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Pledging His Life To Fight Slavery

Sophomore works to free 4,000 enslaved Africans

By Heather B. Long, Crimson Staff Writer

When Gerald L. "Jay" Williams '03 first came upon a clearing where hundreds of newly freed Sudanese slaves sat under trees with emasculated bodies and tattered clothes, he did not cry.

Williams had cried before, many times, thinking about the 27 million people who remain enslaved throughout the world.

But when the Mather House sophomore traveled to Sudan earlier this month as part of a rescue group to liberate and record the testimony of thousands of slaves, he did not break down.

He did not cry as a 12-year-old boy told of having his fingers cut off by a slave master. He did not cry as a 32-year-old woman talked about how her baby son had been ripped out of her arms as she was forced into bondage.

He did not cry because they did not cry. Instead, he took notes. He listened, became their witness.

And now, back at Harvard, he says he has pledged his life to telling their story.

Williams, a native of Buffalo, N.Y., began working as an intern with the Boston-based American Anti-Slavery Group (AASG) last school year.

He first learned about the organization in December while attending a gospel concert at First Baptist Church. The concert was a fundraiser to benefit the AASG, which works to raise awareness about modern slavery.

According to the group's website, while accurate numbers are hard to come by, more people may be held in slavery now than at any time in history.

"When I heard there were 27 million people in slavery, I was just floored by it," Williams says.

His interest piqued, Williams attended a panel at the Kennedy School of Government about slavery.

"A lot of people were talking and making speeches, and in the middle I stood up and asked what I could do to help," Williams says.

After the panel, Jesse A. Sage '98, the AASG's associate director, offered Williams an internship. Williams accepted and spent the summer in the group's Washington, D.C., office.

In early August, he received an e-mail from the group asking if he would like to travel to Sudan with a Swiss rescue group, Christian Solidarity International (CSI), in order to see first-hand what the AASG was fighting for.

The trip would be a dangerous one. For over a decade, a fundamentalist Islamic regime in northern Sudan has been waging a holy war against the Dinka people of the south.

"It's basically genocide," Williams says. "The Muslims from the north come down and raid villages in the south. The men are killed or used as carriers and the women and children are brought back to the north as slaves."

In the border area where Williams would be traveling, militia raids are frequent, and Western rescue planes could be targets of northern weapons.

Williams knew he could have been risking his life traveling to Sudan, but he says he still felt it was something that he had to do.

A religion concentrator who plans to be a doctor someday, Williams says he believes his Christian faith compels him to help others.

"Me going on the trip didn't end slavery, the mission would have gone on without me," he says. "But it was something I had to see with my own eyes so I could tell the story. I felt a calling from God, and that's why I had to do it."

His parents opposed the trip at first. Eventually, his mother decided that God would protect her son. His father only gave his blessing days before Williams left.

Williams and the seven other members of his team arrived in Sudan on Sept. 5. They visited five different sites in Bahr El Ghazal, a province in the northern region of South Sudan.

In this border area between the north and south, some dissident Muslims have formed a peace agreement with the Dinka people.

"These Arabs go into the north and purchase, steal or help runaway slaves," Williams says. "We pay the raiders 50,000 Sudanese pounds for each slave they redeem. On this mission, we liberated 4,435."

This method of purchasing freedom began in 1995 when the Dinka people asked CSI for help through the Sudanese Council of Churches.

The slaves are brought to different sites throughout the border area where the organization fingerprints and photographs each one after paying the Arab redeemers a flat rate for their service.

It was Williams' job to record the slaves' stories. Using a translator, he interviewed about 25 people.

"In not one of those interviews did I see a tear from any of them," he says. "They had resolved to fight and to remain true to their people and their faith."

Williams says even as the former slaves were told that they were now free, many showed no joy at the point of liberation.

"They were confused and had been lied to so often," he says. "But then when they were united with their family members, they were able to let their emotion show."

Williams arrived back in Boston on Sept. 14 where several of his friends showed up to cheer his return at Logan Airport. The AASG held a press conference at the homecoming.

On Tuesday, he attended a ceremony at the Old South Meeting House where Dr. Charles Jacobs, the founder and president of the AASG, was awarded the Boston Freedom Award.

Coretta Scott King introduced Jacobs, who asked Williams to stand.

"There's an American hero here tonight--his name is Jay Williams," Jacobs told the audience. "Jay Williams has the dream."

After the ceremony, Sage praised Williams's work, calling his commitment extraordinary.

"Here's a kid who missed orientation to risk his life and save people," Sage said. "He didn't have to do this. He's a 19-year-old who's done more to free slaves than any political leader."

Frances Bok, a former Sudanese slave who spoke at the ceremony, said that he deeply appreciated Williams's work.

"So many people don't believe that slavery still exists in Sudan," Bok said. "But when we have a witness like him, people will listen."

Back at Harvard, Williams has been doing his best to spread the word about his mission. He hopes to share his story at a Senate hearing on slavery next week.

Williams says he is especially disturbed by U.S. government's silence on the issue of slavery in Sudan.

"[Secretary of State] Madeline Albright has said that the issue is not marketable to the American people," he says. "But I think if our government is made up of leaders then that's what they're supposed to do--lead. They shouldn't always wait for the groundswell of public opinion."

Williams says the United Nations has been critical of rescue missions like the one he participated in because the UN does not agree with the idea of purchasing freedom.

But Williams argues that since the Dinka people sanctioned the missions and slaves are redeemed for a flat rate, many of the UN's fears are misguided.

But even if their criticisms were true, Williams says, no one else has given an alternative solution.

"Redemption missions do not solve the problem of slavery," he says. "But since they began, 38,000 people have been reunited with their families. I think that definitely justifies the work that we do."

Readjusting to Harvard after experiencing life in Sudan has been a challenge, Williams says.

"It was like being in the 16th or 17th century," he says. "There was no electricity, no running water, and these people were slaves."

"Back at Harvard, the contrast is just ridiculous," he adds. "It's been hard to go to class and just concentrate again. I'm still trying to come to grips with what happened."

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