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Escaping War, Time and Again
Generation after generation, families in South Sudan face a recurring tragedy – fleeing conflict and returning home, only to flee again.
In what is now South Sudan, families have been fleeing conflict for generations, repeating a tragic cycle that began nearly 60 years ago. The first Sudanese civil war dragged on from 1955 to 1972. The second raged even longer – from 1983 until the 2005 peace deal that led to South Sudan’s independence in 2011.
But the respite was short-lived. In the past year, fresh conflict between supporters of rival politicians in the world’s newest country has forced nearly one in every five of this nation’s 11 million people from their homes. Almost half a million of the displaced have become refugees in neighbouring countries. Many more – 1.4 million – have fled to other areas within South Sudan’s borders. Now, older people live in stick-and-tarpaulin huts with their children, and their children’s children, all three generations – sometimes four – far from home due to yet more war.
UNHCR leads key aspects of the international effort to help the displaced, providing shelter and distributing household items such as water-collection buckets, pots and pans, and sleeping mats to families who fled their homes with nothing.
The largest settlement for families displaced inside South Sudan is the town of Mingkaman, in Lakes State, close to the city of Bor. Located a few hours by boat down the White Nile from the capital, Juba, it currently hosts more than 100,000 internally displaced people. I spent time there recently with photographer Andrew McConnell, documenting the experiences of six families who have repeatedly fled their homes in search of safety.
Ayuel Deng’s Family
Ayuel Deng is prone to occasional outbursts – the result, he says, of repeatedly fleeing from war. He first ran with his parents and brothers when he was 12, when bombs fell from airplanes that roared above his village on an otherwise normal day.
“We ran quickly, carrying nothing,” he recalls. “Maybe you don’t understand: we ran in what we wearing at that moment, I didn’t know that I would not return for 10 years.” Walking for weeks, surviving on wild melons and pumpkins, leaving starving friends behind on the path, he reached safety in Ethiopia, then Kenya, before slowly making his way home and finally reaching his village as a young man of 22. His mother was there, alive and well. His father had died in the fighting.
“I was so happy, then instantly so sad,” says Ayuel, now 43. At least the war had moved on. He worked to raise a dowry for a wife, something his father would have paid, but his father was gone. Eventually, in 2005, the year of the peace deal, he married Akuang. Together, they now have five children, aged two to nine.
“We never expected there to be war again after the peace deal, because if those old enemies were at peace, where would war come from?” he asks. “But then we had to run again. It was the same: armed men coming to the village, and us running to the remote areas. Now, as a grown man, I was running again with only the clothes on my back, and eating the same wild fruits I ate when I walked to Ethiopia as a child.”
Ayuel’s children witnessed the fighting, and saw neighbours being killed. “This has an impact,” he says. “It had an impact on me when I was young, because I have sudden aggression that is unreasonable, because of that war. The same thing will happen to my children.”
Athieng, Ayuel’s nine-year-old daughter, remembers the sound of the guns. “They were so loud, like they were right behind me and the bullets were going to hit me,” she says. The worst part of fleeing, she says, is being scattered from her friends. “I don’t know if I will see them again.”
This was the third time that Adau Mabior, Athieng’s grandmother, who estimates she is 80 years old, has had to flee fighting. “Tell the world, if they have some powerful means to stop this war, and guarantee the security in my village, then finally I can go there and rest,” she says. “Without that guarantee, I will not return. It is not safe. I know that.”
Ayak Lual’s Family
Ayak Lual, 33, comes from a large family. She has six children, with another due in December, and her father married twice, meaning she has more than a dozen siblings and step-siblings. Nonetheless, for much of her life, she has felt alone and on the run, as she is now after fighting erupted near her home a year ago.
“From when I was about six, we were away from our home because of that second Sudan war,” Ayak says. “Then my mother was captured by soldiers and it was 10 years before I saw her again. I was left running from town to town only with one brother and my father. Eventually, my brother fell sick and died, and my father and I were the only ones remaining. This is what happens when you are scattered by war.”
Her father, Lual Arok, remembers a similarly solitary existence as a young man, after fleeing home to escape the first Sudanese civil war – and an abusive uncle with whom he lived after his parents died. “I was moving all the time, from one place to the other, with no thoughts of home,” he says. “It’s only when you are older you think of the importance of being in your own place.”
But for now, neither he nor Ayak nor their extended family members are “in their own place.” Both live in stick-and-tarpaulin shelters in a temporary settlement for displaced people. For Lual it’s a struggle. He is getting older, and his second wife was shot and killed during the fighting earlier this year, leaving him to care for their five children, the eldest only 15. “I thought these times of war and suffering were past, but they are not,” he says.
For Ayak, being chased from her home again means her dreams are on hold. “I had a business selling tea in the market, but I cannot do that here,” she says. “Nothing here earns money, we live only by what the UN gives us. When we had peace after that long 22 years of war and struggle, I never thought we would have to go into exile again.”
She hopes the cycle of displacement will stop with her children’s generation.
So does Adoor Akoi, Ayak’s 12-year-old son. “I remember the gunshots, people running to where we were, having to run away, getting the boat here,” he says. He refuses to admit to being afraid. “You were, it’s okay,” his mother tells him quietly. What bothers Adoor most are simple things: they sleep on mats on the floor, not mattresses on beds. School is more crowded. His friends are scattered. What bothers his grandfather, Lual, and his mother, Ayak, are the hidden scars from the war that are yet to heal inside him, or in his brothers and sisters.
Awan Deng’s Family
When South Sudan won independence from Sudan, Awan Deng thought that finally something good had come of all the fighting. But now, caught up in his third war at age 87, he is living in someone else’s abandoned hut and surviving on handouts after fleeing his home with his family amid fresh conflict.
“We are none of us involved in politics,” he says, sitting on a reed mat in the shade. “It is only those who wage the war and win the war who get the spoils of war. Those of us innocents caught up in it, we only get starvation and killing and our property looted or destroyed, just so we can be given new leaders who change nothing.”
He first fled home when he was about 30, and trying to care for his family’s cows, which were all lost. Then “a worse war” came, when he remembers running with his son, Joseph Majak, now 43 but then a teenager. Now father and son are living together with Joseph’s children, Awan’s grandchildren, in a settlement for people displaced by the latest conflict.
Joseph’s family fled to the settlement for displaced people in Mingkaman after fighting broke out between government troops and anti-government rebels in December 2013. “We thought that this one would not touch us,” says Joseph. “But it persisted and we had to run, we even went to the same forest area that we ran to in the 1980s, and where my father ran in the 1960s.”
They survived on the same wild fruits, and taught the latest generation how to make a bed in grass beneath trees, and how to strain dirty water. “My children saw that fighting, they saw killing on the streets,” Joseph says. “Some are very young. We lay down behind a wall to avoid bullets, and they said, ‘Daddy, don’t leave us. Daddy, you won’t leave us will you?’ This is their life.”
He refuses for now to bow to his children’s demands that they return home. He tells them it’s still not safe. “In reality, I don’t want to go back to town because my eldest boys, they are 15, they would be recruited to fight and become child soldiers,” he says. “I don’t tell them but that’s why we are not going home.”
Those boys, Aluong and Ngor, say they’d rather be back home. “Here there’s nothing to do, we’re not with our friends, it’s boring,” Ngor says. Asked if he remembers the fighting, he says, “of course, the guns.” Asked if he wants to join the fighting, he says, “not really”, but his expression and the quick glance he gave his twin brother suggested otherwise.
Deng Awuol’s Family
Deng Awuol, 76, knows all about the dangers of fleeing from fighting, because this is third time in his life he has had to do it. He knows about the soldiers and the bullets, and the lack of food and the difficulty finding safe hiding spaces. When conflict again erupted in December 2013, he also knew to grab a large tarpaulin as he ran with his family – his son Awuol Deng, 28, his second wife, and his children and grandchildren. Together, they were a group of more than 30 people, many of them young children who could not swim.
“I know now that the greatest danger is drowning, because the safest place is deep in the creeks and islands of the river,” he said. “So we carried that tarpaulin and then we adults held the edges tight and the children rode on top over the water like a raft. Too many times before I saw children die from drowning. We have learned better ways.”
Deng has fled his home three times: during the first Sudanese civil war, around 1969; again, with Awuol, during the second Sudanese civil war; and now once more. Awuol remembers long, damp months hiding in the forest before returning home. “Finally when we got back, our village looked like the wild bush, the grasses and trees had grown everywhere, we had to start all over again,” he says. “It took a long time and now it’s all destroyed again.”
They know they will have to do the same all over again when they finally feel it is safe to go home. “We really want to go,” Awuol says, “because being in a place that is not your own is not good. You have no one to support you in disputes, because this is not your place, it’s theirs. You start to adopt the ways of this foreign environment, instead of staying true to your own culture.”
Deng, his father, nods in agreement. “Any crisis like this also makes us dependents,” he says. “We’re not supposed to be like that, when there’s no crisis, we don’t need that help. The children, all they will know is that things like food, or even buckets or mats, are given free, and they will grow up without being able to depend on themselves.” That worries him, he says, especially as he refuses to hope that his grandchildren will be the last generation of his family to have to flee fighting. “This cycle will repeat, you cannot tell me it won’t,” he says.
Deng Thon’s Family
When asked what he really needs to make life easier for his family in this temporary settlement for people displaced by war, Deng Thon, 57, lists better food, medicines, fresh milk for the children, things everyone here says they require. But first, before all that, he says he needs “a good chair for my Dad.” Deng’s father, Thon Malual, is 84, and fading. Most of the day he sits with his skin-and-bones frame folded crookedly into a hard plastic chair.
“I know a carpenter who can make a nice comfortable chair, but he needs money and when you left your money and your cows and your possessions behind because when you ran, all you could carry was your children, how can you pay a carpenter?” Deng asks, exasperated. “What son can be satisfied if, as a grown man, he cannot even provide his father with somewhere comfortable to sit down?”
It is the lack of independence and an inability to work and earn a wage that is getting to Deng now. He has already lived through losing 13 of his children from three wives, who all died when they ran from the second Sudanese civil war, eventually ending up first in Ethiopia, and then Kenya.
Even before that, his mother, Adau Yool, remembers fleeing fighting in the first war. “When this thing started in December, it just straight away reminded me of that first time, even though it was nearly 50 years ago,” Adau, 79, says. “Now I am a great-grandmother, but I knew where to escape to because it was the same place we went when I was just a young mother.”
With the memories of the children he lost during the last war haunting his thoughts, Deng’s major worry now is losing another generation. “Ringing in my mind was the fear that the hunger and disease will come back and take my grandchildren the way it took my children.” Hearing this, his son, Ruben Ajang, cradled his two-year-old daughter – Deng’s grandchild – closer.
Ruben, 35, was forced to flee with his wife, daughter and extended family members after fighting broke out in December 2013. Recalling that time, Ruben says, “In December last year gunmen were all around, shooting people and killing people, even neighbours. I witnessed it. A mother and her husband, they were stopped and then shot there. I saw them fall down. I had to make everyone who had survived run or the same thing would happen to us.”
Looking at his young daughter, he continues: “She is young, but she cannot forget the noise of the fighting, the way I remember the noise of the first fighting I experienced when I was a young boy. I don’t know how this will end. We seek only peace and to be one united nation, and for families never to have to run away again.”
At that, his father and his grandmother sigh in unison. Hope felt in short supply.
Ayen Majak’s Family
During the rains a few months ago, a brief volley of gunfire erupted a mile or so from where Ayen Majak settled for safety with her five-year-old son, Thon, and daughter Ajak, who is two. The children were terrified. “They said to me,‘The men with guns are coming again, aren’t they?’ We will have to run again, won’t we?’ ” Ayen says. “I tried to tell them it was nothing, but they were so frightened they did not eat for two days.”
Ayen and her father, Majak, who came here to Mingkaman after fighting erupted again in South Sudan in December 2013, recognised that fear. “I was about 18 the first time I had to run away from home because of fighting, in that first war,” says Majak, now 75. “I was a young man. My father said the enemy would think I was a soldier, or the rebels would kidnap me to be one. It was better I lived hiding in the forest for some years.”
When she ran from fighting in the second Sudanese civil war, as a girl of seven alone with her five-year-old brother, Ayen spent 10 terrifying days in the same forest that her father had hidden in a generation earlier. “I didn’t know all the local fruits, I didn’t know what we could eat,” she remembers. “We almost died.” When they were found and reunited with Majak, they still faced another five years on the run before it was safe enough to return home, where they stayed raising livestock in peace for close to two decades.
But then the current conflict broke out, and the family had to run again. “It was such a surprise to us,” Majak says. “To see fighting and killing again. Those killings, they added to the ones I saw in the other wars, and I tell you, when I sleep those people are killed over and over again in my dreams. I can only think of those bad things.”
Ayen worries about him. She worries about her children, too, and even their children, the next generation to come. “This fleeing happened to us when my father was a child, and to me when I was a child, and to my children now they are children,” she says. “How can you tell me honestly it will not also happen when they have their own children?”