By Wossen Mulatu
GAMBELLA, Ethiopia, 25 May 2016 – Eighteen years after he was kidnapped as a child by raiders, Paul Tok*, 19, came home to his native village of Dima to a warm welcome.
In the long years of his captivity by the Murle tribesmen in neighbouring South Sudan, where he was attached to a local family, forced to learn the language and help raise their cattle and farm their land, he never forgot who he was.
His brother, five years older and taken with him, repeatedly told him that they were different. “We are Anuak, we will never be Murle.”
The Murle have long raided their neighbours for cattle and children. In the last decade, 50 children have been taken from the Anuak parts of Ethiopia in Gambella State in yearly raids.
Those raids, however, sprang to international prominence when the Murle launched a massive cross border operation against 13 Nuer villages in mid-April, killing more than 200 people and carting off 146 children and thousands of cattle.
As the Ethiopian Government works to release these children, the experience of others kidnapped by the Murle has come under renewed scrutiny.
Dawn raid and captivity
Paul and his older brother were kidnapped in 1997 in a violent attack on their village. His mother fought to keep her sons and was slashed with a knife that left her weak and she died of illness four years later. Her husband followed her into the grave two years afterwards following a prolonged period of depression.
Paul would only find out about his parents death on his return years later. He and his brother were taken to the village of Lelot in South Sudan and attached to a family who already had 10 other children and was put to work.
Paul said he never liked his life with the Murle.
“I didn’t like the food, the language and the fact that we didn’t wear any clothes,” he said. “Since the Murle take pride in having lots of cattle, they gave us a lot of milk. They also gave us blood from the oxen to drink but I never dared to try it.”
“They taught us to hunt wild animals and when we failed, they would tell us we were not man enough and beat us,” he recalled. They were also beaten when they refused to join the deadly cattle raid attacks against the Anuak. ”I never collaborated with them – how could I steal from my community?”
Paul and his brother were allowed to attend school and Paul studied up to 9th grade.
Escape and reunification
When fighting wracked South Sudan as rival tribes battled each other in a civil war during the past few years, Paul decided to join the flow of refugees into Ethiopia and make his way back to Dima.
“I told them my story in Anuak language when I was in the camp. They were so happy and they hid me and gave me food and clothing. My aunt was looking for me tirelessly and she heard about my return and came to take me,” he said with pride.
Though Paul is thrilled to be reunited with his family, he misses his brother who is still in South Sudan. “He is now in 11th grade in Juba and he wants to finish school. We would have come together. I don’t think he will waste a day to return after he finishes school,” Paul said.
Paul is now receiving lots of affection from his own community. Along with his aunt and relatives, he gets support from the woreda (district) including clothing and school materials and has now re-enrolled. He still lives in fear, however, that the Murle will come back and take him away. “They know me as their child and I will be considered a traitor if found,” he said.
There has been a steady increase in cross-border child abduction over the past decade. The civil war in South Sudan and the easy availability of weapons has exacerbated the rate of these abductions both in terms of the numbers of children abducted and adults killed each year.
However, after the April 15 attack, the Ethiopian Government made a statement that the Ethiopian forces will follow the Murle armed men into their territories in South Sudan to rescue the abducted children.
UNICEF is working in close collaboration with the Government of Ethiopia and partners on a response plan which includes reintegration, psychological support, basic health care and nutrition services as well as providing items such as tents for their accommodation and clothing for each child.
UNICEF has called for the children’s swift and unconditional return.
“I hope they will stop abducting our children,” says Okew Owar, head of the Jor Woreda. “For the Murle, the more children they steal from us, the richer and powerful they become since children are sold and exchanged for cattle.”
After the reunification with his community, Paul wants to improve his Anuak since he has forgotten some words apart from what his brother taught him when they were children. He can now speak the Murle language fluently as well as a little Arabic.
“I would like to become a teacher and teach my community,” he said.
*Name of subject has been changed to protect privacy