The land where officials steal and then sell children

AKUEI DENG was too big to be carried, too small to run. The raiders on horses burst into his village at dusk one day in May 1996. Akuei was seven years old (he thinks). His older brothers ran into the bush. His mother ran with his younger siblings in her arms. But the raiders caught Akuei.

With 250 others from his village, he was forced on a three-day march north to a concentration camp at Schitep. He was kept there for three years. What happened to him there? His small face takes on a hunted look. "You go to look after the cows and the goats. And you must be a Muslim."

Akuei is one of thousands of young Sudanese children who have been taken into what is, in effect, a revival of the brisk slave trade that operated in Sudan until the 1930s. Looting and raiding have always been a part of the brutal civil war there, and in the past six years women and children have been added to the list of what is taken from the south.

The children of Sudan are not simply collateral damage in Sudan, where there have been 17 straight years of fighting; children are targets in their own right. Both the government of Sudan and the Sudan People's Liberation Army, the rebel force that controls most of the south, prey on non- combatants. The government bombs schools, hospitals and emergency feeding centres. Both sides use landmines. Both conscript children. And the government steals them.

Government troops, and murahaliin, raiders in government-sponsored militias such as the one that captured Akuei, take children north. Some they keep themselves, others they sell as house slaves or for forced labour on farms and plantations. The Islamic government has another agenda for the children; as part of its policy of "Arabisation", children from the Christian and animist tribes in the south are forcibly converted to Islam.

Akuei had been baptised a Roman Catholic, but at the camp in Schitep, where he was held with what he recalls as "perhaps 100, perhaps 300" other children, they were ordered to study the Koran and pray. What became of those who did not want to say the Muslim prayers? "They beat us. With a stick. And you were not allowed to eat. And those who refused to be Muslims were killed before our eyes - they shot them," he said.

Akuei, who now lives in a refugee camp in Mapeir in southern Sudan, relates these details with an ageless calm. Akuei is one of the few who came home again; he is there because of his mother. Abouk Deng sold her three cows and, with the one million Sudanese dinar she got for them, walked north, asking until she found the camp where her son was kept.

Then she went to the local police, who took Akuei from the camp to a court, where she gave the judge her money, and they gave her Akuei. They walked south together, last month.

Akuei does not remember the day his mother came for him, but she does. Her round face splits into a brilliant grin. "I was searching, until I got my child. I was ... so happy."

Since then, of course, life has been terribly difficult: Abouk and Akuei live in a camp for the displaced, because the raids continue on their village. They have lost all the wealth - those three cows - that the widowed Mrs Abouk had amassed in her life. But it doesn't matter. "This is my boy and if I have anything, I will pay to have him back, and never mind the rest."

The rest is life in a small mud hut, eating food periodically distributed by the UN. Southern Sudan is plagued by famine, despite one of the world's longest and biggest relief efforts, Operation Lifeline Sudan, which has been run in the region since 1988, at a cost of about $2bn. The fighting and displacement means people cannot plant or harvest, and their animals are killed or stolen.

The government banned relief flights to this, the hardest-hit area, for three months last year; Medecins Sans Frontieres reported malnutrition rates as high as 40 per cent in children under five. The fighting has become worse in the past year, and so another season of famine seems certain. War Child, working through the Irish charity GOAL, and the Norwegian People's Aid, helps charter planes that sidestep bureaucratic channels to get food and medicine to the hungry.

THE SUDAN FILE

A bitter civil war between the Islamist government and factions of the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) has killed up to 2 million people since 1983.

By 1998 an estimated 4.5 million people had been forced by the violence to leave their homes

Untold numbers of people, mostly women and children, have been abducted by militia groups and sold into slavery.

The Ugandan rebel group, the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) operates camps inside Sudan, in which it has systematically terrorised thousands of abducted Ugandan children, forcing them to become child soldiers and slaves.

Amnesty International

www.amnesty.org.uk

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