I come from a place with a long memory of war.
Starting in the mid-fifties, we fought two civil wars, that both times lasted two decades. Our families spent their lifetimes in eerie refugee camps. Most of us grew up with little to no education. Families live on edge, ready to flee from camp to camp at the sight of advancing rebels.
My own travels as a South Sudanese refugee started at Gambella in Ethiopia. Both of my parents spent most of their years there. It was the country they fled to when the war broke out.
My mother lived in Ethiopia starting when she was five years old. They lived in what can only be called slums: poor areas, high crime, little food, surviving under the protection of the UN and Ethiopian government. At first South Sudanese were not allowed to go to school at all. The general population had not yet warmed to welcome the fleeing refugees. More than a decade later, the refugees were allowed to go to school, but only the boys.
By the time girls and woman were allowed to go to school at my mothers camp, she was a grown woman with a family to take care off. The war had rendered her an uneducated mother destined to live poor, not excelling any higher than low class.
Multiply her story by millions and you get an uneducated populace.
When I was four, we traveled on to Kenya. looking for better opportunities. First we stayed at Camp Ipo, then Walda and finally settled in a small city right outside of the capital Nairobi called Ruiru.
My siblings and I attended school. We learned Swahili the native language, adapting well to the Kenyan culture. My father was able to find odd jobs that got us by. Furthermore, by this time we had relatives in the States that made life in Ruiru much better than Gambella with their help. Our food was still rationed, but we moved from a tent to a small studio apartment, where we lived until our eventual move to the United States.
It’s hard to imagine that this life of hardship has all been because of a war in a country that I have never even been to. In fact my mother herself does not remember the country she calls home.
We have been refugees in three countries: Ethiopia, Kenya and the United States. Our relatives are all over the globe mostly in Western countries. We are all products of a war in what should be a foreign country for us. Our culture is our only attachment. The native language we speak, the dark toned skin that stands out no matter what country we are in, the food we make, the clothes we wear. These are all remnants of South Sudan.
Though I, and a lot of my peers, have never been “home” we very much identify as South Sudanese. It is an identity we can never shake. When we are asked the inevitable question “where are you from” we foolishly claim the country or state that we live.
The question is then followed by “where are you really from?” Forced to confess, we timidly state the truth.
When we arrived in the states, our parents reminded us that this was not a permanent stay. We were here to go to school then return home and rebuild our country. That is exactly what we did. It was hard to come by any one of my peers that did not want to return to South Sudan after college. This was the only thing we were sure about.
The anticipated return explains the jubilant crowds of our people around the U.S. and around the world, when our country achieved independence in 2011.
We knew it meant that we could finally return home. It meant that we were not going to live poor in someone else’s country, but wealthy in our own. It meant that for the first time we will be part of the majority and will not have to face that pointing question of “where are you really from?”
One after the other a lot of my peers started going back. I watched their lives progress through their status updates on social media. They had good jobs, they bought houses, some even married and had children. Returning to the states was the furthest thing on their mind.
Then, about a month ago on Dec 15, 2013, soldiers loyal to former Vice President Riek Machar and those loyal to President Salva Kiir ignited war again, tearing the young country apart along ethnic lines.
Once again, my newly returned peers were forced to flee. By no fault of their own, they became refugees for the second time. They, and their parents, had been through this before and saw the writing on the wall. For the general population, war can only mean two things: death, or refugee camps.
The vicious cycle returned.
What is South Sudan’s problem? Perhaps that our leaders are not politicians, but soldiers. The president and vice president are both generals. They spent decades in the bush. Their political tactics look more like military strategies to extinguish the enemy. With independence, their brother became their new enemy. So now we have brothers against brothers, who will inevitably burn down their house without compromise.
President Salva Kiir Mayardit, whose forces have been retaking regions loyal to his former VP Riek Machar. The fighting has killed about 1000 people and displaced 120,000. (Photo from Flickr by Utenriksdepartementet UD)
But why should the entire family suffer? These politicians are old men with old grudges re-living old wars that a new generation of children have to fight, while their families suffer.
But there is hope. The difference between this war and the last two is now we have an educated populace who will hold our politicians accountable, and throw them out if they do not follow through on their promises. We will not let them destroy our country for those same old reasons.
Both sides in this new conflict claim to want a democratic process and claim the other wants to thwart the democratic process.
They tell us rally our bases and raise arms because freedom is being threatened. We do feel that freedom is being threatened — it is being threatened by these established party leaders who only know war. But we know democracy exists by the ballot, not the bullet. We reject both sides.
We reject the wars of yesteryear. We are progressive and want to move forward as a people in our own country. For generations of South Sudanese to live and grow up in camps is simply appalling.
We, the products of war, reject war. We want our children to grow up educated, free of want, free of fear, far away from camps scattered across neighboring countries. We want our children to have the peace of mind in a democracy that reflect their will.
We, the children of war, reject this war.