Mende Nazer -- from slavery to freedom

Featured in the Reporter October 2003

Mende Nazer's autobiography has recently been launched in the US and UK
Mende Nazer's autobiography recently launched in the US and UK, see details below
Mende Nazar
Mende Nazar © Peter Von Felbert

On 15 October 2003, Sudan Vice President Ali Osman Taha and Sudan People's Liberation Movement/Army leader John Garang met in Kenya to launch the final stage of peace talks to end Africa's longest civil war. These talks provide a significant opportunity to end slavery in Sudan. Since 1986, an estimated 14,000 people have been abducted and forced into slavery.

Mende Nazer is an escaped slave from Sudan, currently living in London since winning her asylum case. She met Anti-Slavery International's Press Officer Beth Herzfeld to tell her story -- past and present, and her hopes for the future.

"I was living in a village, Karko, in the Nuba mountains with my parents, two sisters and two brothers. We had a very simple life. One night, when I was 12 or 13, we heard a noise outside. The village was under fire. People were screaming and there was confusion. We didn't know what we had to do, my dad said 'Mende, trust me, grab me hard.' I clung on to him and he told my mum to stay close to me. We had to run, we had to survive.

When we finally reached the mountains, raiders were everywhere. We couldn't escape. Many people were dead. We ran and ran; we had nowhere to hide. It was very crowded and I lost my dad. Somebody caught at me and said 'I will protect you and I will take you back to your parents later.' I said okay. I believed him really because it was very dangerous. I saw people being killed in front of me; they killed the people at night, and raped the girls… [He] took me from this place to somewhere in the forest.

When I got there I found some girls and boys there and stayed with them, he said to stay there. They were around 10 and 12 years old.

We were happy because we all thought we were going back to our parents later. But after a while, all the raiders came and took everybody to a place called Geling, about a day's walk away. I was there for a few days; everyday people came and took children away. A man came to the camp and chose us; I was taken in a car with five other girls to a house in a place called Khartoum. He would not let us out. We had to work all day. One by one the girls were taken away. One day, a woman came and took me away. This is my new life ... this is a hard time; I stayed with this woman for six or seven years.

I had to do very hard work, I had to do everything: clean the house and big yard, wash clothes by hand and look after her children; [over time] there were five. After she saw I was clean she had me cook.

Everything that was mine was kept separate …. After a while, I started to play with the children, and the children liked to play with me; I liked to play, I was still a child…. Before [being captured] I was in school, now I am not ... I was beaten for every single thing, even for something that was not my fault.

At first I wanted to leave, but I couldn't because there was nowhere to go and I had no money and I could not go to the police.

From the beginning in my master's house I didn't realise I was a slave, I was confused; I wondered why I was here. Later on, my master was talking to her friend and she said two things that made me realise. One was she mentioned she owned me. The other, she called me 'Abda' to her friend. She called me her slave. From that time on I understood who I am. From the beginning she treated me badly and beat me; even then I couldn't understand why. It was only when she said she was my owner and that she called me Abda then I understood.

One day she told me I was going to London. I cried because it meant I would be farther from my family. My master told me what to say [for the visa]. She told me a name to give [it was false] of the person I would work for and told me to say that I was only cleaning and washing dishes. I was asked how long I was going to stay and what I would earn. I said I didn't know -- he [the interviewer] was surprised -- so the interview ended. I was given a letter to give to my master [with these questions]. She said I would be there six months and the amount I would earn.

She took me to the airport and said I would be collected. I worked in London as a domestic. My master in Khartoum instructed me to behave myself and obey the new master and do the same sort of work I did
for her."

After several months Mende escaped. She was taken to a solicitor's office and claimed asylum. After two years' of pressure, the Home Office rejected her claim in October 2002. "I was crying and crying. They would kill me if I went back to Sudan. I felt like killing myself."

In November, the Home Office overturned its decision and granted Mende asylum based on further information provided by her many supporters including such human rights groups as Anti-Slavery International.

"Now I feel I'm free because I am doing things I never used to do before … For me the reason for talking out is to help make another slave free -- not just a slave from Sudan, but from anywhere in the world. By talking out, people will be more aware and more able to help people become free.

Now I am studying to improve my English. My hope first is to see my family and to be a nurse."

Mende Nazer's full story, Slave, written by Mende Nazer and Damien Lewis, is published by Virago in the United Kingdom and is also available in the United States, Germany, Italy and Spain.