Everyone can tell you exactly when they became a refugee. From the youngest child to the oldest woman, they will say: ‘It was April 23rd’ or ‘I ran from my home on January 2nd’. They then go on to tell you of relatives and friends killed or left behind when they fled the bombing of their homes in Sudan by Government troops and of long and arduous journeys through the bush.
Living in exile changes people. They have to start again from scratch. It becomes important to believe that one day you will return, and to treasure rosy memories of how things were ‘back home’.
Gordon Soro’s name is pronounced ‘Sorrow’, but he is the least sorrowful man I know. When I met him, he had just walked from his home to the base camp to meet me – a journey which had taken him two hours in the glaring African sun. And yet, at the age of 79, he seemed completely unfazed, accepting as a matter of course the lunch I brought him as he rested in the cool of the office block and told me a little about his life:
‘When the fighting started in 1993 and they came to get me, I refused to leave my home. You see, I had been a refugee before, in 1964, and I knew what it was like.
'In 1964 I had been lucky. I was saved by the latrine. The army came and ambushed my house where I was sitting. I heard shooting, so I ran to the latrine inside my house – the soldiers were shooting at the windows. They came in search for me, but I locked the door of the latrine and they thought there was nobody there. And so when they went away, I escaped to Zaire.’
Gordon grins broadly and chuckles again at the memory of his narrow escape. ‘This time, I was going to have to be dragged from my home before I would leave. So when everyone else was running to Uganda and they came and said to me: “What are you doing here? Everyone else has left. It is eight days now and you are still here. Come away!”, I said: “No!” So they said: “But you cannot stay here on your own, an old man without wife or children. Who will feed you? Who is going to look after you?” (At this point Gordon Soro pursed his lips, remembering). “Well,” I said. “I am going to look after myself!.” But they told me this was impossible and they pulled me into a car and brought me to Uganda.
‘I didn’t like it. You see, to be a refugee is very uncomfortable. In Sudan, I had my family to look after me, my pension money, my work as a magistrate. Here, I worry about my family outside. I have no clothes, no piece of soap, nothing to eat, no proper food. I don’t like it. I said to the people who came to take me away in Sudan: “It would be better to stay, to die here rather than to suffer there.” But they wouldn’t listen.
‘So I came to Uganda, to Koboko transit camp, I came with two grown-up married daughters, one unmarried daughter and a young son. I left the rest of my family behind in Sudan.
'You see, when people ran from Sudan, they did not usually come in family groups. They were running for their lives. They came with nothing – if they tried to bring anything with them it was taken or looted and sold by the soldiers.
'So when we came to the transit camp we were supposed to stay with our families. But this was already difficult. Then, suddenly, we were put on lorries and brought here to Ikafe. Often families that had been reunited were separated again.
'For example, I have just found out that my two married daughters, whom I was with in Koboko, are now here in Ikafe. But one is in the far north of the settlement and the other is in the new area called Imvepi. She has been there for about a month, but it is two hours’ drive from here – and I have only my feet!’ He leaned forward conspiratorially ‘You see, I am hoping to find someone here who is going to Imvepi – I heard that someone might be going tomorrow.’
But there was no transport for the following few days due to rebel activity in the area. Gordon didn’t go home but simply sat and waited, as close as he could to where the trucks and Landrovers left.
His patience was rewarded on the Thursday when the all-clear was given. I decided to hitch a ride with him in the back of the Landrover.
We bumped along the road, on the look-out for any rebel activity, but met none. When we finally reached Imvepi I asked Gordon if he knew where his daughter lived. It was a big area. ‘No,’ he said, sitting down in the shade and sipping some water. ‘But someone will have a list with her name on it. I will wait.’
And so I left him not long after, an old man with a determined heart, waiting for information that would lead him at last to his daughter’s home.
‘When the shelling started in April 1990, I was not at home. I was studying at the College of Adult Education and Training in Juba. I had to run in just the clothes I stood up in, not knowing where the rest of my family were or what had happened to them. On the way I saw many horrible things – five small children, burnt black. Horrible. I ran through the bush. I stayed for three days without food.
‘Like many other people, I carried my certificates and important documents with me wherever I went. I taped them to my body – just in case. So when I came here I was able to show my qualifications and to get a job as a Community Support Officer for Health here in the camp. But life is hard...I can’t contact my family because I know that people who receive letters from abroad can be accused of having rebel connections.
‘I would like to go to America to get training so that if peace comes I can go and assist my people.’
‘The worst thing for me has been leaving my books behind. Wherever I went, I took some books with me. I wanted to increase my knowledge. But because I was having to move so much I often had to leave my precious books; just dump them under a tree. This was very hard for me.
‘I have been revolutionized by my exile. I have to do something. I cannot keep quiet – something has changed inside me. If I can get the opportunity I will do some studies to improve my language so that I can try to express my ideas. Maybe then I will be able to do something very good for all people, particularly for the people of south Sudan.
‘I have come to understand that refugee life means determination. It is not an easy thing. If you are not determined, you may find yourself deciding that it is better to go back and stay in Government-held territories even if you are subject to so many atrocities. For me, I would rather suffer in exile than stay in my country being oppressed.
‘I will only go back to Sudan when there is true peace; when the Government in Khartoum signs a peace with the people of the South. Until then I will have to remain a refugee.’
‘I am a Dinka. The war in Sudan began in our area. So we left and crossed the border to Uganda. We had no vehicles. We were just using our feet to travel. These journeys take many weeks. Sometimes we travelled in the heat of the sun, sometimes in heavy rain. We used to try and walk at night when it was cooler, and sleep under trees by day. Even the children walked. There was no food, and our cattle had been lost, killed during the exchange of fire between the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) and the Government troops.
‘The Dinka are a semi-nomadic people, and having to stay in one place without moving is very difficult for us. We also miss our cattle and their milk and their meat. There are many things we have had to change. For example, we use cattle for dowry. The man will give the woman’s family many cattle in exchange for her hand in marriage. But now we have no cattle. We are trying to solve this problem. One way is the system of marriage on credit. The husband promises to pay the dowry when there is peace is Sudan...
‘But for the moment it means that there are fewer marriages. And we need young people to get married so that they can have children to replace all those who have died in Sudan. For every 50 people who come we want there to be 100 to go back!
‘There is another change. You see the marks on Martina’s forehead? And her two bottom teeth which have been removed? This is something we do when a person reaches puberty. It is a tradition of our people. It has always been done. But now it is forbidden for children to have this done, under pain of death. It is forbidden both in Sudan and here. It marks us out too much. It is just too dangerous.’
‘In Sudan, when a woman gives birth, we bring her presents, special food, soap, clothes for the baby. Here we cannot do this. Also when a baby dies these things can comfort her. She can share her feelings with the Women’s Association. In Sudan, if there is any problem women gather together and sit in one place and discuss it.
‘Here, when a woman loses a child – as one did only two days ago – I can call other women and we can talk and discuss with her as we did in Sudan, but we have nothing we can give her, nothing we can do to comfort her.
‘See my child here – he is naked! (and she gestured at the child clinging to her skirt, wearing only a necklace of blue beads) When the weather is cold this can affect the child – he can get sick with bronchitis. It was not like this in Sudan. We had milk, meat, clothes, many things...’
Illustrations by SARAH JOHN
©Copyright: New Internationalist 1996
This first appeared in our award-winning magazine - to read more, subscribe from just £7