This young Sudanese had to live with the animals he herded because, according to his "owner," he was an animal
Despite Toronto's chilly November temperature, Francis Bok is wearing only a light, wool suit and thin button-down shirt. It's not that the 24-year-old doesn't feel the cold. Quite the opposite! Bok was born in a small village in southern Sudan. Until his arrival in Fargo, North Dakota in 1999, Bok had never seen snow or experienced temperatures below freezing. "I looked hilarious my first winter in Fargo," he laughs. "I'd ride this second-hand bike someone gave me around town, bundled up in an oversized coat, shivering the entire time."
On this day, as he navigates his way around Toronto's downtown core from the comfortable front seat of a taxi, Bok doesn't have time to warm up with a cup of coffee or put on that oversized coat. Since he arrived in the city the day before, he has spoken to politicians about slavery in the Sudan, led a rally at City Hall and met with a non-stop stream of journalists. Most days have been the same since his autobiography, Escape From Slavery, hit the bookshelves in late October. "It's been a whirlwind," he says, sitting down for a short rest before heading to the airport and his return flight to Boston, where he now lives and works for the American Anti-Slavery Group.
Bok's reprieve is short-lived as he's asked to talk, once again, about his book. But he doesn't get tired of the topic or of recounting his years as a child slave. It's also no longer important that he might be late to the airport or that he is keeping his publicist waiting. "I need to tell this story properly no matter how long it takes," Bok says. He pleads with his publicist, who is tapping his watch: "Another few minutes. I know we won't be late."
Bok is probably right. Since he was seven and militia men in Northern Sudan forced him to live and work as a slave, he has relied on his instinct and sixth sense to guide him. He says it's because he had no choice. "I had to put myself in God's hands," he explains. "Everything else was taken away from me except my faith."
His ordeal began on a sunny, hot morning in the dry season of 1986. Bok's mother asked her son to go to the market in a nearby town to sell eggs and peanuts with some of the other children from Gourion, their tiny village. He was very proud, for it was the first time his mother had trusted him to sell the family's produce on his own. "I saw it as a first step to becoming the important man my father thought I could be," Bok writes in his book.
Within a short time of displaying the eggs and peanuts on a table under a tree, Bok saw clouds of smoke rising from the direction of Gourion and heard people in the market shouting. "Murahaliin - maybe the Murahaliin came," Bok heard people saying. Within a few minutes, the Murahaliin, riding horses and carrying machine guns, stormed the market. They shot all the men and the women and children who tried to get away. Bok wanted to hide but as he turned to run, he was captured. Placed on a donkey carrier with other children, he watched as the Murahaliin destroyed the market and stole all the food.
"I was paralyzed with shock," recalls Bok. "I'd never seen a dead person before and now I was seeing lots of them." He then adds, "I didn't know what to do. I stood up when I saw the other kids standing up. I didn't understand anything that was happening."
Until then, Bok had lived a happy life. He was born Francis Buk, the second youngest of four children and he enjoyed a comfortable middle-class lifestyle in a family of well-off subsistence farmers. Bok was Dinka, the largest tribal group in Southern Sudan. He attended a Christian church, a tradition probably started by his great-grandfather during British colonial rule. Bok and his father were very close. Although the child and his siblings didn't have to work in the fields until they were adults, Bok would lend a hand anyway, prompting his dad to nick-name him Muycharko, meaning "twelve men" in Dinka.
"I asked him why," recalls Bok. "He said it was because I was like twelve men - I never gave up. He told me that I would be a successful man one day and that I would do something important."
Bok's captors were Muslim, the largest religious group in Sudan. Since the 1950s, Sudan has been plagued by civil war as different tribal and ethnic groups vie for representation in the Muslim-ruled country. In 1983, the leaders in the country's capital, Khartoum, introduced a strict form of Shari'a law. While on paper, non-Muslims are exempt from Shari'a law and allowed to live under their own principles, in practice nothing could be further from the truth. Gross human rights abuses, including the rape of women and children, slavery, theft of cattle and crops, and the slaughtering of ethnic minorities are well documented.
Bok knew none of his country's history of violence as the donkey carrier took him many miles away from Gourion. But he was learning fast. En route, militia men shot a young girl in the head because she wouldn't stop crying. They then cut off the girl's sister's leg at the thigh to teach Bok and the other children a lesson: to keep quiet. Bok doesn't remember whether the girl ever stopped crying. But eventually the donkey carrier stopped and Bok was put on the back of a horse ridden by a single Murahaliin. The man, whom Bok later came to know as Giemma Abdullah, made the young child his slave.
For ten years, Bok was forced to sleep with and tend Abdullah's cattle. The young boy wasn't allowed to go to school or socialize with anyone, including other Dinka child-slaves he would see in the fields. He ate the family's garbage and was given a Muslim name. "I spent many years in a state of numbness," said Bok. "All I remember thinking was that my parents must be worried about me," he adds. "For the longest time, I thought of nothing else. I didn't want them to worry. I didn't want them to be scared."
When Bok was 14, he attempted to escape after he asked Abdullah, using Arabic words he'd learned, why nobody loved him and why he had to sleep with the animals. Abdullah answered Bok's questions by saying, "I make you sleep with the animals because you are an animal."
"That's when I decided I was going to run away," says Bok. "I knew I would rather die than be a slave." He didn't get far. Running along the roads, Abdullah found the teenager before nightfall. Bok was beaten and his hands and legs tied so tightly that he bled. Abdullah threatened to kill or maim him if he attempted to leave again. Bok had seen many Dinka children with missing limbs, including legs, and Abdullah told him that's what happens to slaves who try to escape. Abdullah, however, didn't kill or mutilate him, but ordered him back to work.
Bok waited for another chance of escape. He watched as every few months, Abdullah would go off for a few days and return with new cattle and other children. Abdullah was likely raiding more southern towns, as many of the kids he brought back were Dinka. But Bok couldn't confirm his suspicions, as he had no contact with anyone except Abdullah and his family. The Dinka children stayed at the farm for a few days before being sent somewhere else. "I wanted to talk to them - to reach out to them," said Bok. "I wanted to help. I knew the kids were being sold to work as slaves. But I could do nothing."
In 1996, at the age of 17, Bok did escape by abandoning Abdullah's cattle, running into the forest and walking to Mutari, a nearby market town. In Mutari, he reported his story to the police. Instead of helping him, though, the officers forced him to work and sleep in the kitchen. Bok ran away after being locked inside the station for two months.
Wandering the streets of Mutari, he befriended a Muslim truck driver who helped the teenager get to Khartoum. In the capital, he met other Dinka at a refugee camp. His goal was to search for his family, a daunting task as the United Nations estimates that nearly a million ethnic minorities live as refugees in Khartoum. Bok didn't find his parents but he still harbored the dream that they were alive. He shared his story of slavery with people he thought he could trust, but found out too late that the civil war had changed people. Members of his own tribe reported him to the police. "In Khartoum, some of the Dinka and the other tribes of the south were brainwashed to work against their own people," explains Bok. "The government doesn't want the UN to take pictures or know our stories because they deny that slavery and genocide exist. Dinka were bribed to work as spies and turned me in."
Bok was charged with making anti-government statements and accused of talking to UN officials. For seven months, he was tortured by the police. He always denied the accusations and was eventually released. There was nowhere for Bok to go except to the refugee camp. He was desperate to leave Sudan and a family at the camp helped him raise the money to take the train to Egypt. They also helped him get a passport, for he had no paper work to confirm his nationality or birth. When he received his first ever piece of identification, his spirits sank. The name beside the glossy picture wasn't Francis Piol Bul Buk but Francis Fioul Bul Bok. His birth-date was also wrong. "I was born on February 28th," says Bok. "But many refugees end up having their birthdays registered as January 1. They don't remember when they were born and so sometimes their passports say they're years older or younger than they really are. But I never forgot my birth-date," he adds. "And I never forgot my name."
In Cairo, Bok began the long process of being recognized as a UN refugee. With this status, the UN could re-settle him in another country. Every day, he and hundreds of other refugees waited in line to see if they had been accepted. When Bok finally saw his name on the bulletin board, he was ecstatic. "I felt safe for the first time," he says.
Three years after his escape from slavery, Bok flew to North Dakota to start his new life. At first he hesitated speaking about his life as a child-slave. He wanted to lead a quiet life and search for his family. But the American Anti-Slavery Group in Boston, where he now works, encouraged him to talk publicly. In 2000, Bok spoke about Sudan to senators and congressmen in Washington. Since then, Bok has given speeches alongside Coretta Scott King, Martin Luther King's widow, and was the first ex-slave to testify before the US Senate Committee on Foreign Relations. He was also present at the signing of the Sudan Peace Act with President George W. Bush.
In the United States Bok learned that his parents and sisters had been murdered by northern militia-men the same day he was taken into slavery. His older brother, John, is still alive and the two brothers have spoken on the telephone three times since being reunited in 2000. John fights the war a different way; he is a member of the Sudanese People's Liberation Army. "I told him that I was sorry I couldn't be there to carry a machine gun alongside him and fight the people who are destroying our land," says Bok. "But violence isn't the only solution and I am doing my part by telling my story to the world."
After arriving in the United States, Bok attended school for the first time and completed his high school degree. He learned English and has applied to study international relations at university. Among his duties with the American Anti-Slavery Group, Bok helped launch iabolish.com, a website highlighting the different forms of slavery that exist in the world.
The signing of the Sudan Peace Act sees the United States formally recognizing that slavery and genocide exist in Sudan. Among other things, the Act seeks to facilitate the end of the war and prosecute those who have committed war crimes. Bok won't rest, though, until Sudan has a new government based on democracy and equality between all ethnic groups and classes. His long-term aspiration is to return to southern Sudan and help rebuild the country. "I am very worried about the current peace negotiations," he says. "Peace agreements break down and have the potential to expose people to the same horrors they've endured. Sudan needs change."
Bok's father had foresight in calling his son Muycharko. In his determination to create a better Sudan, Bok has the strength of 12 men.