I believe that stories like mine can educate people about the human cost of war, and also help to demystify terms like “refugee” or “internally displaced person”.
I became a refugee as a child. I was fortunate to have already known the beauty of my birthplace and learned the ways of my ancestors against the backdrop of our homeland.
The terms "refugee" or "internally displaced person" describe a condition where a person is forced to flee his or her home in the face of real threats to their life. They do not define the person in the same way that the experience of any misfortune does not define the experiencer. Yet, these terms often have the unintended consequence of alienating people whose fundamental need is to be embraced by humanity and not be defined by adversity. My story is one among millions of such stories.
Refugee children in Gambella, Ethiopia. For many refugee children, their place of origin is an imaginary one, constructed in their minds through the stories they hear. I was fortunate to have known my birthplace by the time I became a refugee. [UNHCR/Kisut Gebre Egziabiher, 2014]
I was born in a grass hut in a place called Akobo, Jonglei state.
My father, Thabach Duany, was a prosperous businessman. He owned a fleet of lorries that used to transport alcoholic drinks that he sold at his bar in Akobo. My mother, Nyathak Muon Joak, was one of my father's eight wives.
In our home and community, we had defined gender and peer group roles. Essentially, the females are the homemakers and caregivers, while the males are the protectors of family and wealth particularly cattle. Life was so predictable. The seasons guided our activity.
Like most African traditions, ours is oral. It is musical and it is poetic. Legends and standards of conduct are passed from generation to generation through ceremonies, stories, music and dance. We chart our lineage through naming protocols that generate a multihued family tree; a construct that blends events with the stories of our kin from past generations who we are named after.
By the time I was seven years old, I was skilled at herding our family’s cattle in the ways of our forefathers.
Along with my older siblings, I roamed the plains in search of pasture in the dry season. I knew all of our cows by name. I could tell in an instance if one went missing. For fun we molded cows out of mud, imitating our way of life. I have vivid memories of playing in the waters of the White Nile, with its strong currents. My age mates and I knew that when we jumped in we had to swim straight or we would be washed away.
Nothing could have prepared me for the brutality of being uprooted from the only life I knew, or the havoc that would eventually propel me to where I am in the world today.
As I recall, the trouble started when the government introduced Sharia law in Sudan. All alcohol was banned. Because of that ban, an entire consignment of beer on one of his lorries was destroyed. Every bottle was broken. My father was furious. He took great offense. He decided to join the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army. He had fought against the north in the First Sudanese Civil War that raged from 1955 to 1972.
With my niece in Kakuma refugee camp. It is distressing to have survived the mayhem of war and now have the next generation of my family relive the refugee experience, where days turn into weeks and then months and years. [Emmanuel Jambo, 2014]
Abruptly my childhood experience took a new character—that of being hunted down like wanted criminals.
Our family could not stay in Akobo. It was too risky. Our country was in the throes of a full blown civil war. My father moved us to a village. The northerners (our national army) followed us with helicopters and bombs. Each day we hid in the forest until nightfall when we returned home to sleep.
Later, much later, I came to realize we Sudanese people were one, just disconnected in much the same way as South Sudan is experiencing strife as I write, scattered in displacement sites in the country and refugee camps in neighbouring countries. By that time, I was a grown man living in the United States.
The fighting continued. My older brothers—barely teenagers—left to join. It was expected of them. The situation worsened. It became clear that our family needed to get out of the country. Many families and communities were doing the same.
Almase and her granddaughter, Zeinab aged nine, in a refugee camp in South Sudan. They fled their village in Blue Nile state, Sudan amidst heavy fighting and aerial bombardment. Almase is "...very glad to be here where it is safe but I want to go home and findmy granddaughter's parents. We could not wait to be killed by Antonovs." [UNHCR/Sebastian Rich, 2013]
We left for a place called Ethiopia where it was said we would be safe. We walked for what seemed like a lifetime, moving along waterways and avoiding enemy encampments. The older family members carried or shepherded the younger ones and the animals. Anyone who could helped carry belongings.
Eventually we came to Itang, in Ethiopia. The distance we had covered is about 150 miles as a crow the flies. Itang was crowded camp with hundreds of thousands of people living under canvas structures. Death was commonplace. There was no proper burial. Corpses were simply buried in shallow trenches.
Life was difficult. I never tired dreaming of Akobo. I longed for the freedom of the open plains and the waters of the White Nile. In Itang, we ate only rice and beans provided by the United Nations. Gone was the traditional sorghum and the different sauces that I was accustomed to. But we were safe from the guns and bombs.
Present-day difficulties that refugees encounter were common then. Fetching firewood to cook, for example, involved venturing farther and farther from the camp to gather firewood at the risk of being raped, assaulted or worse.
Even today, so many years later, these memories evoke the ordeals that our mothers and sisters faced, brusquely separated from the familiar surroundings and deprived of the security of family and community. They were left to head families and protect their offspring alone. They suffered the pain of losing loved ones including children who died or just disappeared in the wilderness never to be seen or heard from again.
Our mothers learned to cope with life in foreign lands where language and mannerisms were completely alien . I had the child’s perspective. Soon I would experience the anguish of not knowing if I would ever see my mother or my siblings again. As an adolescent boy on the frontline and in refugee camps, I would make choices that were motivated purely by the desire to survive.