March 16, 2004

Modern Slave Tells His Story

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When Francis Bok met Giema Abdullah, the man whose family he would serve as a slave for 10 years, he was greeted with a beating from Abdullah’s three children.

Bok, now 23, gave his account of the realities of modern-day slavery in civil war-torn Sudan to a crowd of about 80 students in Warren Hall yesterday.

A raiding militia from predominantly Muslim northern Sudan gave Bok, a Christian, to Abdullah, having captured him during a raid on a market in southern Sudan, Bok said.

At the time of his capture, Bok was seven. For ten years he tended to Abdullah’s goats and other cattle, ate the family’s scraps, and was beaten for any mistakes, he said.

Bok, now six feet, six inches tall, joked that at the time he “wished he had been a bit taller,” so that he would not have lost any goats in the tall grass.

Bok recalled that Abdullah’s wife once told him that if her husband would allow it, she would shoot him. Abdullah also attempted to intimidate Bok by taking him to see a slave at a neighboring farm whose leg had been chopped off in punishment.

As he was denied schooling, Bok taught himself Arabic in seven months, and eventually was able to ask Abdullah about his imprisonment.

“I asked him [why] I slept with the animals, and why no one loved me,” Bok said.

The questions infuriated Abdullah, Bok said, but he received an answer to the first question a few days later.

“He told me I slept with the animals because ‘you are an animal,'” Bok recalled.

Bok attempted to escape twice in a span of two days, but was caught each time and severely beaten. Though his master promised him death after his second attempt, he reneged on the promise.

Three years later, Bok successfully fled. In a neighboring town, Bok said he befriended an Arab truck driver who cared for him and paid for his bus ticket to Khartoum.

In Khartoum, Bok lived in a refugee camp. He was eventually able to make it to Cairo, at which point his 50 Sudanese dinars had run out.

“I was out of money, but I didn’t care because I was out of Sudan,” Bok said.

In Cairo, Bok applied to settle in the U.S. through a U.N. refugee program. He learned he would be sent to Fargo, N.D.

Bok recounted that because he could not read the gate on his ticket, he spent six hours wandering around a Chicago airport. Eventually a food-court employee led him to the proper gate.

“He told me: ‘you missed your plane twice,'” Bok said.

In the U.S., Bok said he struggled to learn English make a living, and eventually moved near Ames, Iowa, where there was a larger Sudanese community.

“Egypt is almost like the U.S.; if you don’t have money, you can’t live,” Bok said of the difficulties in finding financial assistance in the two countries.

It was in Iowa that Bok received repeated phone calls from Charles Jacobs, president of the American Anti-Slavery Group in Boston, Mass. Jacobs asked Bok to join his group and tell others of his experiences in Sudan.

“When I was in slavery for ten years, I used to wonder: who’s going to come [rescue] me?” Bok said, of his decision to join Jacobs’ group.

In Boston, Bok, then 21 and with no formal schooling, enrolled in an evening school. Bok said the students there regularly mocked his age and difficulties learning, but that he was able to struggle through it.

Bok told students that, “If I was a person who gave up, I wouldn’t have come to this country. If you have education, the world is yours; when you don’t have tools you don’t know your way.”

Bok said that at his talks he occasionally encounters sharp disagreement from those who believe that slavery does not exist in Sudan. Bok pointed to accounts from international human rights groups to rebut this point, as well as his perception that many who travel to Sudan to see for themselves merely “stay in a fancy hotel and come back,” rather than venturing to refugee camps or areas outside the capital.

In recent years, Bok has testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and has met President Bush, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, and Secretary of State Colin Powell.

Of these meetings, Bok said that Albright, Powell and Bush “don’t realize how powerful they are.”

President Bush signed the Sudan Peace Act in 2002, a bill that provides $100 million for civil government and administration, as well as a framework for negotiations between the Sudanese government and the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement.

But, in part because of Sept. 11, Bok said he fears that Bush “is going to leave office before he’s done the work he promised us” in facilitating peace in Sudan.

As for Bok’s future, he said intends to enter Tufts University in the fall. Though his parents were killed, Bok said he recently found out that an older brother survived.

In the question-and-answer portion of the talk, Bok was asked to elaborate on the issues behind raids into southern Sudan. Bok pointed out that southern Sudan is oil-rich, and has a Christian population persecuted by the country’s Muslim majority. Bok also said that part of the conflict was racially motivated, as those in the south tended to have darker skin-color than northerners.

Although his captors were Muslim, Bok made clear his stance against all prejudice.

“I want to make clear that I am not anti-Arab or anti-Islam,” Bok said.

“There are wrong people in every community,” he added.

Akua Gyamerah ’07 learned of Bok through his organization’s website,, and thought Bok was particularly effective in his contention that the death toll in Sudan well-exceeds that of other areas in which the international community has intervened, such as Bosnia-Herzegovina.

For Talia Kohan ’06, a member of two of the talk’s sponsoring groups, it was “very powerful to hear a personal story” about “an international topic of great concern.”

The lecture was sponsored by Amnesty International at Cornell, the International Students Programming Board, Clara Dickson Hall, Just About Music, Community Development, and the Residential Program Board.

In closing, Bok said that roughly 27 million people live in servitude world-wide. He urged students to get involved, asking rhetorically, “What good is your freedom if you don’t use it to help others?”

Archived article by Dan Galindo