Duany was 10 years old when his childhood was stolen from him.
He had already survived the attack on his town, when government forces came with their machine guns rattling before dawn and sent Duany and his brothers fleeing from their beds in different directions. He had survived the month-long journey that followed, when he walked without shoes and without family to safer land across the border of Ethiopia. He had survived night after night in the Ethiopian refugee camp, where he was put into a tent with the other motherless boys and awoke each morning to more of them missing around him. But even there, so far from his home, there was a chance for school and games with the other children and a lingering hope to see his brothers again. Until one night, during a dinner of rations, the men with guns came for him too.
The men were rebel fighters in the Sudan People’s Liberation Army, gathering boys to become child soldiers in the Sudanese civil war. Duany was taken to a military training camp, where he was taught how to fight and how to endure days without food.
After a few months of training, he was given an AK-47 and sent with the other children to fight in Sudan.
Duany and the other armed children, all stolen from refugee camps, were called the Red Army. They were marched from town to town, fighting battalions of grown, heavily-armed men. At each town, Duany saw countless boys gunned down around him. For the rebel fighters in charge, these battles were about reclaiming the towns from government control. For Duany and the other children, they were about survival. A victory over a town meant food and blankets and clothes to scavenge from the wreckage. It meant an end to their hunger.
Six years into the fighting, Duany’s father found him on the frontline.
It was the first time Duany had seen family since the war began. Duany’s father was a soldier himself—once in Sudan’s government army, but now a major for the rebel forces. He had been searching for months, sending word through the ranks and the battalions of child soldiers scattered across Sudan, and at last found Duany’s encampment outside Dimma, in the aftermath of battle. Duany’s father came to tell him that his older brother Odor was dead. Like Duany, Odor had been fighting in the war. His battalion was caught in gunfire on the other side of Sudan when Odor was shot. Duany was now the eldest surviving son in the family. His father begged Duany’s officers to release him, so that he and their bloodline may survive, but they refused.
Duany’s father did not put up a fight with the officers. Instead, he took his son aside and quietly told him to run. There was no future there. There was nothing but bloodshed and death. If Duany was to have some life at all, he needed to find a place beyond these borders where he could live in peace and go to school. These were the last words Duany’s father spoke to him before walking off to his own place in the war.
Duany thought about those words for the next six years. And for all those years, he planned his escape. When his battalion shifted to fighting in Kapoeta, near the wilds of the Boma forests, Duany had his chance. He and three fellow soldiers began burying food rations, little by little, in the earth. When enough was gathered to last them the journey to the border, they left their guns behind, took their food and water, and fled in the night.
Soldiers were sent chasing after them. In daylight, Duany and the boys hid in the cover of trees and riverbeds. At night they ran through the darkness. They feared the lions that prowled the region. Even the civilians there, sympathetic to the government, were a threat—they would turn any rebels into the army for execution. So Duany and the boys pressed on, choosing the lion hunting grounds over the towns. And after three long nights, they at last made it across the border, leaving the soldiers, the spies, and the lions behind them.
Duany was 22 years old. He had been at war for twelve years.
In Ethiopia, Duany went to primary school alongside young children and a few other Sudanese men who had also lost years to the fighting. He learned quickly and worked hard and earned himself a scholarship to go to high school. He continued to study with everything he had, determined to keep his promise to his father and himself of making a new life.
After high school, he moved to stay with his cousin in Nairobi, Kenya, in the hopes of pursuing a degree, but it was there that everything changed again.
Duany was attacked on the street by thugs, who cut off his hand at the wrist with a machete and ran off with what little money he had. Duany felt his life crashing to a halt. In the hospital, Duany became overwhelmed with depression and tried to climb out the window to his death.
Frightened by Duany’s suicidal thoughts, his cousin scraped enough money together to hire a therapist to council him. And for the first time in his life, Duany opened up about the horrors he had witnessed as a child at war.
Through his therapy, Duany found a will to live again. He came to terms with his past and the memories that still haunted him. And he discovered the true power of the human mind—and the healing nature of opening up and confronting the traumas that can live on inside of it.
It set him free.
He knew then what he wanted to become. Duany decided to pursue a degree in psychology and become a therapist himself. He wanted to help others overcome their own trauma. He wanted to help his fellow soldiers who had endured the same hell. He wanted to help all the children who had had their families and their futures and their childhood stolen by war.