On Monday, Feb. 5, Francis Bok spoke in the College Union Ballroom about slavery in Sudan. Born in 1979, Bok was captured and enslaved during an Arab militia raid on the village of Nymlal in southern Sudan. He was just seven years old.
Speaking to a group of students, locals and professors alike, Bok recounted his 10-year ordeal as a slave.
"One evening [in May of 1986] my mother came to me while I was sitting under our big mango
tree playing with my friends. She wanted to send me to the local market to sell cooked peanuts and eggs," he began. "I was very grateful at that moment because she never asked me to do anything big. Going to the local market took a 10 or 15 minute walk, so I went with a young girl of about 16 years whom my mother commanded to watch me at the market. But going to that market place I did not have a clue. I didn't know how my life would change in the next two hours," Bok said.
At the marketplace, people soon started talking about smoke and gunshots. "One lady sitting next to us said, 'kids, we are in trouble. The Murahaliin [Arab militia] came, they burned down the village, and we heard that they are on their way, coming to the marketplace.' Suddenly I looked behind me and I saw a lot of horsemen and camel men, rushing into the marketplace, every direction. There wasn't an exit to leave, to escape that area," Bok explained. "I was captured that evening. If you've ever seen Hotel Rowanda, I watched that movie when I was seven years old." That's what Bok experienced, first hand. "I saw people with their heads cut off by swords or knives; I saw people just shot in the head; I saw all kinds of things. I witnessed many things happen to women that I can't even have the strength or wisdom to speak." Bok was taken north and became a slave for one of the militiamen. Their communication was only sign language: "I didn't speak Arabic and he didn't speak my language, Dinka."
Aside from minimal interactions with his "owner," Bok never spoke to the family he worked for. He was even forbidden to look at his owner's wife. Bok was responsible for taking care of the farm and feeding the hundreds of animals that his "master" owned. Brutal, harsh beatings became part of his everyday life. He was excluded from family affairs, had no contact with any human save taking orders, and was fed scant leftovers. Bok spent his nights on the floor of the barn and wondered daily why he was treated so poorly. One day Bok worked up the courage to ask why he had to sleep with the animals. His master beat him and came back with an answer days later: "because you are an animal."
"I started living a double life with these people," Bok said. "I worked hard daily but secretly planned that one day I would escape. It took me until I was 14."
Over those next seven years, Bok made three attempts to leave, the second time almost losing his life after being dragged a mile home from where his master found him.
When Bok finally escaped, he found help from locals, made his way to the U.N. office in Cairo, Egypt, and was lucky enough to be granted refugee status. Three years after his escape from slavery, Bok flew to North Dakota. At first he hesitated to speak about his life as a child-slave. He wanted to lead a quiet life and search for his family. But the American Anti-Slavery Group in Boston, where he now works, encouraged him to talk publicly. In 2000, Bok spoke about Sudan to senators and congressmen in Washington. Since then, Bok has given speeches alongside Coretta Scott King, Martin Luther King's widow, and was the first ex-slave to testify before the US Senate Committee on Foreign Relations. He was also present at the signing of the Sudan Peace Act with President George W. Bush in Oct. of 2002.
In the College Union, Bok thanked his audience for their support. "People ask me why I don't take a break and do things that I want to do. I say that this is what I want to do. I cannot let myself enjoy this freedom without action, knowing that so many of my people are still enslaved in Sudan." Bok won't rest until Sudan has a new government based on democracy and equality between all ethnic groups and classes. His long-term aspiration is to return to southern Sudan to help rebuild the country.
Bok is also the author of his 2003 autobiography Escape from Slavery: The True Story of My Ten Years in Captivity - and My Journey to Freedom in America.