One Mother’s Courage
Deadly conflicts forced Nawat to flee from Sudan to South Sudan to Uganda. Now, a small miracle has made her family whole again.
It’s been a little over a year since I last visited the refugee settlements of Adjumani, in northern Uganda. It was here – in those early months of 2014, when many hundreds of refugees were arriving each day from South Sudan – that I first met Nawat Ali Aldud, a young mother whose story will stay with me forever.
Back then, Nawat was a broken woman. The mother of two small children, Kuku and Mamor, she had been on the move for over two years. The first time she fled – literally running for her life – was to escape fighting in Sudan’s Nuba Mountains. She took refuge in Juba, the newly designated capital of South Sudan.
Then came news that her husband, a soldier named Jalal, had been killed in the fighting back home. Heartbroken, Nawat decided to return to look for the rest of her family. “There was so much confusion in my mind,” she recalls. She thought: “If I go back I will see my mum, but maybe we will all die together.”
In Juba, Nawat began selling kisra, the traditional Sudanese bread, so that she and her children could buy tickets to return home. But their plans were thwarted, on 15 December 2013, by a deadly new conflict over who would govern South Sudan. Instead of going home, they fled south, crossing the border into Uganda.
A year ago Adjumani was a chaotic place, struggling to accommodate the influx of new arrivals from South Sudan. Now home to over 100,000 people, it has become a dynamic metropolis where rickety poles and plastic sheeting are giving way to sturdier, semi-permanent homes.
I’m thrilled to find that Nawat’s situation has improved, too. As I wind my way to her hut, she runs out to greet me with a wide grin. Behind her are the children. The ever-curious Mamor, now three, makes a beeline for my UNHCR cap and ID badge, just as she used to do when I visited the family in their UNHCR tent at the transit centre the year before. Only now, she too is smiling.
As Nawat goes in search of the kettle to make some traditional Sudanese tea, I hear movement inside her hut. “Who’s that?” I ask, confused.
Looking around, I count four chickens and catch sight of pumpkin and okra sprouting on the small plot of land provided by the Ugandan Government. They’ve come a long way from last year’s porridge, part of their ration from the World Food Programme, which little Kuku took a while getting used to.
As Nawat goes in search of the kettle to make some traditional Sudanese tea, I hear movement inside her hut. “Who’s that?” I ask, confused. She smiles shyly and replies: “It is my husband.”
The man she thought she had lost forever has returned – an unexpected dream come true.
As Jalal gets dressed inside the hut, Nawat tells me about the moment he turned up on her doorstep. It was early evening, the sun was setting and Nawat was working her small garden by the house when she saw a dusty apparition walking towards her.
“I told him the story I had faced, and that information was brought to me that he was dead,” she says, closing her eyes. “It was a sad moment. He wasn’t expecting that I had been told he was dead. I was crying and he was crying, and he said, ‘I am not dead – I am alive now.’”
“I lost all my family in the Nuba Mountains, but here I found my wife.”
Jalal’s story is as extraordinary as his wife’s. He spent over two years searching unsuccessfully for Nawat through the Red Cross. Eventually he decided to look in person, taking four months leave from the army and a small loan from a friend.
In Juba, he discovered that many people had fled to Nimule, on the Ugandan border, following clashes in December. So he tried his luck at the Nyumanzi reception centre, where people fleeing South Sudan are first transferred. It took him a week to find out where the Nuban refugees were living, but his patience eventually paid off.
“I am very happy,” he tells me, with a cup of tea in his hand. “I lost all my family in the Nuba Mountains, but here I found my wife.”
With the threat of fresh fighting in South Sudan still looming, it is far from a fairy-tale ending for the young family. But Jalal’s arrival has at least helped to ease the burden on Nawat.
“Now I’m a bit better,” she says. “His presence helps me with things I was doing alone, like when a child was sick and I had to take them far for medicine. Now he can take them. But we are still worrying about our family and relatives and their safety, as there is still fighting and killing in Nuba.”
The latest news to reach Nawat from her hometown – Kurmuk, in Sudan’s Blue Nile State – is that her mother was badly injured in aerial bombings. She waits anxiously for an update, but so far has heard nothing more.
As for Jalal, he is happy to see his wife and children again and is thinking of continuing his studies to pursue his dream of becoming an accountant. His relationship with Nawat is stronger than ever. “The first time I saw her I loved her,” he says, smiling. “Love is from the heart. I love her too much. Now I am reunited and I am so happy.”
Of all the refugees I have met in my work with UNHCR, I think most often of Nawat and her extraordinary resilience. I wonder how I would cope with a situation like hers. I’m inspired by her amazing courage – and by her family’s story of how love can triumph over so much adversity.
A few hours after this story was published, I met up with Nawat to share it with her.
— Lucy Beck (@lucycbeck) February 17, 2015