Children sold into slavery for the price of a calf

Samson was sold by his black African parents in southern Chad to Arab herdsman for the price of a calf.

The 10-year-old had to take his master's animals out to graze in the evening and watch them throughout the night. He would return to the cattle pen as the sun rose and then collapse, exhausted, on the ground

Away from his parents and his playmates, life was tough for Samson. He was forced to abandon his native Sara language and Christian religion in order to learn Arabic and practice Islam.

By night he ran the risk of being bitten by a snake or attacked by wild animals that roam the savannah woodland of southern Chad and by day his stomach rumbled painfully because he was not being fed properly.

"Sometimes they'd just give us millet and curds to eat with no sauce," he told IRIN.

But Samson was one of the lucky so-called "child cattle herders". He was rescued by a local church and his ordeal as a slave came to an end after just four months.

Aid workers in Chad reckon that as many as 2,000 children, some as young as eight, have been sold into slavery in this way.

But they admit it is hard to know how accurate that figure is, for no-one knows how many children have perished on the job, returned to their families after finishing their period of service, or who have been properly adopted by their new masters.

The Arab herdsmen in Chad have come down from the arid north of the country, where desertification and drought have turned the plains into barren wastes, to seek better pasture for their animals in the greener and more fertile south.

Since the average income for Chad's eight million inhabitants is less than 70 US cents a day, the Arabs have also found a fertile recruiting ground for cheap labour. Impoverished parents are often all too eager to hand over their able-bodied children in order to have one less mouth to feed in the family.

Some parents get an initial lump sum payment of between 10,000 and 15,000 CFA (US$20 and US$31). Others are paid in kind, receiving a calf for every year of labour - the equivalent of about US$8 a month.

"It's poverty that is causing children to work like this," said Raymond Doul, who works for the Non-Partisan Youth Association (AJAC) and took part in an October summit to discuss the herd-children problem.

Slavery hits hard in south

The practice continues despite the fact that Chad has signed numerous international charters such as the UN Convention on the Rights of a Child.

Moyen-Chari, a region that lies around 500 km south-east of the capital N'djamena and not far from the border with the Central African Republic, is one of worst affected areas.

Here, an abundance of pasture is both a blessing and curse. It provides valuable food for both animals and ultimately humans but it also attracts the unsavoury practices of the herdsmen.

"The child cattle herders are something which the region and the country is ashamed about," said Tatola Ngartokete, the governor of Moyen-Chari.

Sahr down in the south has been the focal point for efforts to stop the practice

But he is a relatively new convert to the fight to eradicate the trade in child labour.

He admits that originally he saw nothing wrong with Chadian children earning some much-needed food or money for their parents by helping out the herdsmen -- a practice which dates back to the 1970s. But the governor said he was not aware then of the conditions in which these children were being forced to live.

Children sold to the Arab herdsmen often have a new identity superimposed on their old one. The Arab herdsman change their name, forbid them to speak in their native dialect, ban them from conversing with people from their own ethnic group and make them adopt Islam as their religion.

The children are often handed over for a year's contract but end up tending the herds of their Arab masters for up to three years, working by night so that the animals can graze unnoticed by the Chadians who own the pastureland.

As in many other countries of West Africa, tensions between Christian farmers and Muslim herdsmen in southern Chad periodically flare up into violence. One recent clash in the southern town of Bebedjia at the end of October resulted in the death of 12 people and made headlines in the capital N'djamena.

Shining spotlight on worsening problem

Persistent campaigning by people like Father Nguetigal Bertin, who runs a Roman Catholic church in the regional capital Sarh, has thrown the spotlight on the horrors lived by the herd-children.

"The first herd-child was found in 1996 and went to live with Franciscans friars for two years to recuperate," Bertin told IRIN. "He recounted his life out in the bush and it was at that moment our work began."

Father Bertin says since 2000 in his corner of Chad, he has personally rescued 68 children aged between 10 and 16.

It is a risky business. There have been reports of people trying to rescue the children being shot at with bows and arrows and assault rifles by the Arab masters, many of whom feel they have bought the children and are entitled to do whatever they want with them.

And progress is slow.

"Despite our fight, the phenomenon is becoming more gangrenous across the whole south," Father Bertin lamented.

One big problem is stopping parents from handing over their children in the first place. One father, on condition of anonymity, told IRIN that he had given his son to an Arab herdsman out of necessity a few years ago, but regretted his decision today.

In recognition of the fact that co-ordinated action is needed, the government organised a conference in Sarh at the end of October, inviting Christian priests, Muslim imams, senior government administrators, town mayors and traditional community leaders to discuss the problem and float ideas about how to solve it.

The participants agreed that "all unaccompanied children or children found with adults that were not related to them, should be systematically taken and sent back to their parents."

But putting this principle into practice may prove difficult.

First the children need to be found and they have often strayed far from home.

"The trafficking zone covers a radius of 150 km," explained Paulin Tolmadingar, a development worker who attended the conference.

Once the children have been located, the local police then need money to transport them back to the villages where they were born. Cash is also needed to house and feed the children while they are waiting to be returned home.

And even when the children are taken back, it can be difficult to find their parents, who sometimes flee on seeing policemen because they are frightened of being punished for selling their sons.

The United Nations Children's Fund, UNICEF, has urged the government in N'djamena to take firm action to stamp out this modern version of child slavery.

"They should come up with a national plan to fight this practice of a bygone age," said Motoyam Nanitom, a child protection officer for UNICEF in Chad.

In the meantime, many children who have not been not as lucky as Samson, must tend their cows and wait.