Photo courtesy Peter Majuch Abui
SWANTON – His mouth and throat were parched, both of his lips cracked from no water for days. He stopped walking to dig into the earth, searching for wet soil to suck on for moisture, but it only left him thirstier.
He continued to walk, passing human skeletons that lined the road, picked at by vultures and other wildlife. These were the refugees that had come before him, unable to reach their destination because of the heat, the rebels, the lack of food and water.
“My biggest fear was that, if I am not strong enough to make it through to the other side, I will die here and my bones will be among these dead people,” Peter Majuch Abui wrote. “I ask myself every day, even to this day, ‘How did I make it out alive on that terrible road at the age of six without parents?”
Abui asks himself this question in “My Journey to Safety: from South Sudan,” a memoir of his life as a Lost Boy, traveling hundreds of miles on foot from South Sudan to refugee camps Ethiopia and Kenya, eventually settling in Swanton.
His journey began in Kalthok, South Sudan, a small village next to the region of Mingkaman. Life before war was difficult with each family stretching its food year to year. Sometimes a family went hungry in order to make sure there were enough seeds to plant the following spring.
But life wasn’t always about survival for Abui. He grew up with a large family: his mother, Apuot Nyadier, his father, Abahor, and three brothers. The men took care of the cattle. The women cooked, cleaned and maintained the living areas.
Abui was surrounded by the culture of his people, Dinka, for the first six years of his life. There were corsets worn by men, each signifying a different stage of manhood. Dinka often sang about cattle with the “colorful bull” an important animal in their way of life. They also held traditions, such as taking care of their own and keeping track of time by the seasons.
Abui spent much of his time playing games, such as aleuth, which is similar to tag. He would lay outside under the stars on the peaceful, breezy nights.
All of this was disturbed when the rebel attacks began.
The conflict in Sudan between the north and south began in the 1950s, when Sudan achieved independence from Britain.
The north, predominately Muslim, relied on the southern regions for natural resources such as oil and minerals. Residents of the south, predominately Christian and Animist, wanted to protect their land for agricultural purposes.
In 1983, the division between the populations led to protests, massacres and the formation of the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army (SPLA). Civil war emerged between the SPLA and the Sudanese army, leading to attacks on military groups and civilians.
In many southern rural villages, like Abui’s, troops from both sides attacked, stealing food and killing whoever was found.
The first attack happened when Abui was four years old. Rebel groups joined forces with the armies from the north to attack a nearby village at night. More than 80 people were killed, one of the victims being his cousin Nyajory Machar. The attackers stole cattle as well as kidnapped three young girls.
The second attack was on Abui’s village two years later. Very few soldiers from the SPLA guarded the village at night. The rebels and northern armies traveled along the river to reach the town and surround it.
Abui remembers the event vividly. It was a warm night in the summer. He was asleep on the floor when the sound of machine guns resounded through darkness.
“I woke up and ran outside,” Abui wrote. “Then I saw a fire flame of burning houses with thick dark smoke going up straight toward the sky. So many bullets flew in the air like shooting stars.”
Abui ran for his life, never looking back. He ran for hours, reaching the town of Mingkaman in the middle of the night.
“I never wanted to go back to Kalthok after the tragic [attack] because I was afraid that there would be another attack as always,” he said.
As a six-year-old, Abui thought of only moving forward, trying to find safety before looking for his family. He would travel thousands of miles before finding another place he could call home.
In Mingkaman, Abui reported to a SPLA commander named Mr. Bior, who was in charge of the Lost Boys, the name given to tens of thousands of displaced from the Sudan. With nothing else do to, Mr. Bior told the children to exercise and stay active to stave off homesickness.
Some afternoons Abui would watch the fisherman unload their catches, waiting for the time he could leave.
“My concept was to just move [as] far away as I could, God knows where, but elsewhere out of the country,” he wrote. “I never got my full sleep since the day I left Kalthok, too many nightmares.”
When the day came, Abui joined other refugees, including families and lost children, on a trek to Dimma refuge camp in Ethiopia, stopping in villages along the way.
Soldiers from the SPLA led the way, having made the trip before. But there was no path, so the people walked through fields and across rivers zigzagging across the countryside.
There was no food. Abui would climb trees and search for fruit, no matter what state it was in. Cows began to die due to eating grass coated with poison, sprayed with machine fire and blood from the war.
Rain did not fall and Abui searched for drinkable water in fruits and in swamps.
To avoid the rebels the refugees walked at night and slept during the day under trees. The rebels still attacked. People who walked ahead and the stragglers at the back of the group were more susceptible to the violence.
“It [made it] even more difficult that no one wanted to go first to lead the crowds to safety,” he wrote.” Even the soldiers didn’t want to go first.”
Abui passed through Anyidi, Ajakeer, Nyinkongkong, Pibor, Ponychalla and many other villages, suffering from dehydration, diarrhea, starvation, loneliness and open sores on his bare feet.
“Every footstep I took was painful,” he wrote. “Too many long hours on foot without enough sleep made me so tired.”
It was his friends, Lost Boys themselves that kept him going. Abui, Peter Keny, Abraham Awolish, Peter Awuol Madier and others walked together, taking care of one another when someone got sick and waking each other up so no one was left behind.
“We both walked together all the way to Ethiopia taking care of one another every step of the way until Dimma refugee camp,” he wrote. “[Believe] in present and hope for the future.”
After walking barefoot for more than seven months, Abui and the other Lost Boys reached Dimma. There, they were divided from the rest of the refugees into a separate entity, cared for by the SPLA and the UN Refugee agency (UNHCR).
UNHCR checked their health, fed them and provided an education after a year of military training. Abui began to learn English and Arabic, his first experience with education. In Dinka culture, the bad boys were sent to school while the good boys took care of the cattle.
“Life in Dimma camp was nice and peaceful for the last four years I [spent] there,” he wrote. “The only problems in Dimma refugee camp was no freedom of movement for the lost boys to move around the community and enjoy the traditional dance.”
In 1991, Dimma was attacked by rebels, causing hundreds of Sudanese to flee across the national lines back into South Sudan. To do so, they had to cross a river. With the waters too strong, many died from drowning and others were shot trying to cross to safety.
Abui survived the attack, having crossed the river ahead of time with the help of SPLA soldiers. The SPLA decided to reroute the refugees to Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya. The journey there was much the same. Hundreds died from starvation and dehydration; others were killed by rebel groups.
Abui lived in Kakuma from 1992 to 2001. He spent the majority of his time going to school and searching the woods for food. Water was miles away and sometimes he went without.
Rebels sometimes attacked at night, stealing food, money and blankets from the refugees.
Abui lived with the other Lost Boys, taking care of each other. Then, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS) began interviewing the Lost Boys, taking pictures and recording their life stories.
“School was not [on] my mind any more at that moment because I knew and (hoped) that if I came to America, education would be better, safe and interesting,” he wrote.
In 2001, approximately 3,800 Lost Boys were allowed to resettle in the U.S. due to a program established by the government and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Abui was one of the lucky few.
Living in America
“I never thought I would have a family or kids,” Abui said. Happily married and a father of three boys, he welcomed a daughter into the family Tuesday. “That was a very big moment for me.”
“I love raising my kids here because of the good health care, the environment, all of the good things here,” he said.
When Abui arrived in the U.S. on May 16, 2001, he was determined to get an education and work. “When I came to the U.S., I said, ‘Wow. This is the place. I’m not going to worry anymore. This is the final destination,” he said.
With help from the Vermont Refugee Resettlement Program, he was able to find an apartment with other Lost Boys who also had made the journey.
He attended high school from 7 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and went to work from 3 to 11:30 p.m. every day, five days a work.
“Sometimes I did not get home until 1 in the morning because of transportation,” he wrote. To get to work, he rode his bike, walked or asked for rides from friends.
“I was taking care of myself, by working and getting an education,” Abui said. He had to pay for rent, for food and anything else he might need. Abui was the only one from his family in the U.S. and only had himself to rely on.
“I was taking care of myself and my parents at the same time,” he said. “I had to think very hard all the time, to make sure I have enough for myself and to send money back to South Sudan.”
Abui learned his family was alive in Kalthok, his home village, the entire time he had walked alone to Ethiopia and Kenya. He returned to South Sudan in 2009, seeing his parents for the first time in 20 years.
But faced with the option of living in the U.S. or returning to his home country, Abui chose to stay here.
“Here in the U.S., there are a lot of opportunities,” he said. “We have good health care; the situation is safe. South Sudan is not safe. It’s a war zone right zone. There’s a lot of kids on the street.”
As an electrician living in Swanton, Abui can provide for his family and keep them safe, including his newborn daughter.
When asked why he chose to write the book, he said, “I want my kids to learn that life is not easy. And when you are in a difficult situation you don’t have to give up.”
“I don’t want them to have to go through what I went through; I want them to have a good life,” he said.
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Abui’s book “My Journey to Safety: From South Sudan” can be purchased online at Amazon.com.