Duop soon after being reunited with his family. Credit: Tyler Hicks/The New York Times
BENTIU, South Sudan — The teenage boy walked off the plane with two small rocks jammed into his ears. His head still hurt from the beatings, and loud noises bothered him, but he didn’t want any earplugs, just those two little rocks.
He had no bags. His pants were dirty. He was the size of a man but with the confusion of a child in his eyes. He had been drafted into a militia, captured by government soldiers, punched, kicked, whipped and stomped.
And now, after six long years, he was going home.
Stepping into a Unicef truck and sliding across the long bench-like seats in the back, he looked terrified.
“Duop, can you hear me?” a Unicef worker asked, using the boy’s first name. “You’re going to see your mom.”
Duop stared out the window, and as the truck rumbled along a hard, jutted road, nobody else said a word.
South Sudan, the world’s youngest country, hasn’t turned out the way it was supposed to, especially for its children. This nation was birthed in ahalo of jubilation in 2011 but soon cracked open into brutal, ethnically driven warfare that has burned down schools, ripped apart families, put thousands of children under arms and disfigured, maimed and killed countless others.
Now the country is being stalked by famine, and famines tend to pick off the youngest. During Somalia’s famine in 2011, more than half of the quarter-million people who died were children under 5.
As Herodotus wrote more than two millenniums ago: In peaceful times, children inter their parents. In war times, parents inter their children.
For South Sudan, it doesn’t look as if the war times are going to end anytime soon. And even if they do, there will be permanent damage.
Duop is around 16. He has big hands, thin wrists, a shaved head and an oval face with a rounded chin. He is from the Nuer ethnic group and a village in the country’s north, near the town of Bentiu, where the savanna is relatively flat and the thorn bushes and scratchy elephant grass stretch to the horizon.
The heat here has an almost physical presence. By 9 a.m., it’s triple digits. By noon, 110. The sunlight is blinding and unsparing, heavy and bewildering. During the hot hours of the day people hide under trees.
Duop was a child soldier, among the 10,000-plus toting rifles in South Sudan. Unicef officials say both the rebels and the government military, which has been trained by the United States, use child soldiers, some as young as 10, and under international law using children that young is a war crime.
One reason Duop’s last name is not being included in this article is because Unicef officials said he witnessed many war crimes. The soldiers he saw committing these atrocities could easily hunt him down.
The full extent of what Duop experienced — and suffered — is a bit of a mystery. His family said that government soldiers punched him in the head repeatedly and kicked him in the face. He seems to have lost much of his hearing and the ability to talk. He may also be hearing voices, said some of the aid workers struggling to bring him out of his shell.
This could be another reason for the rocks in Duop’s ears. He may be trying to keep the voices out.
Sometimes, when he’s sitting alone, he suddenly laughs. Or scowls.
From numerous accounts pieced together from family members, it seems that Duop quit school around the age of 9, left home, joined a rebel militia, then joined the government army, defected, became a rebel again, was captured, beaten and tortured by government soldiers and then discarded. All this by his 17th birthday, though no one knows precisely when that will be.
Unicef’s office in South Sudan has a database of thousands of children separated from their parents, and in Duop’s case, he got lucky, considering all that he had been through. In December, an older man found him badly wounded and wandering around an army base outside Juba, South Sudan’s capital. The older man bundled him up and took him to a large displaced persons camp, where Unicef began trying to figure out who he was.
“He did not speak for weeks,” said James Elder, a Unicef spokesman. “I remember after several days he would acknowledge a smile, or, at the sight of a gun, a grimace.”
Duop’s mother hadn’t seen him in six years. Through repeated visits to her village, Unicef tracked her down and brought her to a displaced persons camp in Bentiu, the only safe place for them to reunite.
When Duop stepped out of the truck, tears burst out of his mother’s eyes. But Nuer culture said she couldn’t touch him, not until he was cleansed. So it was time to make a sacrifice. An aunt scampered away, disappearing into the bowels of the camp, saying something about a goat.
The Bentiu camp, like all such camps, is highly concentrated misery. Picture a one-story city of 120,000 souls, row after row after row of dust-blown shacks arranged in a grid of long gravel roads and right angles, something irredeemably hopeless in the perfect geometry that seems to go on for miles and miles.
“I feel trapped,” said Gatkuoth Wuor, a teacher living here.
No, he shook his head and corrected himself.
“I am trapped.”
People stay here for two reasons. They are afraid of getting killed accidentally in a crossfire between the government and the rebels, who constantly skirmish right outside Bentiu. Or they are afraid of getting killed intentionally by government forces. Just about everyone in Bentiu’s camp is Nuer, and South Sudan’s government, especially the military, is dominated by members of the Dinka tribe.
It was a Nuer-Dinka power struggle that started the war in 2013, two years after South Sudan became independent from Sudan, and a good part of Bentiu was burned down. Recently, the fighting has sucked in many other ethnic groups, engulfing new areas of the country and calling into question South Sudan’s very integrity.
A small white goat was eventually procured. Its throat was slit, blood splashing on the ground. Duop’s relatives tried to seem purely joyous. Some sang and some danced.
But others whispered to each other: How much do you think he really understands? Would he ever be able to work? Are there any doctors who can help him?
(The camp has a small hospital. But Unicef officials said there was nowhere in South Sudan that had the specialists Duop needed.)
Duop retreated to a cot in his aunt’s shack. He sat in the dusty gloom. One by one, his relatives appeared in front of him. Several said that after he had left home years ago, they thought he would never return.
They rubbed the muscles in his arms, they felt his ears, they stared into his face. A group of women stood a few feet away and ululated, and there couldn’t have been a greater contrast between the animated, passionate voices and the flat, lost look in Duop’s eyes.
In a way, the relatives said, it was as if he had come back from the dead.