BY HUGO TORRES
Francis Bok had a relatively happy life growing up in Sudan. But his serene childhood came to an end when he was seven, as his village was raided by northern Sudanese militia members who killed the adult townspeople and kidnapped the children and young women. It was ten years before Bok would escape captivity. Bok, invited to speak by a coalition of Harvard Law School student groups, recounted his journey of enslavement and escape this past Tuesday night to a gathering of HLS students.
“This is totally the wrong place, the wrong people. I am not going to stay,” Bok remembered thinking when he first arrived at the home of a slaver. Fed rotten meat, regularly beaten and forced to sleep among the slaver’s animals, Bok nonetheless sought to maintain his dignity amidst such a dire situation. On one occasion he questioned the slaver, asking him why they called him a slave and why he was treated so poorly. The slaver responded by beating him and telling him to never ask those questions again.
“You are an animal,” the slaver said to Bok.
At age fourteen, Bok decided to escape. His first attempt was a failure, and Bok was told by the slaver, “if you try that again, I will kill you.” Frightened but persistent, Bok tried once more and was caught yet again. The slaver told him that he would die for trying to escape.
“God, please, don’t let him kill me,” Bok recalls thinking. Bok’s life was spared but he continued to remain a slave for another three years. It was upon turning seventeen that Bok decided he could no longer tolerate such a life, and that the risk of death was better than to go on living as a slave.
Bok successfully escaped to Egypt, and from that point on life steadily improved. In Egypt he received assistance from local officials and was referred by the United Nations to the United States Immigration and Naturalization Service in order to immigrate to the U.S. as a refugee. He arrived in North Dakota, but he realized his prospects were limited due to his lack of education, and he committed himself to working hard and eventually going to school. He came to the attention of the American Anti-Slavery group, which recruited him and had him move to Boston. He was continually invited to speak about his experiences and eventually ended up speaking before Congress.
“I don’t know what the Congress is,” Bok recalled telling his friends. “I don’t even know what the Capitol is.”
Bok has learned quickly, however. He has been interviewed by the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and National Public Radio. Bok has had speaking engagements at various college campuses, and has written an autobiography that will be published in September entitled, “Escape From Slavery.” Bok had wanted to title the book “I Am Not An Animal” as a response to the slaver who told him he was not human, but the title was rejected over concerns it might be too strong. Still, Bok hopes his book and speaking engagements will help make people more aware and concerned over the plight of Sudanese slaves.
“You think slavery ended? Think again. Slavery is still going on today,” said Bok. “More than two million people have been killed [in Sudan]. More than Rwanda, Kosovo or Somalia combined.”
Dana King, a first year student, said, “”Mr. Bok’s speech opened my eyes to the reality of modern-day slavery. He has a quiet, humble demeanor. To hear him speak about the horrors he faced as a child, the cruelty and mistreatment he experienced as a slave was deeply moving and motivated me to add my voice to those working to effectively abolish slavery.”
One-L Lauren Boccardi found Bok to be a powerful speaker: “I think it is hard for all of us to really understand that this exists today, and the incredible number of people it affects. I couldn’t believe that he was exactly my age, 24, and had a story to tell about being enslaved.”
“At a time when we are so focused on what is happening in Iraq and at home, I think he provided a powerful reminder that problems like slavery don’t disappear just because we stop paying attention,” said Boccardi.