When he was 8 years old Reath Kawang nyak fled his village in Southern Sudan because of the encroaching war. Reath accepted an invitation from JRS to recount his remarkable story of survival to Year 11 students of De La Salle College, Revesby.
When my mother took me from our village, I didn’t know what war was. I had never seen a television so I never knew how serious it was. Until the war came to my village and we were forced to run.
At first I thought it was a game. I was 8 years old, running with my boys from the village, we were having fun together. We are playing games trying to guess the type of guns and bombs from the sounds of the explosions. During one of the attacks, my mother was holding my hand while we were running but we were separated during the confusion. Now I was alone.
After running for a few days, we were forced to keep walking even though the bombs had stopped dropping. It took several weeks to walk to the refugee camp in Ethiopia but I don’t know exactly how long because there was no calendar. During the walk there was no water. No food.
We lived under trees. We had no guns but we had to protect ourselves. There were wild animals. We depended on the elders hunting for our food. They did what they could to help us survive.
A refugee doesn’t have a choice when he leaves home. There is no plan. There is no chance to close the door when you leave your house. No chance to close the window. You feel a need to go back to close your door, to make sure your house is okay but you have to keep moving away from
I was in three different camps in Ethiopia for eight years. In the third one, I was still dreaming that I wanted to go back and fight in the war, the same war that killed my father. I thought I was old enough and I am learning to clean guns. I was small and skinny, and guns were taller than me, so the men in the camp wouldn’t let me go. As a refugee you don’t get to choose many things. Now I am glad that I couldn’t choose to go to war.
The UN went through the refugee camp and selected a group of boys to go to Denmark. We were lucky refugees – we had resident privileges before we got there. We had a house waiting, and support to learn Danish, and go to school.
When I am arriving in Denmark everything was new for me. I didn’t know how to turn on a light switch because there were no lights in the camp. I had come from a place where it was strange to see a white man. And now I am in a country where it is so strange to see a black man that kids at school are coming up to me to touch my skin.
I had never seen snow, and I wanted to feel what it was like. I take off my shoes and socks and walk into the snow. And it is so cold, and my feet get so cold. I run inside and put on my socks, and now I never take them off. I still wear my socks to bed.
But it was good being in Denmark – there was no war. I was accepted. People listened to me when I talked. It was good to be in a place where I was welcome.
Two questions I get all the time: How old are you? I have two birthdays. I am 26 – this was the age the UN gave me when they gave me my passport. But in reality I am 28. I think I am 28 but I have no proof.
And people ask me what country I am from: when I ran from the war I was from Sudan. Now it is two countries. So I guess I am from South Sudan. But now I am Danish. But I still carry my UN passport. So now I don’t really have my own country. I am from a lot of places.
When I arrived in Denmark I was 14 years old. I still had to find myself. I became a rapper. Like a ‘gangsta’ rapper. I have G unit shoes. I wear earrings, bling bling. I wanted to get away from my African story. I thought my story was not worth it. I wanted to get popularity in my school.
But the war was still in me. I was still angry. I am blaming everyone. I am blaming the Muslims for the war. I am blaming the Europeans for bringing Christianity to Sudan. I am blaming the Chinese for wanting the oil in South Sudan. I am blaming my mother for leaving me behind.
After 16 years of blaming my mother and thinking that she is dead, I find out that she is alive. That she is living in a refugee camp in Ethiopia. When I speak to her on the telephone, the first time we talk in 16 years, I get to hear her story. I hear that she didn’t leave me behind on purpose. That she has been thinking I am dead for 16 years. I forgive my mother. And I start to forgive myself.
I feel a responsibility to tell my story. My African story. My story that is much bigger than myself. Give voice to those who can’t get to speak because they are dead, or they are in refugee camps.
When you forgive you begin to release yourself. I begin to think that there must be a reason I am still alive. There must be a reason that I didn’t get shot. I feel a responsibility to tell my story that is much bigger than myself. Give voice to those who can’t get to speak because they are dead, or they are still in refugee camps.
I still feel that I need to go home, to close the windows, to close the door. After 19 years, I go meet my mother, and my family in the refugee camp. For the first time in my life I have a photo of me with my mother. Not all my family is there but using photo shop I can make a family album.
Then I learn that my sister is still in the war zone with two children who I have never met. Just as I am about to meet her, the war reaches her, and she has to flee. And she is separated from her children. I find her in a refugee camp but now we don’t know where her children are. Now we are trying to find her children.