Abducted as a child, returned an adult after 18 years

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 Tok, 19, Ongogi Kebele, Jor woreda, Gambella region.
When Paul Tok, 19, returned to his own village in Dima, everyone was filled with joy and there was a big fiesta by the community. ©UNICEF Ethiopia/2016/Mersha

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.

Deng Chol, 5 years old boy from Nipnip Kebele (sub-district), with his mother
Deng Chol, 5 years old boy from Nipnip Kebele (sub-district), with his mother Nyapuk Kang at a temporary residence of abducted children © UNICEF Ethiopia/2016/Tesfaye

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

 

Return, recovery and reunification of the abducted children in Gambella

By Wossen Mulatu

Nyatayin Both, 25, Kuanyluaalthoan kebele, Lare woreda, Gambella Region.
25-year-old Nyatayin with her one year old daughter Nyakoch Gatdet at a temporary shelter for returned children in Gambella. ©UNICEF Ethiopia/2016/Mersha

GAMBELLA, Ethiopia, 25 May 2016 – When the attack on the village came, 25-year-old Nyatayin Both held tightly to two of her children, but the raiders still managed to kidnap the two others amidst the panic and commotion.

“I wish I’d had four hands to hold them and save all of my four children,” she recalled, describing the horrific day in mid-April in Ethiopia’s Gambella region when she lost her 9-year-old daughter and 4-year-old son.

In a raid of unprecedented scale, some 200 people were killed and 146 children were taken by raiders from neighboring South Sudan, widely described as Murle tribesmen. The Ethiopian military and the local Gambella Government have been negotiating for their slow release ever since.

For Nyatayin, it meant a miracle to see the return of her 9-year-old daughter Nyamuoch.

“At first it was just rumors that some of the children had returned, but later we were told by local officials to come and identify our children,” she said. “I was hoping to see mine, when I spotted my daughter among the many children standing in a circle, I was thrilled and praised the Lord and thanked the government for taking action.”

It was a joy tempered by the fact that her other son was still out there and of course the death of so many relatives that day, including her husband. So far 91 children have been recovered.

UNICEF is working closely 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 tents and clothing for each child.

Currently, the children are being cared for at a two-storey guest house of the Gambella Regional Government, where Sarah Nyauony Deng is supervising their care.

“When they arrive here, most of them were so silent and isolated themselves, but after some time, they start to socialize with others, play together and become cheerful,” she said. “Most of them also have injuries on their legs from the long walks.”

Nyamuoch Gatdet, 9 years, 1st grade student, Kuanyluaalthoan kebele, Lare woreda, Gambella region.
Nyamuoch Gatdet, 9 years, was one of the 146 children who were abducted from their communities in the Gambella Region ©UNICEF Ethiopia/2016/Mersha

Flashbacks from the forest
Nyamuoch recalls that terrible day she was taken from her village that began at dawn with the sound of shots.

“I was still asleep and suddenly I heard gunfire and ran out of the house. I was filled with fear and anxiety,” she said. “I started running along with many other children and adults but they caught most of us and took us to a forest. Where I was, most of the abducted children were strangers except a boy I recognized from my village.”

Nyamuoch said they were constantly talking to them but none of the children understood a word. “I think they were trying to teach us their language,” she said. “I am so happy to be back to my family. My mother and I cried for a long time with happiness and now she is with me again, I am not scared anymore.”

Reintegration

Working with the president’s office and the Bureau of Women and Children Affairs, UNICEF has drawn upon a detailed action plan for child protection, including identification, documentation, psycho-social first aid and family assessments to facilitate appropriate rehabilitation services during reunification of the children.

Children in Gambella at the Presidential Guest House
Children in Gambella Presidential Guest House after their recovery from abduction ©UNICEF Ethiopia/2016/Tesfaye

“Currently, we are doing a needs assessment to mobilize resources for the abducted children and their families. Some of the children have lost one or both parents, some their cattle and some their huts as it was burned by the Murle,” said Ocher Ocher Obang of the Bureau of Women and Children’s Affairs in Gambella.

In addition, many in the affected communities are afraid to return to their remote villages for fear of renewed attacks by the Murle.

With the return of the rains, the displaced families need land to till, shelter to live in, as well as additional clothing and health care.

As the Ethiopian and South Sudanese governments strengthen their efforts to recover the remaining abducted children, UNICEF calls for the children’s swift and unconditional return to their families.

“I thought they would lock us in the forest forever,” said Nyamuoch. “When I grow up, I only want to do good things for humanity by becoming a teacher or a doctor – I will never forget this incident.”