Birthday candles for kidnapped girl

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Ajak Achiek Mading turned two years old on Monday, January 14. Her birthday cake of white frosting and multicolored candy stars stood poised, stuck with a large #2 candle, ready to be blown out. The only thing missing from the celebration was Ajak.

At the State Capitol, supporters of the Save Yar Campaign joined together to wish Ajak a happy birthday on Monday, even though her whereabouts remain unknown. After Ajak and her three year-old sister Yar were kidnapped from their home in South Sudan on October 3, 2007, their St. Paul-based uncle Gabriel Kou Solomon enlisted other University of Minnesota students to try to bring them home.

For more information on the Save Yar Campaign, visit www.save-yar.org

What began as a personal quest for the release of his nieces turned into a full-fledged campaign that now involves 25 students. Solomon, a University of Minnesota graduate student, and the other students have been working tirelessly with local delegations and the South Sudanese government not only to bring Ajak and Yar home, but also to raise awareness of child kidnapping in South Sudan and to gain the release of many children abducted in South Sudan.

Robyn Skrebes, chair of the Save Yar Campaign, announced that in the last two weeks, a military advance took place in South Sudan that disarmed gang members and recovered some of the abducted children. Many of the children are abducted because of their value as future brides or domestic help. In the last two years, it is estimated that more than 400 children have been kidnapped in three neighboring states in South Sudan, all by the Murle ethnic group. Although Skrebes and her campaign had hoped to return the children through non-violent means, she sees the recent military development as progress.

“We’re really happy [the South Sudanese government] is making it a priority,” says Skrebes, “but we want peaceful negotiations. Violence leads to more violence. We’d like the government to work with the abductors and the Murle community to negotiate a way to get [the children] back.”

Skrebes says that she and her campaign members have a fairly good idea that Ajak and Yar are in a specific region of South Sudan and are confident that they will be found. Knowing that a number of the missing children have been recovered is a huge accomplishment for Skrebes, Solomon and their team. “It’s exciting,” says Skrebes, “we know it’s possible to get the abducted children back.”

Similar statements were made by spokespersons of Senators Amy Klobuchar and Norm Coleman, Representatives Betty McCollum and Keith Ellison, and University of Minnesota Human Rights Program Director Barbara Frey. Professor Frey was teaching a course in Human Rights Advocacy last term when Solomon, a student in the class as well as a former Lost Boy of Sudan, found out about his nieces’ abductions. Since his campaign began, Frey has been enormously impressed with the motivation and dedication of her students.

“These students are really smart,” says Frey, “I can’t say enough about them….they’ve done all the work.” Students have connected with expatriate groups, blogged, sent out petitions and emailed in order to spread the word, and a small group took a trip to Washington last November, where they were able to meet with the President of South Sudan, Slava Kiir. As for her opinion of what a realistic outcome may be for the campaign, Frey is optimistic. “[the project] has really evolved” she says, “…we’ve raised the issue…[and] we’ve pushed the government to make this a priority more than they normally would have.”

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