Michael Kuany’s Story

Published March 20, 2012

I am one of the nine living children born to my family. As a young boy born in the rural village of Jalle in southern Sudan, my 6’4” mother believed that I was born in the year of great drought. She doesn’t know exactly what year it was because there were no clinics in the area at that time and birth certificates to this day are not issued. My mother named me Ayuen, which means “rope”. Around the time of my birth my father’s mother died. In Dinka Bor culture, a rope is worn by grieving adults as a sign of mourning. Life in my village was based on agricultural production and cattle herding. My mother tells me that I was a very active child who loved to run and join my age-mates in traditional dancing.

One evening, when I was perhaps six years old, Sudanese government forces from the north attacked my village. I saw smoke. I heard the sound of guns. After years of hearing from village elders that we were to run to the forest in the event of an attack, I did not hesitate. My playmates were with me but I was still very scared. I did not know at that time that I would not see my beloved mother or my village for another 20 years.

Sudan is the largest country in Africa and is made up of Arab Muslims in the dry north and Black Africans who practice Christianity and traditional religions in the fertile south. Fundamentalist Arabs control the government. While the reasons for the 21-civil war are many and complex, much of it is fueled by greed and religious intolerance. Southern Sudan is rich in oil and agriculture, which the Northern government wants to control. The government in the North was also killing Southerners who refused to convert to Islam. In the mid 1980’s, southern Sudanese villages were systematically torched and by the war’s end in 2005, over 2 million southern Sudanese were dead and 4 million displaced.

After my village was attacked, I walked for one thousand miles to Ethiopia. I did not know where I was going. But I was not alone. By this time there were thousands of us fleeing the south. A long line of thin, poorly-clothed, hungry and very frightened children. As young Dinka boys are often playing outside of the village and older boys are caring for livestock, we did not know where to go when we saw our homes in flames. From villages near and far we ran from soldiers and from the sound of guns. The journey was exhausting. I remembered when I was tired and wanted to sit down and rest, but Mamer and Alier, the older boys who were helping me, instructed me firmly not to rest. They explained that if I stopped to rest I would be captured and killed by the Islamic forces. So I continued to walk with fear, not knowing what might happen to me. Life was hard because there was no food, water, or medical assistance. I was always worried that wild animals might kill me. A lot of my friends died in my presence. Some were shot. Others were simply too tired to keep going. Others died of starvation. I was sure that it would not be long before it was my turn to die.

When we reached the Ethiopian border, we were rounded up by men whose language I did not understand. They scared me because they had guns. Over time, the United Nations (UN) set up a refugee camp for us and Ethiopia became my home for four years. There was no medical assistance and many people died from diseases. But at times it felt like home. My friends and I had built ourselves huts similar to the tukuls we lived in back home in Sudan. I was also reunited with my brother Peter Kuany, (although I always worried about what had happened to the rest of my family). I was thankful for the UN workers. Even though we couldn’t understand each other, we used gestures to communicate. They gave us food and provided some school supplies such as notebooks and pencils.

But in 1991, Ethiopia split into two countries and Eritrea declared a war against Ethiopia. The refugees were given 24 hours notice to immediately evacuate the camp. After 24 hours Ethiopian and Eritrean forces clashed in the camp and I—along with many of my young friends—were forced into the Gilo river. The Gilo is very deep and full of crocodiles. I had learned how to swim in Ethiopia, but many of my friends perished on that day. After I crossed the river I was on Sudanese land. But as soon as I stepped my foot onto my home soil the Sudanese Islamic government forces aggressively moved in with the intention of capturing and killing me. So, again, I ran.

For another thousand miles I ran with the boys who survived the Gilo. We fled from the Sudanese troops for many weeks. Again, we had no food or water for our journey. I was older now but when we were given that 24 hour notice in the Ethiopian camp I felt like a child. I wondered to myself ‘Where will we go? What are we going to eat?’ We passed through many different villages of other tribes but few people were around and we were a large group. We kept walking until we reached an area in southern Sudan that was controlled by the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (the SPLA was comprised of southern Sudanese rebels who were fighting the Sudanese government). Finally we had someone to defend us. When the SPLA saw our rag-tag group of kids being chased by the government forces they rushed out in front of us to fight. We were pushed behind them and directed to walk towards a place called “Kenya”. I had never heard of such a place but I knew it was safer than Sudan.

Kakuma refugee camp is located in northern Kenya and I was one boy among thousands of other refugees who came to seek protection. Kakuma is in a dry desert where it seldom rains. Life in the camp was miserable. There was no shelter provided for us, it was always hot and windy, and there was never enough food. We lived on one small meal a day, which was comprised of ungrounded corn. Again I had to start from scratch The UN was the only source for food and medical supplies.

While I was in the camp, I asked the UN aid workers to teach me the English alphabet and I also asked for education to be provided in the camp. Both in the Ethiopian and Kenyan camps, I used to ask the UN aid workers to teach me an English word and what I learned I would teach to my friends. The aid workers were very kind and helpful in most cases. A lot of them were white from the European countries and the United States of America and few from other nationalities. I deeply appreciated the help I got from the UN workers and I wanted to be like them. I hoped that someday I would be able to help people in distress.

Kakuma was my home for ten years, until 2001, when the United States offered the so called “Lost Boys of Sudan” a chance to come to their country.

After 14 years living in refugee camps, the United States government kindly approved me to come to the country. Because I was thirsty for education, I didn’t waste any time, but went to school and got my GED and then went to college. I studied International studies and political science. My dream was to someday join the United Nations and advocate for those who are in need. I wanted to somehow pay back all the people who had helped me during my time of need. After a lot of thinking, I decided to a form a nonprofit organization to raise money to build an elementary school in my hometown in southern Sudan. I knew that there were thousands of war orphans who needed help and the only way that they could have a better future is through education. In 2005 I started Rebuild South Sudan Inc, with an aim to provide an education for the many children of Jalle Sudan, in particular for the many war orphans and for Jalle’s girls—who so often are discriminated against and denied an education.

Today I want to encourage countries in this same way. I am left over from the war. There is still much pain in my heart and I will never forget what I have seen and endured. However I want to use my experiences to help others—both individuals and nations—heal. I want to bring people and nations together through diplomacy so that conflicts can be settled with words instead of with guns and tanks. I will do everything in my power to prevent another child from losing her family, her home, her country. I am again asking to be taught, but this time I recognize that I too have much to offer.

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