top of page

They Didn’t Mean to Kill Us

Deng Mayik Atem with Kenneth Weene

THE SKY WAS gray from the night’s rain, but the sun was beginning to burn through the clouds. It was seven o’clock. Sleeping in was one advantage of being in the sick compound. Having recovered from chickenpox, I had not yet been reassigned to a regular battalion. I rolled up my blanket, carefully bundling my few belongings within it—especially the shoe I had been using as a pillow for months and the set of dominoes which Akot had carved and which he had given to me when he no longer had the strength to play. Taking my tooth-stick and working at cleaning my teeth, I walked the thousand or so yards to the place I dreaded and which I visited each morning, the place where we had buried my friend.

It had been a shallow grave, scooped into the wet, sandy soil. Without shovels and with water so close to the surface, we could do no better for him or the hundreds of others who died.

The last of the night’s scavenging animals had left. During the night I had listened to them—lions, hyenas, wolves and other animals—growling and howling and imagined them digging and pulling Akot’s remains from his shallow grave. I had wanted to run out of the tent waving a stick, perhaps throwing rocks to drive them away. However, I knew they would have turned on me so I waited for morning.

When the sun rose, the four-footed scavengers retreated into the jungle. Then the vultures arrived. It was this way each morning. Each night the hyenas and wolves would dig the bodies up, tearing them apart and leaving flesh, bones, and cloth scattered behind. Each morning, I would go to my friend’s grave and try to gather the remnants of his body and rebury them. I knew that much had been lost to those scavengers. I also knew that the bits and pieces scattered on the ground came not just from him but from the bodies that surrounded his. I gathered them with my hands and placed them next to what remained buried. Then I shoveled the clay and sandy soil over him.

According to the official statistics, forty people died each day in the Itang camp. That figure was low, especially during the first months. People were constantly dying. The South Sudanese Liberation Army did not want to tell the UN of all the deaths because they wanted to have as much food, clothing, and medicine delivered as they could get. Each morning, when we gathered on the parade ground for instructions, we would see blanket-covered bodies lying there, wasted mounds waiting for burying.

That was one of the jobs assigned each morning, carrying the dead to the resting place. The bodies would remain there for hours in the hope that they would awaken and return to us.

None did.

Then they would be buried.

Some, like Akot and myself, did not die in our squad’s crowded, dark green, military tents but became sick and were placed in the tents designated for sick people, which looked the same but were less crowded. Me for chickenpox and Akot for typhoid fever. Typhoid was one of the common causes of death in the camp. Dysentery was another. Many suffered from malaria. There were parasites of all kinds. Guinea Worms were the worst. We could see them crawling out of a person’s skin.

There was a terrible lack of sanitation. The latrines were inadequate and at night many people relieved themselves on the ground near the tents. Hordes of large green flies covered the feces and then our food. When it rained, the river rose and decaying bodies floated into the middle of the camp.

Parasitic worms lived in the water. When the worms would get inside a person, they would work their way out through the skin. When a worm burrowed their way out of the skin, it was important to gently pull them out a bit at a time. If the worm was broken, the part inside the person would begin its own journey through their body. Each morning people would find those emerging worms, carefully pull them out a bit, and then gently tie them in place hoping that the next day they could be pulled a bit farther.

I was horrified of those worms. One day, one of the men made believe that I had a worm coming out from behind my ear. For a long time, I kept checking and checking. In the midst of such suffering, there were still people who would torment a child.

There was little medicine available, most of it unrelated to the needs of the people. Often we would be told to sit in long lines waiting for medication. Huddled under our blankets we would wait and wait. Slowly the line would move forward. Some died in those lines, crouched under their blankets they stopped breathing—tiny hillocks wrapped in gray or brown, blending with the mud and sorrow of the place. The others shuffled around those corpses and moved forward, usually to receive a dose of oral salt, good only for the dehydration that comes with diarrhea but one of the few medications that were available.

Akot and I should have been sent on to the next camp where we would have been trained for the army. That was the secret mission of Itang. It was the place where women and old men were separated from those who could become soldiers. Of course, this was hidden from the United Nations staff who infrequently arrived in big Toyota land cruisers equipped with long whip antennas for their radios, had a cup of coffee, and made believe they were inspecting the camp. It was also hidden from the Ethiopian government officials who visited. While the government in Addis Ababa knew what was going on, it worked very hard to maintain the myth that this was a simple refugee camp. When outsiders came to inspect, they were only shown the area we called “downtown,” where women, children, and older men slept and lived. Some of the young men would be brought there for those inspections. The officials were kept away from the Thoukot area where the men stayed and where they received their first military training before being shipped to other training camps.

Akot and I should have been sent on. We would have been were we healthy. Instead, we were sent to the quarantine section of the camp.

Before that I had not really known Akot. He was a grown man and I a boy of nine. Many days I sat to the side watching him and the other men play dominoes using a set of bones he had made. Akot was good with his hands. He had worked as a handyman in his home town, which was some distance from mine.

A short man, Akot was balding and missing the ring finger on his right hand. Soft-spoken, he got along with everyone, but he was a fierce competitor once the dominoes were shuffled. I was eager to learn the game, and when we were forced to spend many hours lying next to one another, he took an interest in teaching me.

Akot and I slept next to each other for three weeks. Gradually, the pox on my body cleared and my fever fell. The red blotches on his body worsened and his fever rose. He became weaker as I became stronger. Sometimes I would bring him water, which came from the polluted river. Sometimes I would get his food and help him to eat. His breathing became more difficult. During his sleep he would often groan.

One night, Akot groaned and sighed a great deal. Hearing my friend’s discomfort, I, too, had difficulty sleeping. Finally, he quieted. I drifted off. Judging from the sun, it was mid-morning when I awoke. Akot lay quiet beside me. I shook him, but he did not stir. I knew that he was dead, but I could not believe it. I called one of the men who was in charge. He said, “Yes, I know he is dead.”

I could not believe it. The man had not even looked at Akot. He did not care that my friend had died. He showed no humanity. We carried Akot’s body, which was wrapped in his blanket, to the grave area. The ground was littered with skulls, skeletons, and shredded cloth. Using our hands and sticks we dug his shallow grave. Before we buried him, one of the men told me to hold the blanket and he tore it in half. One half went under his body; we used the other to protect Akot’s face before we covered him with clay and sand.

Walking back to the medical tent area, I did not talk. We passed dozens of others carrying their friends to the burial area. I did not look up. I did not see who these other dead might be. All I could think about was the people I had lost: Akuei, Attak, Ring, and now another friend. And the countless others who had died while I watched. How did fate choose those who were to live and those who were to die? Why had I survived? Was there meaning? A lesson to learn?

A few days later, I was moved from the quarantine area to a youth encampment. I quickly became known because I had a set of dominoes and could play well. Many boys liked that I was willing to teach them how to play.

Akot had carved the bones from a light-colored wood and made the pips by inserting the tip of a heated spear into the wood. Over time, the sweat of many hands darkened and splotched the wood even as they wore the bones smooth. I thought about the hours he spent crafting them. Sometimes I would ask those new players to come with me when I would visit the place that we had buried Akot.

I knew that there was no longer any way to know where the parts of his body might be, but I could not stop visiting that spot. “This is where we buried the man who taught me this game,” I would tell those boys. “He made the set of bones with which we play.”

One of the boys whom I taught to play dominoes was Gatluak. He was Nuer and could not speak the Dinka language. He used hand gestures to communicate, and many of the Dinka boys did not want him among us.

“Why do you let him join us?” they asked me.

Ha raan ya,” I would answer.

Gatluak was my first friend who was not a Dinka. Even though he was from a different tribe, I knew that he, too, was human. When I taught him to play dominoes, I felt closer to Akot and to all those who had died. Across the stream from the camp was the local hospital for the town of Itang. SPLA soldiers who were wounded in battle were brought there. Many of them had bounced and jostled in the back of trucks for days before arriving at the hospital.

A great many had been wounded during the endless round of battles at Jangok. The soldiers who died in the hospital had to be buried. It was one of the tasks that was assigned to the youth encampment. It was a horrible assignment that we all tried to avoid. I was picked twice. The first time Gatluak was also chosen. There were about twenty of us in the group. I didn’t know what we were being taken to do. Gatluak and I laughed and joked as we followed the soldier who had selected us. I thought, “Maybe we’re going to get something good.”

We didn’t go into the hospital. We went to a separate metal building, blue with white doors. An Ethiopian man wearing a surgical mask met us in front of that big white door. He opened it and the stench of rotting bodies overwhelmed us. There were seven dead soldiers to be buried.

We formed a small parade, four of us carrying each body the quarter mile to the burial area. We carried the litters on our shoulders. We stopped a couple times to rest and adjust the loads. Scavenger birds flew overhead. “Queek.” “Wee.” “Karak, karak.” I wanted to throw stones at them. I hated the sense of helplessness they represented.

At the burial area, flies swarmed around us. There were skulls and other bones scattered on the ground. We looked for a place to dig. The soldier used his thugka, sticking it into the ground to find a place where there were no other bodies. He handed us beat-up, rusty shovels and told us to dig. “Put two or three in the same hole,” he told us. “That way it will go faster.”

Gatluak and I walked back to our battalion area. We were no longer joking. Both of us coughed and spat over and over as if we could clean our bodies of the sights and smells. Back at our tents, we got clean clothes and went to the river to bathe. Even though clothes were scarce, we threw away what we were wearing for the burial detail. Who can go through life wearing the blood and excrement of the dead?


Trained to be a child soldier, Deng Mayik Atem arrived in the U.S. in 1995, one of the first Lost Boys of the Sudan to emigrate to America. The Lost Boys of Sudan were over 20,000 boys of the Nuer and Dinka ethnic groups who were displaced or orphaned during the Second Sudanese Civil War (1983–2005). Atem received his BA from Arizona State University. He is publisher of Ramciel, a South Sudanese Diaspora magazine. He's currently at work on his memoir, Jumping Over the Ram with Kenneth Weene, from which "They Didn't Mean to Kill Us" is excerpted.


Commenting has been turned off.
bottom of page