From 1983 to 1987 our life was stressful. Food was no problem, but when the government heard that rebels were in a particular place, they would come and even abduct children. So in 1987 when I was about ten years old, I decided to run away and join the other boys who were fleeing our area.
During the war the policy of the Arab-controlled government was to Islamize the boys especially. They aimed to change our ideology. The government soldiers might seize girls and women and abuse them, but boys were crucial to their plan to create a new Muslim society. They would brainwash the boys, give them guns, and send them back to kill their own people. That's how they operated. And that's why our parents sent us boys away.
Not all of us reached Ethiopia. We were protected by two or three rebel neighbors who were guiding us and fighting for us. But still, lions, leopards, and other wild animals killed many. Boys also died of hunger and thirst. Some were shot. Although the tribal militias were fighting with our guards, the bullets reached us too.
Each child received a tiny ration of water, barely enough for one day. In the desert they weighed the precious water for us.
'Be strong,' our leaders told us. 'When you reach the river you can drink as much as you want.'
Thankfully, in south Sudan a lot of gazelles pass through in herds, and our leaders hunted them. We children collected firewood and skinned and butchered the animals. We put the meat right on the fire. We had only a few pots, so if another group was cooking, we had to wait before we could have some soup. Only if we stayed in one place for a few days did we have time to wait. Otherwise roasting was the main way to cook. There were also wild vegetables to forage in the bush. We just ate what we wanted, depending on where we came from and what kind of wild fruits we had learned about in our area.
There were so many of us children traveling that I can't even estimate the number. In 1987 when we reached a place called Panyido over the border in Ethiopia, there were more than twenty thousand boys. For various reasons, no girls were with us. Because most of us were young, even eight years old, we started getting childhood diseases like chicken pox and measles. I witnessed a lot of my cousins dying in the camp but I didn't catch those sicknesses because I'd already had them at home. Many of us died of hunger and diseases. There was no treatment. Our rebel guards were trying to help us, but what could they do?
'You must come and care for these thousands of children,' the Ethiopian government begged the United Nations.
They came; but still our life was very, very, very hard. We suffered a lot. We were left to fend for ourselves. We had to build our own houses an construct roads too. When we went to the bush to fell trees, some of our friends never returned. We left them out there, killed by lions.
The few adults all lived separately from us. The grownups couldn't even help us except to just lend a hand in burying our friends. We buried most of them ourselves but if adults were around they helped us. They could also assist in unloading relief supplies from trucks, work that was too heavy for us boys.