KHARTOUM, Sudan — Abuc Thuc Akwar, a girl of 13, was in a Dinka cattle camp in March when Arab raiders appeared on horseback. They surrounded the camp, firing machine guns in the air. Then, she said, they herded up several hundred of the Dinkas' cattle, kidnaped her and 24 other Dinka children and drove them all north.
They walked for 23 days out of the swamps of Dinka land, across the Bahr el Arab River and into the desert homeland of an Arabic-speaking tribe called the Misseirya. En route, she said her captors called her an Arabic word that means "black donkey." She said they raped her four times.
After crossing the Bahr el Arab, the raiders divided up their booty. Abuc said that a Misseirya man named Ali took her home as his slave. She said she tended his sorghum fields in the daytime; at night, when he wanted her, she said she was forced to have sex with her owner.
As civil war grinds on in Africa's largest country, with more and more automatic weapons being put into the hands of tribal militias, Western relief officials and Sudan government sources say there has been an eruption of slave-taking in central Sudan that is without precedent in this century.
Tribal Practice Reborn
Abuc, who managed to run away from her owner in June and find her way to Khartoum, is one of thousands of Sudanese women and children to fall victim to a tribal practice that appears to have been reborn amid the chaos of the 4-year-old war.
Armed with AK47 automatic rifles and machine guns, unchecked by government authorities and motivated by centuries-old tribal rivalries, raiders reportedly are moving back and forth across the traditional border region that separates Sudan north from south, Muslim from Christian, Arab from African.
Southerners claim that Arab raiders, armed by the Khartoum government, have been given tacit approval to steal all the Dinka people and cattle they want. Northerners claim that southern rebels of the Sudanese People's Liberation Army (SPLA), armed by Ethiopia and the Soviet Union, are kidnaping Arab peasants and forcing them to work as porters.
"What makes this whole thing absolutely horrific is the introduction of automatic weapons," said Cole Dodge, country director in Sudan for the United Nations Children's Fund.
Dodge and other relief officials say that, besides triggering a dramatic increase in tribal slave-raiding, new levels of firepower on both sides of the war have led to tribal massacres, the theft of millions of head of cattle and the wholesale destruction of villages and cropland in central Sudan.
"There are too many arms and there is no law," said Jacob Akol, a Dinka from Gogrial and spokesman in Kenya for World Vision, a California-based relief agency. "The Gogrial District (a fertile Dinka region near the traditional north-south border) is being emptied of people and cattle. It has never been like this before."
Many northern Muslims and southern Christians say that the escalation of firepower and the resultant increase in slave-raiding are developments that jeopardize the chance of any settlement of the civil war.
"What begins as defensive arming of militias quickly becomes offensive, as the guns are used to carry out a tribal agenda that has little to do with the civil war," said Hassan el Turabi, leader of the fundamentalist National Islamic Front. "It is a very dangerous situation.
Revenge a Problem
"It is now going to take an awfully long time for peace to be re-established. The Dinkas are always going to want revenge," said Bona Malwal, a Dinka who is the editor in Khartoum of the English-language Sudan Times.
Maria Akwol, a Dinka woman, said that Misseirya raiders burst into her family's hut in the Gogrial District in April.
"They shot my husband immediately and they took my sons," she said. "They made me and my daughters walk for two months. They hit me with a gun in my ear, and now I cannot hear."
Akwol said that she and her daughters ran away from their owner at night. They arrived in Khartoum in early November and live now on the outskirts of town in a squatters' shack made of empty U.S. government food aid bags. She said she wants to avenge the destruction of her family.
"If I ever get the power, I will give the Arabs the same treatment they gave me," she said. "I would kill somebody's husband and take away their sons."
Tribal slavery is an ancient institution in Sudan, according to "The Southern Sudan," a book by Sudanese historian Mohamed Omer Beshir.
He writes that slavery "was part of the structure of the societies of the south and the north, whether these were Muslim or pagan, Arab or Negro. . . . Its origin and development lay in tribal warfare. Tribes took slaves irrespective of whether they were brown or black. When weaker tribes were conquered or raided by the stronger tribes, slaves were taken."