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Ten Years' Captivity in the Mahdi's Camp 1882-1892

The boy was therefore called Saier


Description of the prison, or "Saier"--The "Abu Haggar"--The imprisonment of Charles Neufeld--Terrible sufferings of the prisoners--Domenico Polinari--The danger of corresponding with the European prisoners--Neufeld threatened with death--He is given charge of the saltpetre pits--The fate of Sheikh Khalil, the Egyptian envoy--The Khalifa's treatment of the "Whites"--Exile to the White Nile.

In the preceding pages frequent reference has been made to the prison. This is an institution of so much importance in connection with Mahdiism that it merits a description in detail.

"Saier!" In the Sudan the bare mention of this word causes a shudder. The ordinary word for prison is "siggen," but Saier is really a contraction for beit es Saier (_i.e._ the house of the Saier). Saier is the name of a terrible individual of the Gowameh tribe of Kordofan, who has been gaoler since the early days of the Mahdi, and his name has become the synonym of the horrible place of which he is the guardian.

A curious story is told about his name which is said to be true. The Gowameh women are not renowned for moral virtue, and when Saier was born his mother was asked whose son he was; she was unable to say, and when brought before the authorities and again questioned, she replied that it was "Saier" (_i.e._ it was the custom of her country); the boy was therefore called

Saier, and the name clung to him.

Up to the time of the fall of Khartum, the prison had been merely a large zariba, and it was only after the Mahdi's death that a wall, built by the prisoners themselves, took the place of the thorn hedge. It is situated on the river bank, and consists of a large yard, in the centre of which is a building made of mud, straw, and stones, known as "abu haggar" (or the stone hut), with small square openings for a window and a door; near the hut is a well. In one corner are the cells, which are scarcely large enough to contain a man, and which had been built by Charles Neufeld.

The ordinary prisoners are not kept apart, but lie under the shade of the wall during the day, and at night they are packed, some into the abu haggar and some left to lie about in the yard. A few of the well-off prisoners, who are in for long terms of imprisonment, have been allowed to build little huts for themselves. And just behind the gate is a small sun-dried brick building, which belonged to Wad Gazuli, late sub-Mudir of Khartum, who deserted to the Mahdi before Gordon's arrival; this hut is only big enough for two people, and so low that it is impossible to stand upright in it.

It is considered a very great favour to be given a hut of this description--a favour which is only conferred on very privileged prisoners; it is, moreover, very expensive, but it has this merit, that the occupier can at any rate live separately. There are only three huts of this description in the prison.

Prisoners are not allowed to use mattresses, but the owner of a hut can have a small platform slightly raised from the ground, on which he is allowed to sleep. The ordinary prisoners generally lie on their sheepskins or on mats stretched on the ground.

All prisoners are in chains, the number of which depends on the nature of the crime committed. The chains, called makias, consist of large iron rings forged to the ankles, and joined by one and sometimes two thick iron bars. The whole thing is very cumbersome and heavy, and most tiring to walk with. To lighten this difficulty, the prisoners generally attach a piece of string to the chains, with which they lift them up as they walk. If the connecting bar is twelve inches long walking is greatly facilitated. Prisoners who have fallen under the Khalifa's special displeasure are generally laden with four makias, which make it almost impossible to rise; besides these, a long heavy chain is fastened round the neck, and to prevent the skin being chafed, leather stocks can be bought of the prison warders. Close to the prison gate is a large anvil and several hammers; the foot is placed in the open ring, the ends of which are so tightly hammered together that it is quite impossible to withdraw the foot; the anvil is in such constant use every day that it is almost worn out.


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