In 1994, when Mende Nazer was about 12, Arab militia stormed her village in the Nuba Mountains of Sudan. They raped and massacred the villagers and sold Mende and other children into slavery, as part of the Muslim-dominated government’s war strategy against rebels in south Sudan. For about six years Mende was beaten, sexually abused, fed food scraps, and kept prisoner as a domestic slave for a family in the Sudanese capital of Khartoum. At the age of 19 she was taken to London and passed onto the family of a Sudanese diplomat, becoming one of an estimated 6000 women who have been trafficked into Britain in the past few years (mainly from countries in Eastern Europe, Africa and South Asia).Mende’s achievement of a free life after slavery was a highly publicized process. She escaped after several months, in September 2000, and claimed asylum, then suddenly found herself at the center of an international uproar: she published a controversial full-length autobiography in 2002, and the British government rejected her claim in October of the same year. She faced deportation and feared reprisal from the Sudanese government. Human rights and abolitionist groups appealed on her behalf and the Sudanese embassy in Washington DC denounced her as a fraud. In November 2002 the British government announced that it would reconsider her case, eventually granting her asylum and permanent residency. Mende began to spread awareness about slavery in Sudan. Her narrative explains that “the reason for talking out is to help make another slave free,” and in an interview she observed of her decision to tell her story: “They treated me as less than a human being. I’ll only forgive them if all my friends enslaved in Sudan are freed…I want people to know about my past.”
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 ten 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 realize 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 realize. 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 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 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.
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.
I am studying to improve my English. My hope first is to see my family and to be a nurse.
Narrative as told to Beth Herzfeld for Anti-Slavery International, October 2003, in London.