Francis Bok

Francis Bok spent the first seven years of his life in the village of Gourion, near the town of Nyamell in the Southern Sudan. His father was a prosperous farmer who grew sorghum and peanuts and raised chickens and who owned many hundreds of cows, goats, and sheep. Besides Francis’ mother, he had another wife who lived some distance away.

Altogether, Francis’ father had eight children. Francis was his favourite because he was such an eager worker. Francis admired his father and was determined to emulate him.

He had often accompanied his father to the market in Nyamell to sell sorghum or animals. But he had never been allowed to go there without his parents. Then, one day in 1986, his mother allowed him to go to the market to sell some eggs and peanuts for her. He went with several other children who were used to working in the market. His mother trusted them to look after him.

After Francis and the other children had been selling their goods in the market for three or four hours, he heard the noise of guns in the distance. Then he heard people shouting, and he saw them quickly gathering their things and running away. Minutes later, before Francis and his friends had time to escape, more than a hundred men rushed into the market. Some were on foot. Some were on horseback. They were carrying guns and swords.

Within a few minutes all the men who had been working in the market were dead. Some had been shot. Some had had their heads cut off with swords.

Francis tried to run away at the last minute, but he was stopped by a man on a huge horse who pointed a gun at him and shouted. Francis was forced to stand in a group with all the other children. The women were all put into a separate group. Some of the women tried to run to their children, but they were stopped.

The bigger children were forced to carry the food they had been selling. The smaller ones, like Francis, were put into big baskets on the side of donkeys. Then some of the men who had raided the market led the children away. They travelled all through the night.

Finally they camped in a forest. In the morning, the children were divided between the raiders. Francis was given to one of the men and sat behind him on the saddle of his horse. From that moment, this man—whose name was Giemma—owned Francis. Francis was his slave.

Giemma took Francis to his farm. When they arrived, they were met by Giemma’s wife and his three children. Francis was happy to see other children, but, to his surprise, they immediately began beating him with sticks. They laughed and sang as they did it. Francis cried for help, but Giemma and his wife just laughed and watched. After a while, Giemma did tell his children to stop, but he did not scold them for what they had done.

Giemma owned hundreds of goats, sheep, cattle and camels. Francis was given a small shelter to sleep in, near where the animals were kept at night. He was fed with the scraps that were left over after Giemma’s family had eaten.

After he had been on the farm for two weeks, Francis was put to work, helping to herd Giemma’s animals. At first he looked after only goats and sheep, but in later years he was also herding Giemma’s cattle and his camels. For the next ten years, Francis worked as a slave. He was paid nothing. And he was forced to work. When he complained about having to work so hard, Giemma threatened to cut one of his legs off. Francis knew he would really do this. On a neighbouring farm, he had seen a young slave with one leg missing.

In the beginning, Francis understood nothing that Giemma and his family were saying. They spoke Arabic; he spoke Dinka. This didn’t bother Giemma or his family. They pointed and used gestures to tell Francis what to do.

But Francis struggled to learn Arabic on his own. He felt he had to do this. He couldn’t understand why Giemma and the other raiders had the power to go into another part of the country and to kill and capture and enslave the people who were living there. He felt they must have secrets inside their heads that gave them this power. He wanted to steal their secrets, and he felt that to do that he had to understand their language. By the time Francis finally escaped, his Arabic was excellent.

When he was fourteen, Francis tried twice to escape—on two consecutive days. Both times he was caught, once by another farmer, once by Giemma himself. The first time, Giemma whipped him and threatened to cut off one of his legs if he tried again. The second time Giemma beat him again then tied him up and pointed a gun at him. Giemma’s wife, who was watching, urged him to shoot. Giemma told Francis that he was going to kill him the next day.

In the morning Giemma told Francis he didn’t want to kill him because he was doing a good job of taking care of his animals. But he also told him that if he tried to escape again, he would kill him.

Francis decided that he would wait three years before making another attempt to escape. He felt that it would take that long before Giemma trusted him and stopped watching him. He also felt he had to be bigger and stronger and smarter before he could succeed.

Three years later he tried again and this time he did succeed. After many adventures, he managed to get to Khartoum, the capital of Sudan, and from there to Cairo. He was helped by many people along the way. In 1999 he went to the US as a refugee. There, with the help of Edward Tivnan, he wrote a book about his life, called “:Escape from Slavery.”:

- information from: “Escape from Slavery,” Francis Bok and Edward Tivnan, St. Martin’s Press, N.Y., 2000