Northwest Center for Holocaust, Genocide and Ethnocide Education
Escape from Slavery - Overview written by James Lehman.
One could believe that slavery and genocide are atrocities of the past; however, Mr. Bok descriptions of his first hand experiences and struggles with slavery and of the genocide in his native country of Sudan gives strong evidence to the contrary. Bok details his childhood as a slave in Sudan and also his journey in fighting slavery as an abolitionist in the United States.
Francis Bok is currently an associate of the Boston-based American Anti-Slavery Group (AASG), and frequently speaks throughout the United States sharing his experiences as a slave in Sudan. Mr. Bok enjoyed a childhood that was common to many Dinka children in Southern Sudan. He played with his siblings and worked on his father’s farm. However, things would drastically change for Bok at the age of seven when the Murahaliin (Northern Sudan Militia) raided his village and local market, kidnapping the women and children, while killing the men. Bok was one of the many children that were captured and taken from their homes of Southern Sudan and forced into slavery in the Arab dominated Northern Sudan.
Bok was enslaved by an Arab man named Giemma, who immediately informed Bok that he must become Muslim and take the name of Abdul Rahman. Even though this was Bok’s new name, Giemma and his family would often refer to him as “jedut” which is the Arabic word for maggot. For the first five years Bok was in charge of taking care of the goats and eventually earned the trust of Giemma and was placed in charge of tending the cattle. His task was to make sure that the animals received enough food and water. This required Bok to take the animals to grazing areas with enough feed and also periodically take them to the water hole. During this time Bok was not allowed to speak his native Dinka language which led to feelings of isolation. He became so fearful of Giemma that he would concentrate solely on making sure the animals were fed and looked after. Geimma would frequently remind Bok that if he ever tried to escape or disobey orders that he would either be killed or that his arm would be chopped off. As the time passed Bok realized that he needed to get away from Geimma and his family. Bok would unsuccessfully try to escape twice, but to his surprise he was just beaten; rather than killed or severely wounded. He realized that Giemma had become dependent on his work on the farm. Finally at the age of 17, Bok successfully escaped the enslavement of Giemma and fled into a nearby town of Mutari.
Bok’s freedom did not last long in Mutari. He went to the police department for help, but instead he was enslaved by the police. After several weeks Bok fled from the police department and found a ride to ed-Da’ein from a friendly truck driver named Abdah. Abdah was very sympathetic towards Bok and would eventually help Bok and buy him a bus ticket to Khartoum. This is the point when Bok realizes that not all Arabs are evil slaveholders like his former master, Giemma.
In Khartoum Bok is overwhelmed by large population of over 5 million people; however, he was relieved because he was fee. He immediately discovered a refugee camp comprised of many Dinka people from Southern Sudan. Bok talks to many people and learns that nobody knows anybody from his former village and that his story is one of many; raids and war between the north and the south had been going on for some time. He discovered that the raids and the Civil War had left millions of Dinka dead and driven millions more to the north in search of refugee camps where they hoped to find safety. Bok continued to talk to many people in the refugee camp and extensively shared his story of being a slave in Sudan. Unfortunately for Bok, word got out to the police and the authorities that a Dinka boy was going around Khartoum and telling people that he was held as a slave in Sudan. Bok was then apprehended by the police and was beaten and threatened and was informed that he was never held as a slave and the police accused him of telling lies. Bok remained in jail for over 7 months before finally being released under the condition that he would remain silent about his past as a slave. Immediately after being released Bok decided that he wanted to get out of the country and within a month he found himself in Cairo, Egypt.
Once Bok reached Cairo he applied and was eventually accepted for United Nations refugee status and was informed that he would be placed in the United States. He later found out that he was going to be placed in Fargo, North Dakota. For the first year in America Bok tried to adapt to the American lifestyle. He tried multiple jobs including making pallets, making stick shift knobs for the Great Plains Plastic Company, working for a meatpacking company, and housekeeping at the Holiday Inn. Bok expresses his feelings that opportunities are limitless in America, especially compared to the oppression in Sudan. Bok was content at this point in his life; however, he wanted to find a way to help other Dinka slaves in Sudan.
In 2000 Bok was approached by a man who worked for the American antislavery organization (AASG). He explained to Bok the purpose of the organization and immediately Bok decided to move to Boston and begin working for the organization. His job was simply to share his story to large audiences with the purpose of spreading awareness of the atrocities in Sudan. He spoke to a wide range of audiences, ranging from small groups at churches, to thousands of people at the Lincoln Memorial. In 2002 the Sudan Peace Act passed in congress and Bok was invited to the White House to witness the signing of the bill. Bok ended up shaking hands with President Bush and told him, “…if the boys and girls still in slavery could know that today you singed a law to help set them free, their faces would light up in hope. I also want to remind you that you’re the first President in one hundred and fifty years to meet with a former slave – myself.” The Sudan Peace Act stated that the Sudanese regime is committing genocide and provided $300 million in U.S. aid for rebuilding the infrastructure in Southern Sudan. The law also required the Secretary of State to report on war crimes on Sudan, including slavery. Furthermore, the bill gives the President the authorization to ban U.S. stock exchanges on all oil companies operating in Sudan.
In Bok’s own words this book is “an attempt to offer documentation of the existence of slavery in Sudan.” He wants people around the world to know that 2 million people in Sudan have been killed, along with 4 million displaced from 1983 – 2003. Furthermore, he wants to spread awareness about the 27 million people around the world that are slaves today. Bok plans on one day going back to Sudan to retrieve what he lost by growing up as a slave; the culture and traditions of his people. Francis Bok, a Dinka man who was held in bondage for 10 years would become a leader of the AASG and play a crucial role in getting the White House to sign the Sudanese Peace Act.
For the Educator
This would be a valuable text for a social studies classroom. Escape From Slavery provides a firsthand account of slavery residing in the world today, specifically in Sudan. According to the Fry Readability scale this text reads at a 8th to 10th grade level. The book is easy to follow since Bok describes his past experiences in chronological order, while also including material regarding the history and current problems in the African country of Sudan. For example, there is great description of the battle between the Southern and Northern Sudanese people beginning on page 227:
“…the endless war in Sudan between the Muslim Arabs of the north and the people of the south, many of them, like my parents, Christians, but most of the animists, devotees of traditional religions centered around the spirits of their ancestors. I explained that the Islamist government of the north wanted our cattle, our land, and the vast reserves of oil underneath it, but they wanted no part of us Dinka – except as cheap labor or slaves…During most of the 1980s and ‘90s, Khartoum allowed military units and local militia groups near the border between the north and the south to raid the villages of the Dinka – killing men, enslaving women and children, and turning villages into smoking huts.”
This reading provides students with a general understanding of the crises in Sudan. There is also a graphic description of the kidnapping of Francis Bok and other members of his tribe on pages 9-12 that could be a powerful source to use in a classroom:
“Suddenly, everyone was running in every direction. “The murahallin are coming!” And whenever the people scattered, they ran into men with guns entering the marketplace. First men on horses, shooting people with bursts of fire and smoke from their rifles. Then men on foot, running and shooting and slashing at people with their long knives. Not ten men, not twenty, but many more, more than I knew how to count, maybe hundreds of men riding and running into the marketplace, shooting and hacking people to the ground with their swords.”
Along with descriptions of genocide and slavery in Sudan, the text also describes some of the difficulties that refugees face when they are placed in the United States. There are well written details of the hardships Bok personally faced when he arrived in America on pages 153-178. A powerful piece that could be used in a class is when Bok describes the appreciation he has for a place like America versus a place like Sudan where slavery still exists. Bok states:
"That was one thing that really struck me about life in America: everyone was well educated. Among my people in Sudan, few had been to school. In America, I discovered that even three-year-old kids were in school. You did not need money to be able to get an education. America seemed to try to give everyone a chance. If you went to school and worked hard, you could make a wonderful life for your family. I saw it all around me, not just among the Americans, but also my Dinka friends. In Sudan and Egypt, opportunities were available only to a few.” (p.176)
This would be a great piece to use in a class to inform students on the difficulties that are faced by students and kids in other parts of the world. Furthermore, it could show students how privileged they are to be living in a place where slavery no longer exists. Overall, I would highly recommend this text for any class that plans to examine current issues, genocide, and difficulties faced by refugees in the U.S.