It is one of the pleasures of travel to meet a young person in a foreign country who would be an example of character in any country. Ker Aleu Deng is a South Sudanese teenager I met in Aweil. He is learning English rapidly and likes to practice it on Americans. He is inquisitive and self-possessed — I saw him address a crowd, on short notice, as smoothly as a politician. He has a high voice and a deep, frequent laugh.
He is also blind, for the most horrifying of reasons. Until last year, Ker was a slave. He had been taken by tribal raiders along with his mother during Sudan’s North-South war and held in captivity in Darfur. For failing to perform some duty, Ker’s master, Zacharia Salih, hung him upside down from a tree and rubbed hot peppers in his eyes. The boy was cut down and rescued by a local imam. Later he was redeemed from slavery through a Zurich-based charity called Christian Solidarity International.
Ker’s corneas are now white and opaque. He can see light and darkness, but little else. He suffers from nightmares — vague dreams of being attacked, or of something heavy falling. But Ker’s default attitude is cheerfulness. Led from place to place, he is uncomplaining. Unfair suffering has left no mark of brooding or anger.
Ker’s future is undetermined. He is waiting for a Sudanese passport and an American visa to come to the United States to be examined for possible eye surgery. His mother, Angel Mangok, remains in captivity.
However it ends, Ker’s story illustrates something important about his brand-new, long-suffering country. For most, liberty is an abstraction and slavery is a metaphor. For some, the scars of slavery are real scars; the memories of slavery are about a year old. South Sudan, the world’s newest nation, has many obvious challenges. But it already offers the world remarkable examples of resilience.