Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Tamara Banks and the Long Journey of 21st Century Slaves

Sudan,Slavery,Sudan Civil War,Genocide,Darfur
Newly freed slaves in southern Sudan wave their arms in joy, celebrating their freedom.

I try not to write about “crisis” news in Africa, like the war in the Congo, pirates and anarchy in Somalia, Darfur, AIDS/HIV, etc. because there are enough of these reports in the mainstream media, so much so that it creates decidedly negative ideas and perceptions of Africa for those people who haven't visited the continent. Generally, I’ve looked for stories that convey more of the richness and complexity of the Motherland, trying to focus more on culture and less on politics. But being objective and truthful about difficult conflicts and problems is also part of being a responsible journalist. Slavery is a very real problem in Sudan, and more people need to be informed about it so that activists, human rights organizations and abolitionists can get the support they need to help end it.

To answer the question of how ongoing practice of slavery can exist in the 21st Century in Sudan, one has to examine the nexus of race, culture, religion and ethnicity that fuels the problem. Historically, Arabs have been practicing slavery and human trafficking in East Africa for centuries, using a perversion of Islam to justify the tradition by “converting” the infidel slaves into Muslims. Perhaps leaders like Omar Bashir will say that there is no slavery in Sudan, because someone owed a certain family cattle or some other debts, and the “servants” are repaying those debts. Of course, we must remember that Bashir has been indicted by the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity in Darfur, and he has been shrouding his government's activities there. The reality is that a cruel form of slavery and human trafficking is happening in Africa, in the new Millennium, just beyond our peripheral vision of Darfur.

Tamara Banks' experience and her documentary, "The Long Journey Home" is a story with many intersecting dimensions. Everyone should see this documentary, because slavery is a terrible affront to human dignity and decency. In our global society, this kind of repression is a test of our humanity and compassion.

Tamara Banks and the Long Journey of 21st Century Slaves

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 and 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 that 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 a nascent war 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 settlement in 2005 with President Omar Bashir’s government in Khartoum, forming a coalition government of national unity. But with large numbers of returning refugees, 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 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 implausible and mind-boggling. 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 as many as 2 million refugees are becoming a looming humanitarian crisis that would dwarf the catastrophe at Darfur.

During our interview at a local coffee shop, Tamara Banks conveys a sense of urgency as she relays dramatic stories of human suffering at the hands of oppressive forces in Sudan. Banks is using the footage she shot during her 2008 and 2009 visits to Sudan to produce “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 documentary was shot by 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 the 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.

“This is a crisis situation. People are being killed and being enslaved – if they’re not being physically killed, they’re being spiritually killed and emotionally killed,” Banks says. “All those bright minds, all those bright futures are just going down the drain in a pool of blood and it’s not right. Somebody has to speak up about that.”

Tamara Banks filming "Long Journey Home"
Tamara Banks interviewing a Christianity Solidarity International abolitionist.

Banks became involved in 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 with all of 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, describing the process CSI uses when they begin working with newly freed slaves.

“They take their pictures and photos 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 some place. They also try to monitor the ongoing situation to see if some of the same people are being captured again.”

While Banks is determined to expose television and film audiences to slavery in Sudan, she also seems overwhelmed by the historical, political and cultural complexities underlying the slave trade. Banks sees herself as traveling back to Sudan in the future, and learning more with each visit. She says that her very first trip was a stark and haunting experience; after flying in 6 or 7 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 with disbelief, remembering 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 the Janjiweed (literally translated, meaning “devils on horseback”) militia from the north 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 has devastating implications. As Banks is African American, the racial dimensions of the slavery issue are particularly disturbing, beyond the fundamental injustice of slavery itself.

“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 maintained. “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 - so it’s a religious war and it’s a racial war and it’s a political battle, and it is genocide.”

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 strong response of the Jewish community, as they understand the exigency of slavery ang genocide because of their recent history with 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 Africans Americans and Africans have a similar bond with Africa and each other.

At one point in “The Long Journey Home,” Banks sits on a small sand dune at dusk, and speaks softly to the camera, barely being able to contain her emotions after hearing about some children who were forced to witness other children being decapitated as a punishment for trying to escape. The dead children's heads were put up in tree branches, and the children were forced to look up at the trees.

“For a child to go through that, how does one recover? How it impacted me, is it made me cry – not at that moment, because I understand that if they see us crying and upset, they will lose all hope,” Banks explained, as she spoke about navigating her own vulnerabilities to human suffering, while maintaining her role as a journalist. She concluded that journalists are “activists for the truth” and for “people who can’t defend themselves or speak for themselves.”

“When I started wrapping my mind around that then it made sense to me; it made sense to me when I would get choked up, or when I just felt my heart was in such sadness and pain for these individuals,” Banks said. “I think it’s okay to be a human being as a journalist.”

Banks described another traumatic experience where an enslaved man defied his slave master and said he was not going to be treated like the animals he was caring for. His owner pierced a wooden stake through is his lip and tied to rope to the stake, to painfully humiliate him and keep him tied like an animal, leaving him with a ghastly scar across his face.

“We hear about women and children being sodomized, and we forget about the men. How indignant - here is a grown man – a beautiful Black man – being treated like a farm animal,” Banks said, with both sadness and anger. “It just really pissed me off.”

Banks has also been inspired by the strength and fortitude of the Sudanese people, seeing former slaves triumph over demoralizing traumas and rebuild their lives. She was deeply moved by the personal experience of a chief who was overseeing the integration freed slaves into local villages. One of the women looked vaguely familiar to him, and to his surprise he discovered that the woman was actually his own daughter who had been abducted from his family years ago, as a child.

“So there are sometimes actual family reunions – and I was filming that at the time – and they just giggled and squealed that they found each other,” Banks said with a smile, yet still somewhat incredulous. “Can you imagine if your daughter was taken from you at age 7 or 8 or 10 and you don’t see her for 10 or 15 or maybe 20 years, and then there’s this reunion? You don’t know if your mom or dad died, or if your child died – and every once in a while there’s reunion that’s a real joy to see.”

Banks says there are a number of ways that people can get involved in the slavery issue, and she encourages her audiences to do their own research and educate themselves on what is happening in the region. Banks points out that there are several organizations founded by Denverites that are active in Sudan and need support. Project Education Sudan works on building schools and the Nuba Water Project provides engineering skills and resources to help people in the Nuba Mountains build dams and capture water. In addition to Christian Solidarity International, the Arab Dinka Peace Committee is an anti-slavery organization composed of Muslems who are working to free slaves and eradicate the practice.

Banks also spoke about the 1-800 GENOCIDE number, which facilitates calls to Members of Congress; the number primarily for Darfur, but callers can also engage the issue of slavery on the same number. Legislation specifically addressed to the slavery issue, House of Representatives bill HR 3844 (which former Colorado Congressman Tom Tancredo helped initiate) was introduced in the last Congress in 2007 and has subsequently stalled in the House Foreign Affairs Committee. Public phone calls, letters and e-mails to Congressmen and Senators will help create political pressure for moving the bill during the current Congress.

Banks believes that with enough collective pressure, the moral imperative of these issues will eventually force action, much like a comparatively small group of vocal activists and abolitionists helped turn the tide on slavery more than a century ago during the Civil War. Although Banks is somewhat reluctant to describe herself as an abolitionist, she feels inexorably drawn to tell the story of the suffering she has seen.

"If the definition is working efforts to free those who are enslaved, then yes, I am an ‘abolitionist.’ I guess I’m hesitant about it because it’s such an honorable thing to do, when I think of Harriet Tubman and Wilberforce and Pastor Heidi and people who are just really doing the work on a daily basis,” Banks said. “As great as they are – I’m not sure I fit in that company of excellence. But when I hear that I’m quite honored, because I’m just doing what I do as a journalist, and if that helps free people, then I guess I’m an abolitionist.”


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