NAIROBI, KENYA - Growing up in a village in what is now South Sudan, Akol Miyen says he felt safe. His family tended lush farms of sorghum, maize, vegetables and peanuts. Kuol herded his family's goats, sheep and cattle and walked them home. Rivers in the now-contested Abyei region provided villagers with abundant fish.
"We had everything - and above all freedom," Kuol says, reminiscing at a caf at Adams Arcade, an upscale mall in Kenya's capital, Nairobi, more than a thousand miles from his home village.
Then war came, and everything changed.
To guard Kuol's safety, his parents sometimes sent him to live with his older sister in Khartoum, Sudan's capital. He had no one to play with because boys his age abandoned school to join rebel groups. Schools closed for months as war raged on.
This was in the early 1980s, when the seeds of secession began to sprout in the predominantly Christian population in southern Sudan. Government forces battled rebels who demanded independence and control of the oil-rich Abyei, a border region that today is claimed by both Sudan and South Sudan. Abyei villagers had long fought with Arabic tribes from the north, but they had not previously engaged in a full-scale war.