Sudanese kidnapping hits close to home

Lindsay Guentzel

On Oct. 3, two girls were abducted from their village in the southern Sudanese state of Jonglei.

More than 7,000 miles away, their uncle, University graduate student Kou Solomon, is fighting to get them back.

on the web

To sign a petition to save Yar and Ajak, and to end child abductions in Sudan, go to www.thepetitionsite.com/1/save-yar

His stepmother and step-grandmother were watching 1-year-old Ajak and 3-year-old Yar while their parents were in town. During that time the gunmen from the Murle tribe entered their home, Solomon said.

His step-grandmother died during the attack and his stepmother is hospitalized after having her leg amputated due to wounds she sustained, he said.

Because of communication problems, Solomon didn’t find out about the attack until Oct. 12, when he received a phone call from a cousin in Houston, he said.

“It has been very hard,” Solomon said.

Solomon’s nieces aren’t the only children being held captive by the Murle group; last August, the United Nations reported the Murle group may be responsible for nearly 40 child abductions in the last year.

Sitting in a Blegen Hall classroom Monday, a group of graduate students and professor Barbara Frey, director of the human rights program, organized a plan for the girls’ return.

Frey, who has known Solomon for five years, teaches his human rights advocacy class, she said.

Initially, many of the students in the class wanted to get involved, Solomon said.

“They are doing a great job,” Frey said. “It’s more than just a class project.”

Graduate student Robyn Skrebes, the secretary for the public affairs student association, is another student helping Soloman with his mission.

Skrebes said there are a lot of obstacles for the group to consider when planning its mission.

Because Sudan is in its rainy season, it’s hard to move around, so the government is waiting until dry season, which begins in January, to attempt to rescue the children, she said.

“If they wait past the dry season, the girls could be moved farther away,” Skrebes said.

The time difference has also proved difficult to work around, Solomon said.

“The challenge is that I have to call at night and I may not sleep,” he said.

Solomon has spent hours on the phone over the last few weeks trying to contact someone who can help him, he said.

“They are getting annoyed with me,” he said.

An online petition, started by graduate student Amanda Lyons, has received 378 signatures since it was started on Friday.

“What’s nice about the electronic Web site is it is all compiled in one place,” Lyons said.

People can see others’ comments and send the link to others, she said.

Alisha Hilde, a graduate student who works with the University’s chapter of Amnesty International for graduate students helped gather signatures for the petition at the Law School on Monday.

While most students have been supportive of the group’s efforts, Hilde said a few students have been skeptical of the plan, but that hasn’t lessened the ambition.

“I always say, ‘Not trying is not going to do anything for sure,’ ” Hilde said.

Skrebes, who has encouraged family and friends to sign the petition, said while they are supportive, most don’t know what they can do.

“It’s hard for people to understand,” Skrebes said. “It’s intense.”

While the group members’ immediate goal is for the two girls’ safe return, they also want to make sure this doesn’t happen anymore, Solomon said.

“It’s not just about my nieces,” he said. “It’s about the situation being stopped.”

Sudan’s Bor County Commissioner Abraham Jok Aring told Solomon that six more children had been abducted by the Murle tribe in the last week, he said.

A very small tribe, the Murle group has been taking children as a way to protect their tribe’s future, he said.

While the U.N. acknowledges the kidnappings by the Murle, there are suspicions the children are being taken as cattle herders and wives for tribe members.

While the University group is working to protect the future of Sudanese children, Solomon is overwhelmed by the complexity of the group’s plan.

“How long will this take to bring my nieces back?” he said.