Copyright © 1996 Copyright © 1996 Times of London KHARTOUM, Sudan (Mar 15, 1996 11:45 p.m. EST) -- Thousands of southern Sudanese children, captured by northern Arabs in Sudan's long running civil war, have been sold into slavery or forced to convert to Islam, according to clandestine Christian groups working for their release. According to documents obtained by The Times, and interviews with victims of slavery, the practice has been quietly condoned by the Islamic regime in Khartoum. Most of the slave children come from the Dinka, Nuer and Shilluk tribes, nomadic pastoralists who have been traded for centuries as slaves by their northern neighbours. But since the Khartoum regime armed ethnic Arab tribes like the Bagara of Kordofan and Dhafur, the practice of slavery has increased dramatically. The Nuba from central Sudan and the Toposa from the remote south close to Kenya have also fallen victim to the trade in human beings. Using a network of undercover Dinka chiefs posing as labourers in Kordofan and neighbouring Dharfur provinces, the church groups have managed to smuggle 1,000 children away from their "owners" and reunited them with their parents. The undercover agents against slavery said that they estimated at least 3,000 other children remain to be released. "The slavery is obviously racially based. Black people are considered slaves by this regime, whatever its claims to adhere to the Koran's teachings on the equality of men," said a cleric behind the anti-slavery operation. Testimony from southerners in Juba, close to the border with Uganda, shows that while cargoes of arms head south as part of Khartoum's war efforts, barges and planes return to the north carrying children. Those like "Sarah," taken by officers, end up as unpaid domestic workers. "I am well treated here," she said. "I look after the officer's children, and they feed me every day." Others have been found in Wad-el-Hanan village, 200 miles southeast of the capital. They are well fed, taught the Koran, but drained of a pint of blood each week which is then sent to the front line. The older children, under cover operators said, were given weapons training and sent to fight against their Christian and animist tribesmen in the south. This week a church group has sent a team of lawyers and undercover workers to try to rescue 21 children, whose lives are much worse. They have been found working in fields owned by Arab landlords after being sold into slavery by the Bagara in South Dharfur. In addition, a lawyer has been hired to sue for the release of Abuk, 14. She was captured from her parents in South Dharfur four years ago and sold to a man called Ali. "He treated her brutally and she managed to run away. She was taken in by another Arab, called Ahmed in Fardos -- a small village close to el-Fasher, capital of the province. He took over ownership of the child," said her case worker. Abuk's new owner was tracked down by the man who bought her. The two quarreled, and then took the case to their chief. The elderly local leader referred Abuk and her rival owners to the police, who demanded bribes. They appealed to the local Sharia court which, rather than end Abuk's nightmare, opened another chapter of horrors. Having been converted to Islam by her first owner, Abuk is now called Amasha Ali. The court has ruled that she cannot therefore be released into the care of "infidel" Christians, even if they are her parents. Treated with as little regard as an animal, someone has also raped Abuk, who is now four months pregnant. "Her parents are desperate, and so are we. We are having to fight in the courts for the freedom of a girl kidnapped from her own parents," said her case worker.

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