The month before the attack when Benson disappeared and Achol was killed, the wella wella wella of helicopter propellers brought us of out of our houses. It had slowed down overhead, as though getting tired, and black smoke trailed against the sky behind it.
One year later, it happened again. This time the helicopter was smaller and very close overhead. The people inside were looking out of it. I didn’t know what they were looking for.
Soon after the helicopter, raiders came to our village. There was no warning. Sometimes the elders heard that the northerners were coming and we would leave the village and take our cows to another place. But this attack came suddenly and horribly. Explosions, horses and camels chasing people, shooting, screaming, crying: it was like the end of the world.
I deserted my goats and ran into the bush to hide with other people. Smoke billowed out from our village and hung over it like a cloud. The roofs of the huts shot up in flames like torches. People scattered to escape the bullets. I watched as the invaders tied the arms and legs of their captives and put long ropes around their necks. They led them from the village on a line blindfolded so they didn’t know the place they were going. “Drowning them in the river,” a person cried. “They don’t want to waste bullets.”
That night, I saw my lovely village, Juol, full of palms and coconut trees, fade in a way I couldn’t understand.
The survivors told us not to go back to Juol because there was nobody alive except the enemy. We moved in the darkness, skirting the long grass and not minding the snakes. The fear inside us was acute. All I could think of was my family. I wanted to go home, but the adults wouldn’t let the children return. “It’s not safe,” they said. “You’ll be captured.”
With no food and little water, we trekked a hundred miles, staying away from Toch, where the Sudanese government had its army. After four days walking we reached Tonj County. People were gathering there because it was under rebel protection. The adults were instructing us kids,“Move on, move on, move on,” through the street, when I recognized my half brother Peter sitting on the road crying. Peter’s mother was my father’s fourth wife and they lived with his grandmother in another village. I knew his village had probably been attacked too.
Peter cried even more when I went to him. He was only five and had no clothes or blanket; he had nothing. At least I had a raggedy shawl tied across one shoulder that I could use as a blanket to sleep. I was lucky. Peter stayed close with me after that and we shared my blanket. We were escorted by the adults from town to town. They said to each other, “These boys have no parents. They belong to Sudan and we can’t let them die from hunger.” But many of us did die, from disease, thirst and starvation, especially the little boys like Peter who cried all the time.
After walking several days we got lucky at a town called Thiet and found an older cousin, Joseph. I cried and begged him, “We have to go back. Take us back home.”
“I don’t even know the way home,” he said. “We might get lost or get eaten by a wild animal or run into those wolves. Let’s just go together with this group of boys. Maybe we'll find a safer place.”
Joseph was nine, two years older than me. He lived in a village near Juol but I rarely saw him because he was always watching the cows. He had two friends, Santino Akuetoch and Diing Ngor, with him. We came together as a group of five. Joseph was the oldest and the tallest.
In the town of Thiet, the adults divided us into groups of two or three hundred boys. We had to sleep outside. Joseph found a mosquito net in a garbage pile. It was worn out, and dirty and full of holes. He pulled a thorn from an acacia tree, peeled it and made a hole at the dull end. Using thread from a white sock we found, he sealed all the holes in the net. We picked up some clothes from the garbage and washed them.
While in Thiet, we ran into my older brother, Yier. Joseph was the one who recognized him. I’d only seen him a few brief times in the village because he’d been away at the university in Wau until the government killed all the students. Now he was with the rebels and Joseph saw him in a crowd of soldiers coming into town. Yier told us that he’d heard there were boys gathering and he’d come to Thiet looking for us. Peter, Joseph and I were thankful to see someone else from our family, especially someone older who could look after us and give us advice. My heart longed for my parents there to love, protect and advise me. I missed my father every day. When Yier was suddenly called away to the north to fight with the other soldiers, my chest went hollow. Family had become so precious to me. Without it I was like a tree alone in a desert.
We headed south again with another group of soldiers. Everytime we came to a new place or met with new people I looked out for anyone else in my family, especially Benson. I’d found Peter, Joseph and even Yier. So, even though Benson had been gone for two years now, why should I not find him too?
All the walking made many wounds on my feet. I wasn’t the only one with that problem. We couldn’t travel during the day because it wasn’t safe. We walked barefoot at night, but in the dark I couldn’t see what I was stepping on. The snakes came out to eat at night, and that was when most people were bitten. I got a swollen leg but I didn’t know what had happened to me. It was difficult to walk. To keep up, I had to limp along. I was determined to survive and help our family survive. A week later an adult said, “See this tiny hole and that oozing liquid like water. You were bitten by a snake. You’re lucky that it was a nonpoisonous snake.”
Joseph was our protector and he liked to keep us around him all the time. When it came to a dangerous situation, like when a hyena jumped up and everybody scattered, he knew what to do. He carried a piece of wood as a club. He couldn’t protect everybody but guarded quite a few of us that he knew.
Sometimes though we found ourselves so desperate, not even Joseph could help. We wept; even Joseph cried. Just walking for weeks was terrible. Kids were dying from snakebites and starvation. Some of the boys were so depressed they didn’t stop crying. Some didn’t eat. Manytimes Peter wouldn’t eat even if we had food. I’d find little things but he wouldn’t eat them. When Peter cried he made me and the other boys cry too. Usually I was the one who went in and tried to break that up. We didn’t want that. We saw that the kids who were crying and not eating were dying.
The first time things seemed all right was when we reached a town where people still had cattle. They gave us five bulls, but we were so many we each had only a very small piece. When they brought the milk, only the smallest boys received half a glass. There wasn’t enough for boys like me. That night, as we slept outside near a river, a hyena attacked a boy and took off part of his face. I saw it that morning, the cheek open into the mouth, and I was so scared that the next night I didn’t sleep at all.
For a month after we left Juol, we’d slept outside and had almost no food. It was only when we reached the town of Yirol that we were given another mosquito net to share and two hundred of us boys were led to the cement floor of along building.
The next morning, explosions woke us from our sleep. Our bodies trembled at the sound but then it was gone. We went down to the river. Many mango trees that had been in the area the day before had all disappeared. The soldiers said Antonovs threw bombs at the white birds resting along the riverbanks because they thought the birds were people washing their laundry.
We’d heard adults speak of these Antonovs. “What is Antonov?” we asked.
“They are the planes that the government buys from Russia.They drop bombs from so high we cannot see them. Only hear them.”
What is Russia? I wondered.
A captain sat us down and talked to us in Arabic, which was translated to Dinka by a few Nuer boys who were there. “You guys are the tomorrow,” he said. “The future of Sudan. We’re going to find you a safe place, find you a school, and put you under rebel protection. We know you are kids and you are helpless and we want to help. We don’t want any of you to die.”
The soldiers taught us about bombs. “Don’t run,” they said. “Just lie down. The little planes go very, very fast and when you hear them they’ve already gone by and dropped the bombs. The big ones are the Antonov. You can hear a very big roar but the bombs are already falling by then. You cannot out run them.”
Every night we swept the floor with palm leaves to keep it clean and every morning the Antonov bombed. It didn’t miss a single day. We woke up before the sun each day and went to the trenches to protect ourselves. When the UN plane that brought medicine came, someone would shout, “Antonov, Antonov,” and we’d run to the trenches. The Antonovs flew so high we never saw them but they saw us. They found the direction the wind was blowing and dropped sixteen or twenty bombs. You’d see the explosion rise up after each one. They bombed Yirol every day so metal fragments were all around. Some people ran and metal cut off their arms and their legs. Even their heads. They ran anyway because they were scared. Lying down, I learned, was how you survived the Antonov bombs.
Occasionally, when people were unlucky, a bomb would land in a trench and no one would survive. Everyone would die, cut down by a bomb full of metal.
One night I heard a deep vibration from very high up. I opened my eyes a little and saw that all the other people were sleeping, so I thought I had been dreaming and shut my eyes.
I was in a deep sleep when the building shook like an earthquake that didn’t stop. There were explosions outside. It was still dark but I could hear crying and shouting everywhere. Boys ran out coughing from the dust. I got up and ran out too.
Later, when the sun came up, we saw that a bomb had gone through our roof and landed between our building and the next one without exploding. It was big, the size of a fat man. The up end had a propeller and the other end was stuck tip down in the ground. That would have been the end of us if it had exploded.
The rebel soldiers in Yirol were often sent north to fight. The person in charge said, “We have three or four hundred boys here and they are being killed by Antonovs. This place is not safe for them. We must move on.”
South of Yirol we passed through a place where people believed there were cannibals. Boys disappeared, especially little ones. Maybe wild animals devoured them. There was a type of small lion in that area called nyanjuan that I had never seen in my village back home. If you were big, over ten years, this lion could only gash your eyes, but if you were five or seven, it would take you and eat you. That small lion ate many of us boys.
One night that lion, nyanjuan, came while we were sleeping. It picked up a boy sleeping near me. “Help, help,” I cried.
All I saw was a blur of his body and heard his last cry echoing as he disappeared into darkness. In the morning we found the blood and some remnants, his hand, legs, and head. His eyes had been gashed all out. When the nyanjuan eats you, it gashes out the eyes, eats the guts and stomach, and only leaves legs and hands so that you cannot be recognized. When you don’t have eyes, it is terrible.
I think God protected me or I would have been eaten by that nyanjuan.
In some of the villages we went through, people who had lost children would see a cute little kid and wanted him for themselves. In one village I met a lady with some nuts. I wanted those nuts so badly that I asked her for some.
She said, “You are so cute, boy. My baby just died. You look just like my boy. When I saw you I thought you were him. Where are your parents?”
I said, “I don’t know.”
“Where are you going?”
“I don’t know.”
I was giving her all the answers but she wasn’t offering me the nuts.
“Just stay with me,” she said. “You’re going to be happy.”
“Give me some nuts,” I demanded.
When she gave me the nuts, I ate them.
She asked, “Are you going to stay with me?”
I said, “No. I must be with my family.”
She looked sad. I walked away.
Walking was hard for little boys like Peter. He stuck to me because he was my half brother. We walked off-road for three days with no food, only water, and were very hungry when we reached a small town. But the villagers wouldn’t spare us some food. I had never begged in my life, but I wanted something so badly that I begged for peanuts from a woman. She refused and said, “If you keep asking insistently I will beat you!”
I kept quiet and walked away. We found a few grains on the ground and some of us boys started picking them from the sand. When I raised my head, I saw that Peter was just sitting. “Peter,” I said. “Come and pick some grains.”
“I am not a hen,” he replied. “I can’t pick from the ground.”
When we finished, I had a little pile in my palm. It was worth a lot to me. We combined our grains, fetched some twigs, made a fire and cooked them in a tin. Each person got a mouthful. Peter got his share too. That one bit of cooked grain let us talk cheerfully for a while.
When we were done, I went to where Peter was sitting. “You are not in your mama’s house anymore,” I told him. “You have to think about what brought you here. You can’t complain about being a hen; you have to do everything to stay alive. You’ve already seen that boys like you are dying. They always cry and they’re always depressed. I’m not saying I’m a grown adult, but this is the situation. To live, this is just my thought. Whatever you think is up to you. If you want to die, just go ahead and die. I don’t care. We will all die. No problem.” I did care. I didn’t want Peter to die. He was the only brother I could be sure was still alive.
Peter went quiet. He was so homesick. But he listened to me like an elder. He knew if it wasn’t for me and Joseph he wouldn’t be alive.
We moved on again and came to the Upper Nile, where a ship would take us across to the Equatorial region. I wondered if Benson traveled this way. I was told many boys had been through this region before and traveled eastward toward Ethiopia. We spent two days there entirely without food and I became so miserable and hungry I couldn’t talk. I shut down like a car without gas.
We crossed the Nile on a big motor ship. It was a sad crossing. I could only think of my family, my village, and the Dinka land I was leaving behind. The adults said we had to find a safe place and wait for the war to end. But all I wanted to do was go back home.
On the east side of the Nile, the Aliab Dinka offered cows to us. The commander assigned ten boys to each soldier. When they killed a cow, the soldier went to get the meat and cooked it for us. It was our first good meal in weeks. But that night, we were discovered by the mosquitoes, which swarmed so thick they sounded like many cows crying. None of us could sleep. Ten of us shared the mosquito net and one pulled one way and another pulled the other way. All you could do was let the mosquitoes eat and when you wiped your hand on your body it would be bloodied. We wondered how people lived there.
In the morning we were so weary, so sick for home, so miserable, we cried. The adults told us to be quiet.
“We want to go home.”
“You can’t go home. There is nothing there but the war.”
“Where are we going?”
“We are taking you to a place where all the boys are gathering.”
“Are we going to Ethiopia?”
“No, we’re going south. To a place called Palataka.”
“Palataka? What is this place Palataka?”
“There is a missionary school. You will be safe.”
Palataka sounded like a good place for us. “How far is that?” we asked.
“Not far now. Only a few days beyond Torit. We’ll be in Torit in a couple of weeks.”
They told us we’d already traveled four hundred miles. Torit was only two hundred more and Palataka just a twoday walk, less than a hundred miles beyond there. When we heard how far we’d come we were encouraged and we wiped the tears from our eyes and decided to be strong.
But we weren’t strong. Some of the boys went crazy. They did things a normal person cannot do, crazy things. One boy urinated and sprayed the rest of us with urine and said, “It’s raining.” Some boys wouldn’t talk. They couldn’t. They just looked at you. I found myself also not talking sometimes. I did silly things: got angry over nothing, fought. It was my way of dealing with our situation. Then I began to understand that if we were strong enough to fight each other, why not fight the people who separated us from our parents? I told the others, “We also have to fight for anything that comes our way. As a group, ten boys are equivalent to one adult. Because each one of us has a brain we can come up with a better idea to defeat anything. ” That was another way of surviving, making ourselves strong as a group.
Some boys were selfish. When they found food, they’d eat it themselves and they wouldn’t share. I learned a lot from sharing. If I found a small thing and I looked at another boy, I felt so bad to not split or give him a little. I’d break it up; give him a piece and eat a piece. When I needed it, somebody gave me a piece.
We followed the Nile south to Gemmeize, where we stopped to rest for the night. The setting sun was leaving behind rays that were red like poking embers. I looked up at the clear blue sky and called to the other boys, “Guys, why is it so clear up in the sky today?”
“Maybe it’s going to rain,” Diing said.
Diing had the same prophecy as me.
The other boys gave mocking laughs. One boy said, “Do you think you are prophets?”
They broke into another long laugh until their eyes were wet with tears. Diing and I withdrew and kept our mouths shut. As night fell we broke into groups and went under the mosquito net cuddling ourselves together like puppies to their mother. Most of the boys fell fast asleep. I was gazing at the starry sky and thinking back to my mother and my home where I used to sleep softly like a little baby, with warm blankets and peaceful coverings to keep my body from cold. One boy started snoring like a frog in the rainy season. Someone broke into a chuckle, breaking my train of thought.
I raised my head above the long line of boys. “Who is that?”
We had a little conversation, then he slept too. As soon as I fell asleep, a gusting wind woke me abruptly. I jumped up like a small child who steps on a hot coal. Soon a heavy wind bent the trees, a gale, creaking and breaking the dried twigs, moving dead leaves and old stained tins. With cloudy eyes I stumbled into the darkness with the other boys. I’d taken a few strides when rain began to fall. It hardened into dark particles, turning to heartbreaking rains, beating the sunbaked, cracked ground thoroughly, sealing up cracks with big pools of water. The boys broke into shrill cries, sounding like sweet-voiced musicians. The rain beat down more heavily, like the adougo drum. I’d never seen such rain before. I waded through the dark, wet earth, my feet making a sholob, sholob sound.
Santino called out, “Wow!”
“Nhiallic,” God, I mumbled. My chin trembled and my teeth chattered. A tongue of fire flashed as lightning struck. Every boy ran in a different direction. I headed for some thatched houses roofed with yellow elephant grass. I poked my head in to save myself from the freezing cold. It was already crowded. An older boy placed his heavy hand on my head and pushed me back. Everybody roared, “The fire is small.”
I stood motionless in front of the door, then I tried another hut. My shivering body felt on the point of death. Was this to be the end of my life?
No! I was determined. I threw myself inside, sprawled on top of them.
At least the rain reduced the mosquitoes the next morning.
That day, long trucks began arriving in Gemmeize. They had three trailers as big as houses with sheets for roofs and were empty after returning from delivering food to Bor.
The drivers parked their trucks and started cooking. The soldiers went over and talked to them. “Look at these young boys walking. We soldiers can walk, we are grown, but these kids, they have suffered badly. We need your help to take them to Torit.”
One of the drivers shouted something back in another language and jumped in his truck. As he started the engine and began to drive away, the soldiers shot all his tires flat. The driver jumped out and yelled at them. The soldiers grabbed the drivers, beat them up, and forced them back into their trucks. Now the drivers looked scared.
The soldiers yelled to us, “Jump on the trucks.” The engines started up. I tried to climb up, but the tires were taller than me. Then a guy came along and helped us all up until the first one was filled and they started filling the next one.
Thirty of us sat on the floor of the trailer. I was excited. It was my first time in a vehicle. The truck began moving and I looked out through the canvas sheeting. Except for the one with its tires shot out, all of the trucks were following. When the trees began running backward very fast, I got scared and sat down. It grew dark and we were bouncing everywhere. Other boys grabbed and held on to me. We were shaking and swirling side to side. All we could smell was the smoke of the truck. I was fine, but many of the boys got sick. A lot started throwing up. Puking everywhere. It was so dark, no light and aaahh it smelled so bad.
During the rainy season it is very hard for vehicles to move in southern Sudan. Our driver saw that the road was covered with dirty water and other trucks and cars were stuck there. He tried to make a detour around the trapped vehicles until we got stuck too. All the soldiers jumped out. I was curious and put my head outside the vehicle to see what they would do. Destroyed vehicles were everywhere and all around them were human bones. The skulls seemed to be smiling up at me. The soldiers pushed for an hour before we got the truck out of that mud.
Government troops still held the town directly on the other side of the Nile. When we stopped and the soldiers got out of the trucks and made fires, they told us to be quiet. We were so hungry. The soldiers were taking care of themselves but nobody looked out for us. “Boys,” they said, “you’re not in your mama’s house no more!”
Joseph had brought some grain. We got out to make a fire but a few minutes later the soldiers announced we were going. We traveled all that night through a beautiful green area with hills and trees. We came to a village that the Antonov had bombed a week before. The homes, hospital, and schools were destroyed. Many people had been killed or were badly wounded, with no help.
We rested there but the soldiers told us not to walk out of the town because there were land mines. Joseph started to a cook. A few minutes later the soldiers announced, “Okay boys, we’re going.” Once more, we didn’t eat.
We passed more towns. All ruined. Wrecked buildings.Wrecked cars. They looked like battlefields and smelled of human blood.
Seeing destroyed towns changed our mood. They didn’t even look like villages anymore. I thought I understood why the Murahaliin attacked our village. They wanted our cattle, our things and our kids. But I didn’t understand this complicated war, how it mortally devoured the land and left it so full of skeletons. The adults talked of the war all the time. They discussed slavery, apartheid, racism, segregation and tribalism. They called it a religious war. A jihad. I heard all the words but I didn’t understand them. I think kids feel differently about things than adults do. From what I could see, men or women, children or adults, young or aged, rich or poor, war was making everyone equal.
Through all of this, Joseph was serious and caring and worried and he always looked after us. Peter was always miserable. He didn’t eat and cried over little things. If anyone took a little thing from him, he would just break into tears. He’d say, “If my mother was here, I wouldn’t be like this.” We’d say, “Shut up boy, you’re not in your mama’s house no more.” We said that a lot. As children, seven or eight years old, we knew nothing about the world, just that we were not in our mama’s house no more.
It was night when our line of trucks entered Torit. We were the first group of small boys to arrive there. The rebels had just captured Torit back again from the government, after months of fighting. The whole city stank.
We awoke the next morning to destroyed buildings, bullets, shells, and bones and skulls lying everywhere. The city had modern buildings and even some paved streets. I could tell it had been a nice place before the battle. There was a mission station with high buildings and a very tall Catholic church. The area was a little hilly and green with mangos, guavas and lemons. Many cars and vehicles were still there, but all destroyed and smeared with blood and smelly with bones. It looked like there had been fighting for years, not just three or four months. We were taken to a deserted school facility that was partially bombed. The water system had been destroyed. They had flush toilets, the first ones I'd seen, but they didn't flush. The soldiers had been using them anyway; all of the bathrooms in town were filled with shit, some of the houses too. The place smelled terrible. The city was big and we couldn't go far because it was ringed with land mines, so we couldn't get outside to relieve ourselves.
We slept outside under blankets. My blanket was the strongest, the most beautiful and the best thing I had ever owned. It had yellow, blue, red and gray stripes alternating all over. When I washed it, I had to sit all day and watch while it hung from a tree to dry so that no one stole it. I loved that blanket. It stayed thick and strong and when it was wet, it smelled so good it almost felt like I was back home in our village with the sheep.
We wandered around as much as we could. Inside the city we could see a marketplace with food, but there were bombs and mines and they wouldn't allow anyone inside until it was cleared. The soldiers were always telling us, “This space is cleared of mines. Don't walk far from here. Don't ever go there.” They showed us the distance we could go. “There are a lot of mines out there and people are getting blown up everyday. They must go out there to do things, but you don't. For your safety, don't go out there.”
We didn't listen. Even though there were mines we had to go out and get food and firewood, which was very dangerous. One boy brought back a bomb and laid it down. Blamhh! It blew up just like that. “Don’t do that! Don’t do that!” we told him. “That can kill people.” “It was fun,” he said. He did it again and was blown up. He almost killed other boys.
For fun, we’d play with the bullet shells we found lying around. Each of us took a few and lined them up. “Okay, we are Arabs and you are rebels. Bam! I knocked your shell down with my shell, I’ve killed your soldier.” In the mornings we watched the soldiers shoot the real guns.
An open-air market grew up where people traded money, food and little things. Joseph and I started a business too. When the river in Torit overflows, no one likes to go out and pick mangos because the fire ants are very bad. Once you go up a mango tree they crawl on you really very fast and their bites hurt so badly that many people fall from the trees that way. But I loved to climb and Joseph loved to climb too. I don't know how he did it, but Joseph figured out that if you smear your urine on your legs and your hands and climb the mango tree, ants will run away from you.
That way, I’d climb the mango tree and eat my fill then take mangos to the market and use the money to buy cooked food. It tasted so good. That first month in Torit, the Antonovs bombed the market twice, killing more boys. The second month a lot of boys came all the way down from the Nuba mountains. They were starving. So thin. So sick. They hadn’t showered for months and smelled awful. They had so many lice that if you sat next to them, armies of lice moved toward you. The Nuba boys killed lizards and roasted them. That smelled terrible but those Nuba boys didn’t care. They just wanted something to eat. The body is like an engine. When the engine is shut down, there is no way you can even think of taking care of yourself. When you have food, the mind can take care of all those things.
Joseph protected us in Torit. When older kids, ten or eleven years old, beat us up, Joseph defended us. Once he confronted three bullies who liked to bully every boy. They attacked Joseph and beat him up. I felt so bad that I beat up one of the bullies. The bully shouted at me, “I'll kill you, boy.”
An adult came with a stripped stick and beat that boy. He had a gun and he said, “You guys just came from a lot of killing; I don’t want to see you fighting each other. You should start liking each other. You have so many things to deal with now. You’re fighting hunger, you’re fighting people that want your lifethe people you escaped from to hide your life. And now you’re starting to fight each other. You try to bully or fight another boy and I’m going to shoot your head off.”
We’d never handled guns so when we saw a person handle it and it went bang, we knew that thing killed. We called it the harmful stick. We learned quickly that if somebody points the stick at you, you die.
Some of the boys, like ten-year-olds, didn’t listen. They’d seen a lot of killing and they also wanted to kill. They wanted to be warriors. They didn’t want to have mercy. I think it is because they were worn out by so much killing.
After two months, the adults announced that we were leaving for Palataka and that we would stay there until the war was over. It was in the southernmost part of Sudan, away from the areas where the government troops were attacking. We had no choice. We couldn’t go back home. We followed, hoping Palataka would be good.
It was still the rainy season when the soldiers escorted us across the bridge over the bursting river at Torit. Under cloudy skies we headed south toward the hills through grass over my head. Everything was taller than me then. With the boys from Nuba mountains, there seemed to be over a thousand of us, maybe two thousand, escorted by just five soldiers.
The second day we reached a small town called Khar-toumsame name as the capital of Sudan in the northwhere they gave us beans. We hadn’t eaten since we left. We cut the top off of a gas can and cooked the beans. Even though they smelled like gas we pushed and shoved and dug our fingers in. The Nuba mountain boys thrust their fingers in there and picked up those hot beans. I’d taken only two pinches before my fingers were burned and the beans were gone. I was so upset and angry I fought with those Nuba.
That night many boys claimed the adults were lying. “We heard Palataka is a deserted place filled with chiggers. Most of the boys went to Panyido. Panyido is better.” They slipped out and headed toward Ethiopia.
Even though we thought there might be a chance that was where Benson and our other cousins Benjamin, Emmanuel and Lino might have gone, Joseph, Peter and I stayed. What did those boys know? Rumors were always flying. The adults said we were going to a safe place. A missionary school. A place where we could live until the war was over. We were tired of walking. We were tired of being scared every night when we slept and tired of wondering if we would live another day without food and water.
We first saw the red brick buildings of Palataka from a distant hill. Looking down on our destination, I felt strangely good. The closest thing I’d seen to a home in many months was only a few more steps away. I hadn’t been bitten by a poisonous snake, eaten by a cannibal, sickened, starved or died. I had endured the terrible trek. Anything that came my way now I felt I could survive.
We were not the first to arrive in Palataka. A smaller group of boys was already there. They were dirty and thin. Really thin. Most walked around on their heels and sat and picked at their infected feet. Chiggers!
The first week they separated us into different buildings by age. I was with Peter but Joseph was moved away. The first day Joseph was gone I fought fifteen times with boys from other regions like Bor and Nuba. Many other boys were getting into fights too. When I kept fighting the adults said, “You need discipline,” and put me with the older boys to do what they didcut wood, clean, build the commander’s house. I stopped fighting. I was happy that I was with Joseph. I got discipline.
Ever since I’d left home, until I arrived in Palataka, I’d been sad or angry. I’d just been staying alive. But once I was with a group of boys, many of them, in a settled place, I saw a change in myself. I tried to fit in. We would go out and play soccer in a group, shouting, “We are the best team! We are the strongest team!”
But Peter wouldn’t do that. He would cry and sit by himself. He still didn’t want to eat and he wouldn’t play with any other boys. He didn’t change. He was set apart from us, in the group for the little boys, but I would see him like that and it made me feel very bad for him.
At night I slept on the floor on a sack. My feet were still cracked and cut from the long walk and the place was so dirty I soon had chiggers too. Chiggers are very small, darkred things that enter the cracks in your skin at night when you’re sleeping. They suck your blood and become fat, round and white. They itch. If you scratch at them, they urinate. If you got one, another went in beside that wound the next night. If you tried to remove them the wound expanded until the whole foot was infected.
Some of the boys got them on their penises and their behinds. I couldn’t even look at them. The doctors had to take the chiggers out and their penises swelled so huge. The next day another chigger would enter inside the soft wound.
I learned to go to a small stream and leave my feet in the water. Because I had no shoes my feet were all cracked and the chiggers liked all those cracked areas and dead parts of the skin. If I kept my feet smooth and soft they couldn’t find those cracks. So every morning I went to the stream. The water was cold, but I had to keep myself clean. Soon the chiggers were gone from my feet.
Each week a little grain was distributed. We pounded it and cooked it and ate it only every two days so that we didn’t starve to death. The day we didn’t eat there was nothing to keep the time moving.
More starving boys came down from the Nuba mountains. Food became so scarce, we’d eat almost anything. As I watched boys eat stuff they’d never eaten before, get sick and die, I only ate what I was sure wouldn’t kill me. There was another large tree called kunyuk with a dark fruit. If we ate it we got full, but it didn’t nourish us. Sometimes it gave us constipation and many boys who climbed those trees to get it, broke legs, necks and arms. Other times we’d be so delighted to find a beehive that we didn’t even care about being stung when we went after the honey. The Nuba boys introduced us to a root called ajaamer. It looked like a pineapple but smaller, with juicy stuff inside. It tasted like sour milk and it wasn’t poisonous. We trapped a small animal, a cane rat called parboos that was the size of a squirrel, and roasted our catch.
Sometimes if no food came and I’d caught a parboos, the older boys would take it from me by force if Joseph wasn’t around. We heard stories about Ethiopia that made us so sad we were in Palataka. They said that the UN had discovered all the boys in Ethiopia and was giving them food and clothes and that everybody was fat and enjoying it. But the UN didn’t come to Palataka. We had no clothes, just rags. Everything about Palataka was like a survival contest.
Some boys got so desperate they just sat around in the dirt and wouldn’t do anything unless they were forced. They hadn’t washed for so long that a committee of grown boys was formed to make sure all the boys took a bath in the river. The worst ones had to be forced into the river. The water was really cold and the boys would tease each other because some were circumcised and others weren’t. Nuba and Bor boys weren’t circumcised. We made jokes about each other.
The elders said that if you want to live, the best way is to work. So we worked hard. We dug open holes and built latrines with boards and put ashes on top because the flies breed a lot. We were sent to chop trees and two boys carried the heavy poles back for miles. We built a house for Kuol Manyang, the commander. They were teaching us how to work when we grew up.
At night we were tired, but we couldn’t sleep because of the bedbugs. Every morning we’d get up and have bumps all over and smeared blood from scratching ourselves. Those bedbugs were small and dark, like the small tick, not like the big tick, the one the size of your big toe. Some were red and all had six legs. We couldn’t kill them because if you did it could fill the whole building with its bad smell. Worse than a skunk. If someone squashed one, the boys would come in, “Oh my God, you killed a bedbug.”
The second year they opened a school and two white ladies came and brought supplies. We cut the pencils and books in two so we’d have enough to share. We began learning ABCs, but there were only six teachers for a thousand boys. Learning another language was really difficult. They’d say words but if we didn’t know them the next day they’d hit our hands with rulers. I had sore swollen fingers the whole time. From the moment they hit me I didn’t learn anything from their teaching. I didn’t want that beating. I was so dumb in school. If this was school, I was going to hate it.
The teachers said we needed discipline. They would tell us to go out, even when it was raining hard. They called it gymbast and we ran and marched. Our clothes were wet, we were wet and it was so cold. They had these boys they called churta who liked to beat people up if they stopped running. It didn’t seem like discipline, more like punishment or revenge.
The adults told us, “We have been fighting for too long. We are old people. You are the boys and we want you to be educated and be the boys of the future. You will take over and be the leaders of this country. Don’t hate us because we beat you or force you to do something. We do that for your own future, not for us. We don’t have a future anymore.”
After two years in Palataka, by the time I was nine and Joseph eleven, Joseph whispered to me one night, “We have to escape.”
Those words sent my heart racing. I’d seen too many boys beaten for running away.
“They’re taking the older boys to a camp called Gromlee and training them as soldiers.”
I didn’t say anything. Some boys wanted to have guns, but that scared me. I didn’t know if it was true, but we’d heard they always sent the boys to the front lines.
“We’ll go to Torit. Yier is a soldier; the post office can tell us where to find him. Yier knows what to do.”
Yier! We hadn’t seen him in two years, since that day in Thiet. Still, my heart soared at the possibility of seeing my oldest brother, of being with an elder from my own family, someone who cared about us and would know what to do. “Will Yier take us home?”
“I don’t know.”
“What about Peter?”
“He’s only six, he can’t go.”
“I can’t leave without Peter.”
“He will be fine. He’s too little to be trained as a soldier. They’ll keep him here in school. He can’t make it with us.”
It still didn’t feel right to leave Peter behind. “When will we go?”
“Don’t talk to anyone.”
I knew better than to do that. Sometimes if five boys were seen sitting together and talking they’d think they were making a plan to escape and those boys were punished.
“I will let you know.”
Originally published in the book "They Poured Fire on Us From the Sky: The Story of Three Lost Boys from Sudan " by Benjamin Ajak, Benson Deng, Alephonsian Deng, Judy Bernstein
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