"They looked asleep, but I could tell what happened," she said. "Some neighbors were screaming and tugging at me to leave."
Crying, she started walking with hundreds of others to a safer place. They hurried through thick and prickly grassland, without light or water. Mosquitoes kept biting her.
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)
"There was no one to take care of me," she recalled. "I had no blanket and it was cold at night. We were seeing so many people dead."
Mary started sweating and feeling queasy. A rebel soldier picked her up and carried her. She woke up in a hospital in a town called Yei and found her older brother, Eziekel, standing over her. He was dressed as a soldier, and he told her he wanted to avenge their parents' deaths.
She said she wanted to be a fighter, too, but her brother said no. He enrolled her in a small school under a tree. The schoolhouse had been bombed earlier that year.
But with thousands of displaced people squeezing into town, food became scarce and students stopped going to school. Mary and her brother had little more than wild fruit and small amounts of grain to eat.
"When hunger came, you threw your books on the ground," she said. The boys in her school gathered to listen to her tale, laughing softly in agreement. "When you are hungry you may eat any tree, and then your head aches and feels tight. You can't study when you have to spend your time finding what to eat."
A few months later, Yei came under attack. Bombs fell and bullets flew. One struck Mary in the ankle; she still limps from the wound. Soon afterward, Eziekel went off to fight with the Sudan People's Liberation Army, and she stayed behind in the garrison town, essentially becoming a servant at rebel camps.
"I was very small, but I wanted revenge," she said. "I was proud because I felt my parents would be happy that I was defending their memory. I wasn't having schooling. But I knew how to fight."
Most of the time, her job was to fetch firewood and water, to cook and clean. But she said she received training with an AK-47, and she fought alongside the older boys if attackers came. Sometimes they urged her to quit, but she refused. She killed, she said, and she saw people die.
"I wasn't scared. I wasn't going to run," she said. "I was fighting for a new Sudan. I wanted to fight like my brother. I was proud to be a shooter."
It would be another three years until she was reunited with Eziekel in Rumbek. He made her join a demobilization program, and her weapon was taken away. She was not yet 13.
Pressure to Wed
At the Deng Nihal primary school for former soldiers, Mary likes to roughhouse with her male classmates. There are 31 of them, mostly older than she. Mary is strong, with thick arms and hands, and she walks like a boy, with her arms swinging straight out.
One recent morning, she got into a playful fistfight. Her friend Moses Deng pulled her away. He's 19, still a fighter, but also a second-grader. Moses brought out his gun, a large AK-47 he keeps in a room behind the school. Mary was impressed.