RUMBEK, Sudan -- At 14, Mary Achok Marial knows how to handle an AK-47 assault rifle, but she can barely read. She knows how to forage for food to survive, but when she needs to buy salt in the market, she has trouble doing the math.
"I need education," said the barefoot girl under the mango tree, tough and muscular from her years with a rebel group. Her left ankle is still scarred from a bullet wound.
Mary Achok Marial, left, is one of two female students at a school for former child fighters in Sudan's civil war. She dreams of one day becoming a doctor or teaching other girls.
(Emily Wax -- The Washington Post)
_____Crisis in Sudan_____
Q&A: Darfur A brief explanation of the issues and current humanitarian situation in Western Sudan.
Photos: Continuing Crisis
Photos: Sudan's Rebels
U.N. Report on Sudan Draws Mixed Reaction (The Washington Post, Feb 2, 2005)
U.N. Panel Finds No Genocide in Darfur but Urges Tribunals (The Washington Post, Feb 1, 2005)
At Least 18 Dead After Sudanese Forces Quell Protest (The Washington Post, Jan 31, 2005)
U.S. Urges War Crimes Tribunal for Darfur Atrocities (The Washington Post, Jan 28, 2005)
Annan Urges Action on Darfur at U.N. Commemoration of Holocaust (The Washington Post, Jan 25, 2005)
"I was born during Sudan's war," she said, adjusting her cracked plastic headband over a clump of matted braids. "I am a child of war."
Mary is one of two female students at a crumbling school for former child fighters in this southern Sudanese town about 350 miles from the Kenyan border. Her education was interrupted by Africa's longest war, a 21-year conflict between the Islamic and Arab government in the north and the Sudan People's Liberation Army, a largely animist and Christian rebel group in the south.
Orphaned at age 7, she went to live with the rebels, mostly cooking and washing for troops in garrison towns, but also picking up a rifle and fighting alongside boys and men when the need arose.
Now, with a peace deal signed Jan. 9, the guns have fallen silent in one of Sudan's two civil wars; the second, in the western region of Darfur, continues to rage. In the south, the local populace is already starting to return, and children -- including hundreds of ex-soldiers -- are trickling back into schools. They sit under trees or in grass huts, learning without books, uniforms, writing tablets or chalk.
Soon, U.N. officials predict, the demand for education will soar. A spontaneous human cascade is expected to bring back about 3 million displaced Sudanese, both from other parts of the country and from refuges in Ethiopia, Kenya and Uganda.
As southern Sudan struggles to rebuild, the rebel movement, which controls much of the vast, undeveloped region, says it wants to make girls' education a top priority. But the obstacles are enormous in a region where 1.5 million children, many of them girls, are out of school. According to UNICEF, a girl here is more likely to die in childbirth than complete primary school.
The region has one of the highest female illiteracy rates on Earth, which means most girls have mothers who can't help them learn. And there are few qualified teachers, let alone female educators to serve as role models. On top of that, cultural traditions pressure girls to perform domestic tasks and marry young.
While Mary is determined to become literate and dreams of being a physician, her brother is dreaming of the dowry she could bring as a young bride. Even a girl who once fought for the "new Sudan" is now expected to wed at 14 and start producing its children.
'I Knew How to Fight'
Mary Marial's formal education ended the same year it began.
She was 7, living with her parents and siblings in Aweil, a town close to the border with the north. She had just started attending class when the town was attacked. Her mother told her to hide in the thick bushes behind their huts. In the chaos, with people stumbling in all directions, she lost her parents.
"I was small and I couldn't keep up," she said.
That night she saw their bodies lying in the dirt, bloated and silent.