I Escaped Death in South Sudan: A Happy Ending to My Horror Story
July 20, 2012 BY Nyuol Tong
As South Sudan celebrates one year of independence, Nothing But Nets is working to send 100,000 life-saving bed nets to keep refugees from the world’s newest nation safe from malaria—the leading threat to children there. We stand with the people of South Sudan, and are honored to share the reflections of one South Sudanese refugee, our friend and supporter Nyuol Tong. You can help support South Sudanese refugees by sending a net and saving a life.
July 9, 2012, marks the first anniversary of South Sudan’s independence. And, as expected, political analysts and experts are pointing out the challenges still plaguing the new nation. According to the International Monetary Fund, 47 percent of South Sudanese are undernourished. Inter-communal conflicts over cattle and other resources continue to terrorize, displace, and kill people in states like Jonglei, Unity, and Warrap. After the shutdown of oil production last January, which constitutes 98 percent of the South Sudan’s revenues, the new nation is nearly bankrupt. And there have been reports that the government has been tamping down basic freedoms such as free speech. In short, the South Sudanese government has not fully met the basic aspirations of South Sudanese. While I am aware of these challenges, I hope that analysts will remember that nations aren’t built, secured, or developed overnight.
The 9th of July does not simply mark South Sudan’s political divorce from Sudan. It also holds deep personal significance for many South Sudanese. The Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) of 2005 was signed while I was still a refugee in Egypt. I celebrated the historic moment because it meant that my father—whom I hadn’t seen since I was six years old, was technically safe. We were separated when Northern Sudanese militia came to arrest him and demanded that I tell them where he was. When I refused, they dug a hole, threw me in and began to fire. Luckily I was not hurt, but my father feared a recurrence, and sent my mother, siblings, and I to Khartoum. From there, we sought asylum in Egypt.
I survived, but more than 2 million people were killed in the war, with more dying even today. The CPA was informally known as “peace on paper.” Even as late as 2008, I did not know if I would ever see my father and extended family again. What did the peace treaty mean, if not peace? Not until I visited my village in 2010 did the ceasefire and the peace accord become real. It meant that after 12 years of separation, I could hug my father and meet my siblings and relatives.
Ayeit, the village of my birth, is less than 50 miles away from Abyei, very close to Northern Sudan. I was born in 1991, when the Sudanese government was bombing South Sudan with helicopters. At that time, Ayeit was a ghost town. We moved into the forest to hide from the bombardments and lived on tree leaves and seeds exhumed from ants’ colonies. The Ayeit I visit today is unfamiliar; it is peaceful and stable. I fall asleep to humming insects instead of the cacophony of gunfire that was the soundtrack to my childhood. I catch up with old friends. Last summer, we played soccer together barefoot, and swam naked in the local river where we used to fish as small boys. And we watched Bollywood DVDs and downloaded the music of Beyoncé and Kanye West and Celine Dion from iTunes and danced to house music at parties and trekked across villages to meet girls.
When I return to Duke University for classes, we stay in touch, texting each other across the world and sharing photos on Facebook. For you, these things might seem painfully ordinary. For me, they are the happy denouement of the nightmare I lived in South Sudan. The music, dancing, and swimming remind me that my country is a place like anywhere else, no longer stigmatized by the North, or occupied by gunfire. Ayeit is marked by tukul huts and cattle borders, a place of life, not death. The harsh contours of a militarized landscape have dissolved, softened by the simple joy of the inhabitants as they go about their daily routines—milking cows, cultivating maize, fishing in the afternoon, drinking homemade beer, cracking jokes, living their lives.
When I visited my village the first time since I was six, I looked for my six-year-old self. I looked for the spot where the Northern Sudanese militia dug my grave. I couldn’t find either one. For twelve years, I regarded my homeland as the scene of a horror movie. Now, that movie is over. Life is not perfect. The German philosopher Georg Hegel said that man is always in the process of becoming. I urge the analysts to consider what that process entails in the context of South Sudanese post-secession. Wait and see what becomes of South Sudan.
About Nyuol Tong
Nyuol Tong, 21, is a former refugee from South Sudan. He and his family were displaced by a violent war that forced them to live in huts and on the streets for many years. In 2003, his family fled to Cairo, Egypt, where – in his quest for education – Nyuol met a professor who helped him gain admission to Dunn School in California. It was here that he founded a nonprofit organization called SELFSudan. In South Sudan, just 2 percent of boys and fewer than 1 percent of girls complete primary school; just 7 percent of teachers there have formal training. SELFSudan is building a school, the Malualdit Ayeit Liberty Academy, scheduled to open in August. Now a sophomore at Duke University, Nyuol shares his story of with communities, churches, schools, and universities throughout the United States. His journey has shaped his belief that education is the only way to liberate South Sudan from its legacy of war.
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