Thousands of children were separated from their families and forced to become soldiers in a country ravaged by war. Daniel Howden speaks to one survivor, Abraham, who now tries to rescue children from a similar fate in neighbouring Central African Republic INDEPENDENT CHILD SOLDIERS APPEAL
"The one thing I remember is my parents," says Abraham Kur Achiek. He cannot be sure what year he was born as the people who would know died while he was still a child. His hometown of Bor, in what is now South Sudan, has for most of his life been just fragments of memory.
He was either 11 or 12 years old when he left on foot amid the chaos of a bombing campaign. The youngster was separated from his parents, his brother and his two sisters. It was the beginning of the most harrowing of journeys, one undertaken by thousands of other southern Sudanese children who came to be known as the "lost boys". Looking back now he thinks of it as the "end of childhood".
Long, snaking trains of children walked out of what was Africa's largest country to escape the continent's longest civil war. Since its independence from colonial power, Britain, the unwieldy state that remained - comprising Muslims and Christians, riverine Arabs, herding tribes and a patchwork of black African peoples - had been at war.
By the late 1980s, much of the south was in flames as a modern army and airforce was unleashed on villagers, in a vicious counterinsurgency against southern-led rebels. Abraham remembers walking for hundreds of kilometres, "often we didn't know the boy who was walking next to us", going without food and water for days.
He remembers snatches of the ordeal, like his teeth falling out on the march from the River Nile to the Ethiopian border. Many of the children died. Some from comparatively mundane causes such as thirst or drowning in the powerful rivers they crossed on their trek. Others died in the most horrific circumstances, torn apart by lions or crocodiles.
Some, like Abraham, were not allowed to escape and were instead recruited into the rebellion to begin their nightmare anew. He was pressed into the ranks of the Sudanese People's Liberation Army (SPLA) which was fighting for independence for the black south from the Arab government in Khartoum.
"It was the worst thing that could happen in any life," he says. "There are few people who could survive."
Abraham did survive. He eventually fled the rebel army and made it to the Kakuma refugee camp in northern Kenya. It was there that he began to piece back together the life that had been taken from him. Eight years after last seeing him he learned that his father had died one of the bombardments. His mother had died soon after.
Over the next 10 years, as he struggled to survive and get an education along with tens of thousands of other refugees, living off handouts from the United Nations, he was able to piece together what happened to his siblings.
In separate trips back into Sudan he located and brought his two sisters back to Kakuma. …