As a nine-year-old
boy tending his family’s goats he witnessed his village
burned by the Sudanese Army and many killed. Abducted and
enslaved in northern Sudan less than a year later, he endured
nightmarish treatment by his captors that made him feel like
TODAY: iAbolish estimate there are as any as 27 million
people enslaved around the world today. PICTURE: Joe
gave me to one of his relatives as a gift,”
Deng recalls of how he became a slave. “From
then on I didn’t see the man again. That was
the beginning of the nightmare.”
“I had a lovely
family,” says Simon Deng, founder of Sudan Freedom Walk
and a speaker for the American Anti-Slavery Group (iAbolish.com).
His father, a farmer in the village of Tonga, sent his children
to Christian school. “We witnessed houses burned down
constantly by government troops from northern Sudan,”
Growing up, Deng received an explicit warning from his parents.
“We were told if you see the Arab troops coming you
have to run for your life." Once while he tended his
family’s goats he heard the unmistakable rumble of German-made
troop transports. When they rolled to a stop, soldiers poured
out and began to burn most of the huts, kill the men, and
steal any livestock they could grab.
Miraculously, Deng and his family escaped death. They decided
to move to the relative safety of a larger city - Malakal,
and rented a house near the Nile River. They befriended an
Arab family that lived next door and the children often played
One day, one of the men next door announced he was traveling
to northern Sudan by steamboat, and asked nine-year-old Deng
to help with his suitcases. After everything was loaded, the
man asked if Deng would stay and watch his luggage while he
ran a quick errand in the marketplace.
Deng sat dutifully watching the man’s belongings as
the minutes ticked by. Suddenly the boat started to leave
the dock and the man had not returned. Terrified, Deng started
to cry. A few minutes later - with the ship well underway
- the man reappeared and tried to calm the boy down.
“Don’t cry…it’s impossible to turn
this boat around,” he said. “We have to go to
the last destination in the north, where they have other boats
going south. I will put you on a boat going south."
Sadly, the man deceived his young companion. “He tricked
me,” Deng realized later. “He had things in his
mind I didn’t know.”
When the steamer arrived in Kusti, Deng discovered there were
three other children on the boat abducted by the same man.
“He took us to his village and when we arrived everybody
was very excited that he had come from the south and brought
Deng struggled to comprehend what was happening. “We
were confused kids, not knowing what was going on.”
“He gave me to one of his relatives as a gift,”
Deng recalls. “From then on I didn’t see the man
again. That was the beginning of the nightmare.”
After his abductor disappeared and the family tried to explain
his new reality, the boy started crying. “To stop me
from crying they beat me up.” Then they brought him
a photo of a man with no legs. “They showed me this
in case I thought of running away,” Deng says. “They
said they would capture me, cut my legs, and I would end up
looking exactly like the man in this picture.”
Beatings, threats and terror became powerful weapons of intimidation.
“If they called me and I didn’t say ‘yes’
loudly, I was beaten,” Deng says. “I had to say
yes to everything; I forgot how to say no.”
There was no running
water in his new home, so one of his first duties was to fetch
water from the Nile. “Since they had a slave, I did
the work formerly assigned to a donkey.” When he lifted
the water he often gave the sign of the cross, which helped
him forget his pain. “I was the first to get up in the
morning and the last to go to bed.”
The family would not let Deng eat with them. Instead, he waited
until they finished, and if there were any table scraps left
over, that became his meal. If there were no leftovers, he
was treated worse than an animal,” Deng recalls.
“I had to get the grass to feed the animals.
I had to clean the place of the animals. I didn’t
have a bed, so I slept in the place of the animals.”
“I was treated
worse than an animal,” Deng recalls. “I had to
get the grass to feed the animals. I had to clean the place
of the animals. I didn’t have a bed, so I slept in the
place of the animals.”
In the midst of this inhumane treatment, his slave masters
held out a carrot. “They always asked me if I wanted
to be treated like a human being,” Deng recalls. “They
said if I converted to Islam I could become their son and
be given an Arab name.”
Afraid to say no, Deng told them he would let them know later.
“I was buying time,” he says. The thought of converting
to their faith terrified him. “How could I become a
Muslim and become their son when I know for sure I have a
lovely mother and dad and brothers and sisters?” he
After three years of captivity, Deng’s new family moved
to the larger city of Kusti so their sons could attend high
school. One day Deng was in the marketplace and spotted three
men with tribal marks on their foreheads which indicated they
were from Deng’s tribe in the south - the Shilluk tribe.
Deng ran to the men and breathlessly began to explain his
predicament. “I threw everything at them to convince
them I am a Shilluk,” he says, although he didn’t
have the identifying marks on his forehead. (His abduction
took place before this rite of passage.)
These men - from a different village than Deng’s - seemed
to want to believe him, but were not entirely convinced. “We
know someone from your village visiting Kusti,” they
told him. “We can bring him back tomorrow to meet you.”
“I was disappointed and started crying,” Deng
recalls. With his hopes for freedom aroused, how could he
wait another day? But the three Shilluk tribesmen convinced
him they would keep their promise to return.
During the next 24-hours Deng wrestled with God. “The
light seemed to come out of nowhere...would it turn dark again?”
How could God show him this glimmer of hope and then abandon
The next day Deng went to the place they chose at the appointed
time. When he saw the three Shilluks and the man they brought
with them, his heart leaped. It was someone he knew from his
village! He ran to the man, who looked at him incredulously,
staring as if he was a ghost. The man grabbed Deng around
the neck and began to hug him like the prodigal’s father,
as tears of joy flowed copiously down their cheeks.
“I thought you were dead,” he exclaimed. “Your
father offered 10 cows as a reward for any person who could
find you. After two years we assumed you weren’t alive.”
The man, named Ajack, told Deng he would do anything to free
him from slavery. They all agreed continued secrecy would
be vital. If his captors discovered their meeting, Deng knew
they would take him to a place he would never be found.
The next day Deng met Ajack at the docks, where the elder
man purchased two southbound tickets on a steamboat. “He
took me back to southern Sudan where I was reunited with my
was chaos…it was a glorious day!” Deng
says of his return home.
Today, Deng struggles
to describe his homecoming, mimicking the Apostle Paul’s
reticence to describe his glimpse of heaven. “Everyone
was filled with joy, but at the same time they couldn’t
believe someone they thought was dead showed up in front of
them,” Deng recalls. “Everybody was happy but
everybody was crying.”
“When I first saw my brothers and sisters it was such
a shock to me and them,” he says. As word spread of
the reunion, the entire village was at the family’s
door. “It was chaos…it was a glorious day!”
Everyone in the village thanked God, and viewed the return
as a miracle.
“I was born again from the miserable life I was kept
in, and returned to a family who loved me.”
As life slowly returned to normal, Deng struggled to put the
past behind and deal with continued fears of abduction. One
of his first acts was to put the Shilluk marks on his forehead,
as a reminder of his identity. “Every time I thought
about the past it was like a nightmare,” he says. “I
had to forget what I went through and go on like a regular
In his teens, Deng became a national swimming champion and
worked as a messenger in the Sudanese parliament. Later, he
emigrated to the US, where he currently works as a lifeguard
on Coney Island. In March 2006, he started the Sudan Freedom
Walk as a way to publicise continued injustices in Sudan.
On the Freedom Walk, he traveled 300 miles from the U.N. headquarters
in New York to the Capitol Building in Washington D.C., and
had a special meeting with President Bush in the White House.
“A jihad was declared against southern Sudan in 1983
against anyone who would not follow Islamic law,” Deng
notes. “There were two million southern Sudanese slaughtered
and seven million refugees,” he says, which created
an unprecedented humanitarian crisis.
Deng faults the Western press for not covering the crisis
sooner. “Because the Arabs were killing infidels in
the name of Islam nobody wanted to talk about it,” Deng
notes. “Their mission was to loot cattle, kill men and
women, burn villages and take the young ones into slavery.
Even fellow Christians didn’t want to talk about it.
People were afraid of being accused of being anti-Islam or
“As Christians, we were being slaughtered because of
what we believe in,” he says. “When I came to
this country I asked what happened to our fellow Christians.
This happened to us because of the book you brought us.”
Despite a peace agreement signed between northern and southern
Sudan in January 2005, war continues in the Darfur region
of the country, where Arab militias allied with the north
engage in ethnic cleansing. The fighting has displaced hundreds
of thousands, with many seeking refuge in neighboring Chad.
still going on today,” Deng notes. “They want
everyone to become a Muslim,” he says. “The child
born today in Darfur doesn’t know if he or she is a
Muslim and most important never committed any crime. We can’t
be silent as human beings when atrocities are being committed
before our own eyes.”
As a former victim, Deng has an acute awareness of their pain.
“How can I live in freedom and go to sleep at night
when villages are still being burned, women raped, and kids
taken into slavery?”
was first published by Assist News Service (www.assistnews.net).