By Dr. William Abur
"The mobilization of the boys and girls in the community was one of the difficult tasks; however, it was decided that the SPLA as a movement need to reveal good a sign of respect within the community. Therefore, for the SPLA officers to be successful in their mission, they were asked to go and recruit boys from their own tribes. The officers were asked to start with their own relatives and close friends. This strategy helped the SPLA officers a lot in their mission. My uncle, General Francis Marial Abur Bol, was one of the senior officers in the SPLA, who went to our village and mobilized the boys to join the SPLA/ school. He came and spoke to the parents and the boys about the importance of education." Dr. Abur_____________________________________________________________________
William Abur, PhD
Photo: Abur's Facebook
This article is a personal testimony of my journey from the village as a young boy to my current work in Australia as a social worker and a researcher, who just completed a Ph.D. in migration and refugee settlement. The aim of this reflexive article is to provide encouragement to young readers, who are facing some challenging issues in different ways.
I was born and raised in South Sudan (Tonj, Luacjang village) where my earliest memories were of a happy child, who woke up every morning and drank fresh milk of cows. My parents were farmers. They had enough cattle, goats, sheep, chicken and enough land for cultivation. They were also well-respected members of the community because of their positive attitude and the help they provided to the people within the village and in the cattle camp. As a Dinka child, I thought life was very easy for us by then compared to now, although there was no electricity, clinics or hospitals for sick people, banks or money to think of or bills to pay.
The only thing we thought about was how to take the cattle for grazing and how to help other people in the village during farming and harvesting. Along with my 6 other siblings, of whom I was the second youngest, my first job was to look after the cattle, sheep and the goats. Being in such a traditional life or a village life can be described as horrendous in this modern life. However, it is a normal life for many Dinka people as they enjoy looking after their cattle, sheep and goats as a pastoralist society.
In 1989, I was one of the boys, who joined the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) at the young age of 14 due to the civil war escalation in the then Southern Sudan (now South Sudan). The war in Sudan started between the autonomy-seeking Christian and animist southerners against the successive Islamic governments in the north. As a result, hundreds of thousands of people were displaced and many lost their lives. Over two million died and many were forced by the situation to depend on food aid in refugee camps and other internally-displaced camps within Southern Sudan.
During the SPLA war, boys were mobilized and taken from their parents to join the SPLA army to fight against the enemy of Southern Sudanese. The SPLA leadership decided to send officers to different villages to conscript boys as school children with an aim of joining the rebel army when they grow up to fight against our common enemy (Arabs) of Southern Sudan. I remember my uncle, who served in the Sudanese Government before he took his gun to fight against Khartoum, used to tell us all bad things the Arabs had done to the people in Southern Sudan. He had a deep knowledge of Arabism, the people, and the Government of Sudan, which was dominated by Arabs.
The mobilization of the boys and girls in the community was one of the difficult tasks; however, it was decided that the SPLA as a movement need to reveal good a sign of respect within the community. Therefore, for the SPLA officers to be successful in their mission, they were asked to go and recruit boys from their own tribes. The officers were asked to start with their own relatives and close friends. This strategy helped the SPLA officers a lot in their mission. My uncle, General Francis Marial Abur Bol, was one of the senior officers in the SPLA, who went to our village and mobilized the boys to join the SPLA/ school. He came and spoke to the parents and the boys about the importance of education. There was a great interest that some parents wanted their boys to become like him when they grow up as big men. He was the only educated man in our community, who managed to be in a senior rank of commander in the SPLA. I and my other several cousins accepted this request from my uncle and decided to go with him to the bush where the SPLA was.
The headquarter of the SPLA was in Ethiopia and many Southerners already traveled to Ethiopia on foot. My brother was one of the first young boys, who traveled to Ethiopia on foot with my cousins and uncle. We were told frankly that the journey to Ethiopia would be several months because there was no transport apart from our own feet. We were also advised of some dangers on the way including some of our own people in the villages we were passing by. Some villagers tended to be very violent. Sometimes they didn’t allow us to get water or ask for food in their areas. My uncle knew all the dangerous areas so he used to make us pass at night instead of the day time to avoid conflicts with some villagers.
On the way to Ethiopia, many people also lost their lives due to starvation, hydration because of water shortage and predators. I personally encountered starvation, shortage of water or hydration and long walking by foot. Our Journey was not that bad in terms of the people, who lost lives compared to the rest of the groups. My uncle was a well-experienced man and he also knew the places that were very dangerous. This helped us in many cases, otherwise, some of us would have not made it to the destination.
In the Ethiopian camps, young men and boys, who were conscripted and trained, were then sent back to Sudan to fight for liberation. When we were about to arrive in Ethiopia, we received bad news that the Mengistu's government was struggling with rebel groups within Ethiopia, which later led to Mengistu's overthrow. It was a shocking news to all SPLA and their supporters because President Mengistu's regime was a strong supporter of SPLA.
There was no way for us and all the SPLA people were forced to leave Ethiopia by the new government because SPLA was also supporting Mengistu ‘s regime to fight their rebels. This made it hard for all SPLA forces and their refugees to remain in Ethiopia any more under the new regime. This was a big setback for SPLA and it was a great achievement for the Khartoum government because SPLA lost its headquarter and support from Ethiopia.
From 1990 to 1991, some of us were sent to a displaced camp known as Polataka close to Uganda. This camp was described by a UN aid worker, Emma McCann, as a “military camp for young boys” in her book. It was a very complex situation for us as young boys; we had to go under military training and other hardships circumstances. Polataka camp was full of many challenges including shortage of food, diseases, abuse or child-labor as we used to work for senior officers to build their houses.
There was also some serious discrimination practiced in the camps because some of the officers tended to favor children who came from their own areas. They looked after them better than the children who came from different regions such as Great Bahr el Ghazal and the Nuba Mountains. There were no many children from the Equatoria region or the Nuer area. There was serious capital punishment practiced in Polataka camp by the men in uniform. Some of these men were also teachers, who were commissioned to take care of us as young boys. Some of us used to escape at night to go to Torit town to avoid some of these difficulties. Commander Kuol Manyang (now South Sudan's minister of defense) was in charge of the town and other areas around Torit including Polataka. I remember I once escaped to the town as I wanted to join soldiers who were going to Bor to fight Dr. Riek Machar's group. Commander Kuol Manyang came and removed me with other young boys and ordered his military to return us to Polataka because we were very young. I still have a great respect for Commander Kuol Manyang. He is a man of principles, discipline and very courageous.
Participation in the Liberation of South Sudan
As a young boy from 1992 to the end of 1994, I was in a frontline fighting our enemy, the Sudanese Arabs in the Southern Sudan. We wanted them to leave southern Sudan and go back to Khartoum or to give us a chance as southerners to either rule ourselves as independent people, or to take over the Khartoum government and rule over the Arabs as our late leader, Dr. John Garang de Mabior, used to tell us in the meetings that what we wanted was the New Sudan and that we were the ones to bring about the New Sudan through our guns. Our enemy, it was argued, would never respect us unless we defeated them. It was a hard time for us in the army as we used to spend days and months underground, hiding from the enemy as they were also looking for us. During the daytime, we would hide, but during the nighttime, we would go for raiding to raid our enemy and get blankets, bedsheets, and clothes from our enemy. Our tactic was to ensure enemies had no proper time to sleep at night.
On 9/12/1994, we launched a heavy assault with an aim of wanting to capture Kapoeta town. We were nearly close to capturing the town, unfortunately, we lost the battle that night because of many causalities including myself. I was wounded on that night while holding 60 millimeters. My assistant was also wounded. This was after we managed to capture all the important areas including the military headquarters as we knew all army centers. We had no backup while the enemy had reinforcements, which managed to defeat us. I was left behind with many other soldiers, who were also wounded in a creek where we were hidden. Commander Pieng Deng Majok was the commander in charge of our Buffalo battalion. James Hoth Moi was also of the commander in charge of working hard for Kapota to be captured.
Some of us, who were wounded and lucky to survive, were brought to Lokichogio hospital in Kenya for treatment. I was one of the soldiers, who were brought to Lokichogio for treatment. The hospital was managed by the International Committee of Red Cross (ICRC). I sustained a wound on my right foot and it was a serious gunshot wound, which required a number of operations at the Lopiding hospital. I was admitted in the hospital for four months before I was discharged and convinced by my colleague to go to Kakuma Refugee Camp for schooling. He advised me that the war between the South and Khartoum will take a long time and that I should go to educate myself first in the refugee camp, and come back later as a fully grown up to fight for the liberation of Southern Sudan or Sudan. He added that the other reason was because of my injuries as I required enough time to rest in order for my wound to heal well.
Refugee Camp: Kakuma
I joined many red-army who were schooling in Kakuma R. Camp. Many of these boys and girls were also known as the Lost Boys of Sudan. Some of them migrated to America, Canada, Australia and some returned to South Sudan. I attended my primary school and high school in the refugee camp.
Kakuma Refugees Camp was established in 1992 due to the long civil war in the Sudan, which began sin 1983. Kakuma camp begun after many southern Sudanese were displaced from Ethiopia by the Ethiopian government of Meles Zenawi. In Kakuma, around 70,000 people, of whom the majority was southern Sudanese, some Somalis and some Ethiopians, lived in the Camp. The camp was supported and managed jointly by The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the Lutheran World Federation (LWF), and Action by Churches Together (ACT), a network of churches and related agencies that responds to human needs through coordinated assistance. There was little basis for hope in the camp, but the interplay of war, drought, and poverty only deepened the crisis and made rebuilding a slow and a more difficult process. A basic education was provided in the camp for children, youth, and some adults. Many of us where able to learn English and Kiswahili languages.
In 2005, I came to Australia as a refugee with my wife and son. I started my school with a Diploma in TAFE, completed a diploma of community welfare work. I also saw an opportunity of studying social work as my career based on my interest and experiences in the refugee camp. I identified myself as a helper. I worked with many families and young people to assist them with challenging issues of settlement including educational issues.
I have heard complex cases and stories about families and young people. Settlement challenges in Australia or the western world, brings a high level of divorce, separation and young people dropping out of school and choose to engage in negative activities such as binge drinking and drug consumption. Young people from refugee backgrounds also encounter racial and discrimination issues at school, projected on them by their peer groups and also by some teachers, who bring their own personal hatred of refugees to their teaching. Such teachers tend to target students from refugee families by being unfair to them.
Being a helper also comes from the family and your own heart, whether you are someone who sees somebody suffering and you need to talk to somebody. I’m somebody who likes to talk to people; to see if they are suffering; whether I can help them; whether there is something I can do for them. Being a helper, I think, comes from the family perspective, from my family tradition where I was brought up. As a little boy, I used to observe my father. My father was really recognised within the society, in the village: he used to help people. Many people used to come to him to seek some consultation or some help. This is where I come from. I took it from my father. Because many people used to come to my father, my father was prepared to talk to them, was ready to help any person, day and night, when people come to him. So that was the part of me seeing ‘Right: well being a human, I think you need to do something, you need to help somebody. You need to be ready now to help somebody who is seeking some help.' Of course, it is not everything that you will be able to address, but you can pay attention or listen to somebody and provide some of the basic advice if possible if care able, but if you can't then, it's fine.
Dr. William Abur attended Victoria University and graduated with a Diploma of Community welfare, a Bachelor of Social work, a Master of International Community Development and a Ph.D. in Migration and Settlement of Refugees. He lives and works in Melbourne, Australia, as a social worker and researcher. For questions about the article, contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org