In Sudan, John Eibner has become an international celebrity by buying back slaves, using millions of dollars donated by thousands of people. But the donors may not be getting what they are paying for, and their good deeds may be making matters worse. Dan Rather reports.
Eibner estimates he has freed some 60,000 slaves. His work has been chronicled in newspapers and on TV screens around the world. Since he began his crusade in 1995, he has recruited the help of the media.
It was these scenes of mass redemptions that prompted fourth-grade teacher Barb Vogel and her students near Denver to write letters and collect money after school for slave redemptions. Vogel even went to Sudan in 1998 and says the money her students raised helped free 4,300 slaves in the eight days she was there.
"Once you see man's inhumanity to man, it changes you," Vogel tells Rather. "I have to keep that pushed so far back in my mind, what I saw, and what I heard, because I can't believe that people can do what they've done to these people, and to these children."
But what has been done to these people and to these children may not be what it appears. One insider has come forward with claims that the scenes of mass redemptions seen around the world are a hoax.
"It's a show. It's a circus, it's a staged event," says Jim Jacobson, who worked for Eibner before becoming a slave redeemer himself. Like Eibner, Jacobson had to work with a rebel army to find the slaves and free them. The Sudanese Peoples Liberation Army - the SPLA - provides the planes and protection, the intermediaries and the interpreters for the short time that slave redeemers are on the ground.
"We got up there, and there was a botched radio communication," Jacobson says of one "redemption."
"The word did not get there in time. The kids weren't waiting for us. I said, 'Where are the children?' And they said, 'Oh-- just wait-- or, you know, just go over here and meet with the village leader and-- you know, we-- we'll find the-- the slaves.'"
Then, Jacobson says, he watched the SPLA handlers round up children in the village and escort them over by the tree.
"Instant slaves," he says. "Kids of the village. Kids that were just playing around. I mean you know, I just wanted to cry."
Who is to be believed?
Jacobson and Eibner both are Christian human rights workers who found their cause in Sudan after civil war broke out between the government in the north - controlled by fundamentalist Muslims - and the rebels in the south, made up mostly of Christians. Both say they were compelled to act when up to two million men women and children were killed by bullets and famine and thousands of the southern survivors were taken as slaves.
Eibner, working for a Swiss-based charity called Christian Solidarity International, came up with the idea of paying to free the slaves. Jim Jacobson was his American fundraiser.
Eibner dismisses Jacobson as a disgruntled former associate out to discredit him.
"I don't regard him as a credible source at all," Eibner says "He went off on his own, never having been to Sudan before. Not having any real contacts himself. And I can well imagine that he got himself into a very difficult situation But there's no reason why we should be- held accountable for what somebody else has done."
A civil war, fear and starvation compel villagers to be silent. But Roman Catholic missionary Mario Riva lived in Sudan for 24 years, saving the living, burying the dead and learning the local Dinka language. He says the translators he saw at an Eibner redemption purposely misinterpreting the words.
"For example," Father Riva says, "I tell him, 'Please, ask the people if they are-- they were slaves, or they are slaves or not.' And the translator says, 'Are you coming from home?' And they all say yes. And the white man sees the faces, and the heads saying yes. But he doesn't know what for."
He says the slave "traders" are local people given money to round up villagers and bring them to "redemptions." As for the people who may be playing the part of a slave, they may get a few coins to fill an empty belly.
Eibner says the criticism is unfounded: "I'm absolutely sure that what we do is credible, that money that is sent to us for this purpose is used for that purpose, and that women and children are freed from the terrible abuse, the rape, the beatings, the forcible conversions, all of the horrors that are an inherent part of slavery in Sudan."
But if Eibner's critics are right, all of his millions in dollars of donations may be creating a larger market for real slaves.
"Historically we know that you start paying to get people back, that just sends a message, 'Well, let's take some more and maybe-- we'll get some more money,'" says Carol Bellamy, executive director of UNICEF, the U.N. agency that helps Third World children. She says Eibner has indeed redeemed real slaves but nowhere near the number that he claims. But she also says he is creating "much more slavery than existed before."
Eibner denies this saying slavery in Sudan is primarily driven, not by supply and demand, but by political, ideological and military forces.
But Father Riva thinks Eibner and the others must know that a scam is occurring.
"They know," he says. "They want to save the Sudanese. But this is the wrong way."