was taken to Khartoum and told to try and persuade her to return home. They were told she had been kidnapped and forced to renounce Islam and convert to Christianity.  But once the family spoke to her, she was able to tell them her true story and is now in regular contact with them. 

But she can't go to Sudan and so once every three months or so, her mother makes a day-long trip by lorry from her village to a town where there is a telephone, so they can talk.  She hopes one day to meet them again - if she can get them to another country.  

Although Slave has already been published in Germany, she says she is worried that the publicity surrounding its release in the UK might cause more trouble for her family.  "I could keep quiet because I've had my freedom but while others are still in slavery in Sudan, a part of me is, too," she says.   

Launching the book and traipsing from one media interview to another, stoking up all the painful memories, is hugely stressful; but she says this is the one thing she can do to help those she left behind.  Last year, a study estimated that more than 11,000 southern Sudanese had been abducted in 20 years, many of whom probably remain in bondage.

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