In the midst of trying to grapple with the question of modern slavery in Sudan, Tamara Banks has unwittingly found herself drawn into the eye of a horrendous storm. The former Denver KWGN Channel 2 news anchor has been traveling to southern Sudan for two years, quietly documenting terrible human rights abuses and crimes against humanity that the rest of the world has somehow failed to notice.
With her bright, sunny face and disarming smile, the 5 foot 1 inch Banks has a kind, cheerful disposition you would not expect to find in a region of nefarious slave hunters and armed militiamen carrying out unspeakable cruelties. Despite the overt dangers of being in a land where war lurks beneath the surface, and an age-old conflict between Arabs and Black Africans is evolving with new mutations, Banks clearly feels compelled by her conscience to shine a light on slavery in the 21st Century.
While the international media has heightened awareness of the humanitarian crisis in Darfur, very little has been reported concerning the ongoing conflict between the Muslim north and Christian south in other parts of Sudan. After 23 years of civil war, the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), representing the south, negotiated a peace agreement in 2005 with President Omar Bashir’s government in Khartoum, forming a coalition government of national unity. But with large numbers of returning refugees, vast amounts of arms flooding the region, inter-tribal conflicts and lack of adequate water, infrastructure and health care facilities, southern Sudan is drifting into chaos. Moreover, the ongoing practice of slavery as a tool of genocide is a form of terrorism that is undermining any potential for stability in the region.
For most Americans, slavery is something that was eradicated through the Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation; the notion that slavery can exist in the age of Barack Obama, flat screen TVs and the Internet is mind-boggling and implausible. Yet a volatile mix of history, racism, religious hatred and greed for oil is the back story to the reality of an ongoing slave trade in modern Africa. With the south holding up to 80 percent of Sudan’s oil reserves, the stage is set for further hostilities. Many observers believe that Bashir’s government is supplying arms and fomenting ethnic conflict in the region while turning a blind eye toward human trafficking, thus ensuring that southern Sudan will remain in turmoil. While a referendum for independence for the south is scheduled for 2011, the ineffective regional government and a flood of more than 2 million refugees are precipitating a humanitarian crisis that would dwarf Darfur.
During our interview at a local coffee shop, Banks conveys a sense of urgency as she talks about dramatic stories of human suffering at the heart of the oppressive forces in Sudan. Banks is developing the footage she shot during her 2008 and 2009 visits to Sudan into “The Long Journey Home,” a feature-length documentary that she plans to enter in film festivals and present to potential broadcasters by the end of this year. “The Long Journey Home” is a vivid portrait of victims, perpetrators and activists caught up in the modern day abolitionist movement. The film was shot entirely by Banks on high definition video because the region was too dangerous for a camera crew. As a journalist, the production carries Banks beyond her traditional role as a news reporter, pushing her emotions to their limits and testing her ability to remain detached as she witnesses the brutal effects of genocide.
Banks became interested in and involved with Sudan through her work as a board member of the Colorado Coalition for Genocide Awareness and Action. Fellow board member Pastor Heidi McGinnis introduced her to Christian Solidarity International (CSI), an abolitionist organization that has been working on the slavery issue in Sudan since 1995. Typically, CSI negotiates to buy slaves using Nvidia, a cattle vaccine that ironically is more valuable to the slave owners than their slaves, because Arabs in the north are completely reliant on their cattle for their livelihood. After their freedom is secured, CSI offers each former slave a “Sack of Hope” survival kit, which includes a tarp for shelter, a mosquito net, sorghum, fish hooks and a sickle for farming and building shelter. They then seek to integrate former slaves into existing communities, helping them rebuild their lives or, where possible, returning them to their original villages.
Banks pointed out that slavery in Sudan is a legacy of a scorched earth policy practiced by the north during the civil war, where soldiers and militiamen would destroy entire villages, including all their crops and cattle, and those who were not killed were taken as slaves. Returning slaves to their ancestral homes is often difficult if not impossible, because many of the slaves were captured as children and converted to Islam, and they may not remember the village they came from or even their own Christian names.
“The abolitionists interview them about when they were taken, how old they think they are, their Christian names and so on, because once they are taken into slavery, they are forced to become Muslims,” Banks said. “They take their pictures and get their height and weight, just about everything you can think about. There are several reasons for that – one is to show the United Nations and other organizations that these people actually exist. It’s not some fantasy that people have made up someplace.”
While Banks seems focused on her mission to expose slavery in Sudan, she also seems overwhelmed by the historical, political and cultural complexities of what she has witnessed. Banks sees herself traveling back to Sudan in the future, further educating herself with time. She says her very first trip was a stark and dramatic experience; after flying in six or seven planes and driving for many miles, she had her first encounter with a group of former slaves waiting to be liberated.
“That was pretty mind-blowing. There were 106 men and boys who were sitting and waiting and they were slaves, and I’m thinking, ‘Slavery now, today, really?’” Banks said softly, as if she were reliving the shock of those emotions. “On top of that, I had to have my wits about me to film this video, because I can’t lose sight of why I’m here. That was overwhelming–to be thinking about so many things at once; the emotional side as well as the production side.”
Banks pointed out that current Janjiweed (literally translated “devils on horseback”) militia are carrying out a form of slavery that has been traditionally practiced by Arabs for centuries, involving Black Africans. On the surface, both Janjiweed and the southern Sudanese seem to be Black Africans, but cultural and religious differences fuel a geographic and psychological divide that is devastating in its implications. As Banks is African-American, the racial dimensions of the slavery issue are especially disturbing, beyond the fundamental injustice of slavery itself.
Banks says her presentation to African-American groups is slightly different and more personal, although she believes that everyone–regardless of their race or background–should become involved in the Sudan slavery issue. She also feels that African-Americans and Black people in Africa can learn from the Jewish community, as they understand the exigency of the slavery issue because of their recent history with the Holocaust. Furthermore, Jewish people have a connection to Israel, and they also feel a connection to anywhere there is a Jewish community. Banks would like to see African- Americans and Africans embrace a similar bond with Africa and each other.
“Many, if not most, of the Janjiweed are Arab, but many were Black, like African indigenous Black, but they were Muslim. So there’s the Black Muslim and there’s the Arab Muslim. In this part of the world there’s a false sense of camaraderie, or a (false) common denominator,” Banks explained. “Sometimes there are Blacks killing Blacks, which is heartbreaking. When you see it, you’re thinking, ‘Wait a minute–he could be Dinka, he could be Murle, he could be from the Nuba Mountains, and they’re killing some people of their own.’ But in their mind they’re Muslim, and they believe in their Koran and they’ve practiced it and studied it and they think that it’s okay to do this. And it’s frightening. Soit’s a religious war and it’s a racial war and it’s a political battle and it’s genocide.”
At one point in “The Long Journey Home,” Banks sits on a small sand dune at dusk, and talks to the camera about barely being able to contain her emotions after hearing two children relate how they were forced to witness other children being decapitated as a punishment for trying to escape. The children’s heads were put up in tree branches, and the children were forced to look up into the trees.
“For a child to go through that, how does one recover? How it impacted me is it did make me cry–not at that moment, because I understand that if they see us crying and upset, they will lose all hope,” Banks explained, adding that she also draws strength from and is inspired by the Sudanese. “We always try to have a kind face or a smile or something. But it’s easy to do that because they’re just beautiful people. I’m not just saying that; the spirit that lives within the Sudanese is spirit that I haven’t seen in any other people. The strength and fortitude that they have is amazing.”
Editor’s note: James Ainsworth is a freelance journalist living in Denver. He can be reached through his Web site www.islandofspice.com.