Page last updated at 06:20 GMT, Thursday, 20 March 2008

Glimmer of hope for Sudan ex-slave

By Joseph Winter
BBC News

Two of Arek Anyiel Deng's children are now going to school in Madhol, a poor, dusty village in South Sudan.

Arek Anyiel Deng's children, Khalid (l) and Mariem (r)
Anyiel wants all her children to go to school like Khalid (l) and Mariem (r)

But not much else has improved in the life of this former slave and her six children a year after their plight touched BBC readers and listeners.

"I would like to send them all to school but then I would have no money left," she says.

Khalid and Mariem have now completed their first year at school and hope to start their second in April.

Going to school means they can integrate into the local Dinka society and may provide them with some kind of future in the area around Malualbai.

Last year, Ms Anyiel explained how her children were too ashamed to be the only pupils in the local primary school not to wear uniforms - simple blue smocks - prompting BBC readers and listeners to send her money.


She went back home in 2006, after spending 18 years as a slave in an Arab cattle camp in north Sudan, where she was beaten and raped.

Arek Anyiel Deng
We are on our own
Arek Anyiel Deng

Last year, she told the BBC News website that while she was glad to be free and back home in South Sudan, in material terms her life was little different from when she was a slave.

"It's like I was still in the camp, it's the same situation as in the north."

Her plight illustrates the dilemma faced by those trying to help the estimated 11,000 people seized as slaves during Sudan's 21-year war between north and south.

Partly as a result of many similar stories, donors withdrew funding from the programme to rescue former slaves - condemning some 8,000 people to remain in captivity.

Following the publication of Ms Anyiel's story, to mark the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade in the British empire, the return programme has now resumed.


Her second daughter Bathul, 16, does not go to school, saying she has to stay at home and help her mother.

And there is another mouth to feed.

Arek Anyiel Deng and her family
Anyiel now has another mouth to feed
Her eldest daughter, Kamala, has given birth to a little girl and neither the father, nor the community are giving her any support.

As a woman-headed family in South Sudan's patriarchal society, they are very vulnerable.

"Our situation can be seen on the faces of the children," she said.

Partly thanks to the generosity of BBC readers and listeners, she was able to start selling tea in the local market to provide some income but she no longer has the money to carry on with her business.

She planted sorghum during last year's rainy season but the harvest was poor due to the heavy rains and floods which hit the whole region.

She has not been able to find any relatives, as her parents both died while she was a slave in the north.

"We are on our own," she says.


She has also been forced to sell her only goat - which should provide enough food for a month.

But she has little idea what she will do then.


As well as buying the school uniforms and helping her grand-daughter, she has used some of the money she received to finish building her own hut, known locally as a tukul.

She was previously living in an abandoned hut she found, which had a leaking roof.

Aid agency Save the Children runs a children's group in Madhol village, which helps children such as Ms Anyiel's who are returning from the north to learn the local Dinka language and culture.

But this is not enough for them to become full members of the local community, especially for her two eldest daughters, who do not go to school.

"My children still keep apart from the others," she says.

"My whole family remains without hope - except for those who have gone to school."


The government of South Sudan has provided some $1m, which will pay for the return of about 1,200 former slaves from the north.

Dinka woman with traditional facial scars
Dinka facial markings help identify children even if they have forgotten their names

The first group is expected to arrive in a few weeks.

Save the Children says it will help the returnees find their homes and family back home.

This can be an extremely difficult process in a society ravaged by years of conflict.

Some of those abducted as children will have forgotten how to speak Dinka - and can only be traced by the tribal scars etched onto their faces shortly after birth.

Like Ms Anyiel, they may be given some help, such as food, for a few months but after that they will be left on their own, especially while the UN children's agency, Unicef, still considers whether or not to restore funding to the programme.

Many former slaves may find that freedom does not mean the end of their troubles.

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