MANYIEL, Sudan -- In the shade of a mango tree deep in the African bush, near the fish, fruit and vegetable market, we count the money one last time.
It is a 2-inch stack of Sudanese bills, worth $1,000 - a large sum in a poor region of the poorest country on the world's poorest continent. It would buy every commodity in the market. But that's not what we are here for.
We are here to buy a slave.
Before us, waiting abjectly on the baking, barren ground, is a sight to chill the human heart: a dozen young boys, their bodies caked with dust, their eyes downcast.
If we were Sudanese slaveholders, we might use such children for herding or for household chores in return for nothing but the crumbs from our table. We might give them Arabic names and convert them to Islam. We might use a girl for sexual pleasure, perhaps as a wife.
But we are not Sudanese Arabs. We are visitors - a longtime foreign correspondent who is white, and a Baltimore columnist who is African-American and on his first trip abroad - and our mission is not to perpetuate slavery but to expose it.
Here in southern Sudan, there can be no doubt that slavery exists. Like the heat of the sun or the onset of the rainy season, it touches the lives of all.
But in less primitive, far removed parts of the world there is debate.
Over the years the United Nations, the U.S. State Department and human rights organizations have reported and denounced slavery in Sudan. Their reports have failed to stir much public interest, and have been denied repeatedly by the Sudanese government.
In April, the U.N. special representative for Sudan, Gaspar Biro, reported "an alarming increase I in cases of slavery, servitude, slave trade and forced labor."
The Sudanese government again denied that it tolerated or supported slavery, repeating that abductions were local tribal matters.
Minister Louis Farrakhan, head of the Nation of Islam, added his voice to the debate after visiting Sudan on a much-criticized tour this year of pariah nations, including Iran, Iraq and Libya.
"Where is the proof?" he asked March 14 at the National Press Club in Washington. "If slavery exists, why don't you go as a member of the press, and you look inside Sudan, and if you find it, then you come back and tell the American people what you found?"
That is how we find ourselves on April 26 at the end of a long journey, counting Sudanese money in a village we've never heard of, preparing to buy a fellow human being and then return him (or her) to family and freedom.
Such proof of slavery, we feel, will be impossible to refute and difficult to ignore.
The trail to our fateful appointment in Manyiel begins a month earlier with interviews in Baltimore and Washington. Neither of us knows much about Sudan, so we seek out those who do.
We learn that it is one of the remotest, most disease-ridden and dangerous places on earth. To witness slavery, we must go to the front lines of a civil war [See Sudan, 22a] between the Islamic government, ruling from the north, and the black African tribes in the south.
Because the fundamentalist Sudanese government denies the existence of slavery, we must enter the country without its knowledge to investigate.
Our hosts will be the rebels, mostly members of the non-Arab Dinka tribe. They tend to be very tall and very black. Most practice Christianity or the traditional African animist religion of spirits and demons.
Their ragtag force is called the Sudanese People's Liberation Army. For 13 years, the SPLA has been fighting the Khartoum-based government, which uses both its army and tribal militias in an attempt to enforce a strict Islamic rule. The State Department estimates that more than 1.5 million people have died in this obscure war.
The Islamic fundamentalist regime's militias, which operate as the Popular Defense Force, are not paid by the government, we are told. Their compensation is as old as war itself: everything they can seize in the conquered place, including men, women and children.
"The government sends the [Muslim] Baggara warriors from tribes of the desert," says Sister Lucy Paganoni, who has spent years in Sudan with the Comboni Missionary Sisters. "They attack villages, burning produce, killing people. They take away young men and women. No one knows where they come from or where they go."
THE LOGISTICAL challenges of our mission are enormous, and so are the ethical ones. Can it be right to buy a slave under any circumstances?
Our misgivings are reinforced during a conversation in Washington with William O. Lowrey, a Sudan expert with the U.S. Presbyterian Church who argues against buying a slave's freedom.
"It passes the money on to the merchant, which is a way of supporting the ongoing slave trade," he says. "It's a Western orientation toward individualism to think that we can buy a slave back and set one free and we have done something good. But actually the money is used to support the institution of slavery.
"Do we make deals with terrorists? Do we pay a ransom? Won't that encourage additional hostage taking? Buying back slaves - doesn't that encourage additional slave trading?"
It is not the first time this question has been raised. Before our own Civil War, abolitionists initially opposed buying freedom for slaves as a silent endorsement of the concept of man as property. But later, some decided it was the best and quickest way to advance emancipation.
In the mid-1800s, pro-abolitionist newspapers helped to buy the freedom of slaves to tell their stories of oppression to readers.
We take encouragement from this journalistic precedent as we contemplate our own mission. For any slave we might purchase, we reason, the result will be freedom - an obvious good.
It is true that the money we might spend buying a slave's freedom would represent a contribution to the economy of slavery. But, slavery seems to be flourishing already with or without our dollars.
As journalists we see potential value in exposing slavery, a practice so abominable as to be beyond argument, to the public and to organizations that might be moved to do something about it.
The particular form of exposure we are contemplating - buying a slave and telling his or her story - seems more likely to be heeded by a thus-far indifferent public than the drier, less personal reports from governments and human rights organizations. Based on this reasoning, we are inclined to proceed.
A CALL FROM Switzerland suddenly moves us from the theoretical to the practical.
Christian Solidarity International, a small Zurich-based humanitarian agency, offers to fly us into Sudan on one of its occasional, illegal, daredevil aid flights. CSI specializes in seeking out the far forgotten, helping the needy, reaching the isolated.
The invitation comes on a Thursday. We are to leave for Africa with a CSI team from London on Monday.
We expected weeks to plan the trip. Now, we have just four days.
The magnitude of the challenge sinks in as we rush to equip ourselves for self-sufficient survival. Sudan is a harsh and unforgiving land.
"That's a hairy place," advises Dr. Clive Schiff, an authority on tropical diseases with Johns Hopkins University's School of Public Health.
We will carry enough food for nine days among people whose black hair turns the color of rust from malnutrition. We will carry money belts stuffed with thousands of dollars in one of the most impoverished countries on earth. We will be unarmed in the midst of a civil war. Tropical sickness will be a constant threat.
We buy tents, mosquito nets, sleeping bags, bedrolls, candle lamps, solid paraffin stoves, Swiss army knives, hiking boots, socks, shade hats, dehydrated meals, bug repellent, foot powder - and water, bottles and bottles of it.
Our most precious possession - the $300 ceramic water filters that will protect us, once our bottles are empty, against waterborne E. coli bacteria, hepatitis and other viruses that thrive in the sweltering southern Sudan.
FROM BALTIMORE-Washington International Airport, we catch the British Airways flight to London.
In London there is just time to buy a tropical-weight cotton bush shirt, a purchase with unexpected resonance when the salesman points out that the shirt has a leather name-and-address label sewn into it. Unaware of our destination, he adds cheerily: "It's in case your body is found in a river or the guerrillas shoot you; although if they do, they will steal your shirt so it won't help anyway."
At London's Gatwick Airport, we board the British Airways flight to Nairobi, Kenya. On the flight, we join the representatives of Christian Solidarity International.
One is an English baroness, Caroline Cox, an indefatigable campaigner who spends most of her days collecting evidence of human rights violations in some of the worst places on earth or presenting it to whichever influential group will listen, be it the House of Lords, the United Nations or the U.S. Congress.
"Just call me Caroline," she says, greeting us with a warm smile and a handshake. "Baroness sounds so stuffy."
She is the mother of three, grandmother of six. But her brown hair without a speck of gray gives her the appearance of a woman much younger than 58. So does her boundless energy.
A nurse by training, she spent three months in 1986 working in the Sudanese province of Kordofan.
She is from a middle-class background, a doctor's daughter. In 1983, Britain's Conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher rewarded her with the title of baroness for her staunch resistance to left-wing ideologues who tried to dictate the content of courses in the north London college where she was teaching.
Also on the plane is CSI Executive Director John Eibner, a native of New York state and a former researcher into religion in the communist world. He is a slight figure with light brown hair streaked with gray at the temples, a sparse beard and glasses. He is professorial, bookish, an intense, quiet man, driven, like Cox, by enduring outrage over inhumanity.
In March, the two testified to Congress on slavery in Sudan. They have told the same story in London and Geneva, Switzerland: of villages being raided, of men murdered and women and children carried off to enslavement, of one 9-year-old girl held as a concubine while her family tried in vain to buy her back.
On the flight, Eibner says the main targets of the Muslim slavers are members of the million-strong Dinka tribe in the province of Bahr el Ghazal. That's where we are headed.
"The Sudanese government has armed the militia to go on these raids but doesn't pay them," says Eibner. "The government points them in the right direction, and they are paid with whatever booty they can get, property or human beings."
But, he adds, there is now a system whereby middlemen negotiate the release of Dinka slaves from their Muslim masters and sell them back to their families.
Even before we left the United States, Jemera Rone of Human Rights Watch/Africa, who visited Sudan last year, told us of the system. "The middlemen do perform a function," she said. "They travel hundreds of kilometers, transporting people. But they want money."
The last time Cox and Eibner made the trip, they left enough money to purchase the freedom of 22 slaves. We explain that we don't want to leave money. We want to witness the slave trade at the closest possible range, to actually buy a slave, to become, however briefly, slave owners.
Success, says Eibner, will depend on whether a middleman happens to be nearby with slaves.
"There is an open area where they have an ordinary market that sells salt, fish and other produce," he says. "The slaves are sometimes brought back there. But the Arabs have to be paid for their liberty."
His description brings to mind an earlier conversation with Mike Dotteridge of Anti-Slavery International in London.
He painted this picture for us: "What you are really talking about is large areas of no-man's land in which there is endless profiteering on every commodity under the sun, and it happens to include captives."
STRANGELY AS WE learn more about Sudan and get closer to the grim venture, a certain calm replaces earlier concerns.
We transfer immediately from Nairobi's Jomo Kenyatta International Airport to a more discreet strip across town, where a chartered single-engine Cessna Grand Caravan waits. We want to spend as little time on the ground in Kenya as possible.
But then we hit our first delay. The rebel army, whose members will be our hosts and protectors in Sudan, want to postpone the trip. They fear for our security. The government's twice-yearly military supply train is in the area, and the accompanying militias are carrying out raids against Dinka villages.
We learn that Cmdr. Younis Tag el Din, leader of a recent militia raid, left a handwritten message for the rebels, saying: "In the name of God, the Merciful. Outlaws - peace be with you. We ask you to be alert for we are coming to you at Nyamlell. Our force is 1,800 strong. We ask you to be prepared for we are coming to you at 3 a.m."
The name Nyamlell has an ominous ring. It is our first destination in Sudan. It was last raided by Muslims a little more than a year ago, March 25, 1995, when they killed 85 people and carried away 280 men, women and children as slaves.
Some 150 of the victims of the March raid are unaccounted for, according to local officials. The rest either escaped en route to the north or were bought back by their families.
It is so late when we take off from Nairobi that instead of flying directly into Sudan, we have to stay overnight at a bush pilots' camp in Lokichokio, northern Kenya. It is an oasis of tents and tukuls, the round mud-walled, cone-thatched African native homes. Here are cocktails, cooked food and cold showers - our last for several days.
Over dinner the bush pilots, who frequently fly into government-controlled areas of Sudan to deliver food and medicine, tell us the Sudanese army appears to be well-armed and supplied and of high morale. We, though, will be with the rebels, a bootstrap force that pays little attention to appearance but a lot to tactics and marksmanship - essential skills for guerrilla fighters who go into battle with as few as five bullets each.
The bush breakfast is scrambled eggs at 5:30 a.m. "Welcome to your first African dawn," says the jolly baroness.
Greg Kane laughs, then asks: "What time does the slave market open up?"
zTC Says Eibner: "It's not like a slave market of the past, with slaves chained up. It's an ordinary market, where slaves sometimes turn up."
As we collect our bags for the next leg of the journey, the soft, silver luminescence of the African dawn spreads across the eastern sky, silhouetting the plane trees in a spectacular, reddening start to a day that will take us closer to the dark edges of modern slavery.
What others say
"Is there a name for a million square miles of suffering? Yes. It is called Sudan."
Robert A. Seiple, president of World Vision United States, in the 1996 policy paper "Sudan - Cry, the Divided Country"
"The government of Sudan remains an egregious violator of internationally recognized human rights. Over the past year, we have seen increasing reports of slavery and forced labor of women and children belonging to racial, ethnic and religious minorities."
Madeleine K. Albright, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, in a November speech
"The government of Sudan continues to try to transform by force the ethnically and religiously diverse country into an Arab Islamic state, against the wishes of the vast majority of the population."
Baroness Caroline Cox and John Eibner of Christian Solidarity International, after visiting southern Sudan in April and May
"What is happening in Sudan today is a continuation of [the] brutal and heinous system of Arab slavery and cultural hegemony and imperialism to which the world has turned a deaf ear and blind eye."
Augustine A. Lado, chairman of the Coalition Against Slavery in Mauritania and Sudan, in testimony to Congress in March
"They [government troops and militia] have conducted scorched earth campaigns against southern villages and civilians, looting and kidnapping women and children for use as slave or forced domestic labor, a form of war booty."
Human Rights Watch, in its May report "Behind the Red Line: Political Repression in Sudan"
"Where is the proof? If slavery exists, why don't you go as a member of the press, and you look inside Sudan, and if you find it, then you come back and tell the American people what you found?"
Minister Louis Farrakhan, head of the Nation of Islam, after visiting Sudan
Coming this week
We hear harrowing accounts by those whose lives were devastated by raiders from the north, and a captive officer of the Sudanese army speaks at length.
After a grueling three-hour walk under the blazing African sun, we reach our destination: a market where we meet an Arab slave tradeer and try to strike a deal.
Pub Date: 6/16/96