My life as a refugee seeing the atrocities of war and what it did to South Sudanese children

By Dennis Charles Ayume, Admin Manager, World Vision South Sudan

I am not sure of my exact year of birth but I have been told I was born around 1981 in the southern part of Sudan, now known as South Sudan. I struggle not to think about my birthday since age is an important factor in a person’s life.

When I went to primary school, I just chose 1983 as my birth year because this was the year of the second Sudanese Civil War that forced many citizens to flee our village to the neighboring villages, close to the boarder with Uganda.

The militants used to come to our village and demand goats, chickens and other food items. For safety, my parents moved to a nearby town and used to go back to the village to harvest the crops. One day I went with our mother to carry food from the village, I witnessed my cousin being raped before my eyes.     

My parents fled to the then Zaire in 1990 (now the Democratic Republic of Congo) when the rebels captured the border town of Kaya where we used to live. As children, we grew up with the perception that some tribes were bad people. We witnessed how prisoners of war were killed and their bodies dumped.

Life became unbearable in Kaya because of the forced recruitment of children as soldiers. Every family was required to give a child. My father lost faith and patience and surrendered to the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA). For him, it was better to die in Southern Sudan than to be killed in a foreign country.

While in Kaya, we were confronted by a number of challenges such as hunger, rape, diseases and malnutrition. I was among the few spared from malnutrition, but suffered greatly from hunger. There was no food and tea, a main staple for South Sudanese. Every morning, children went to the nutrition centers for screening.

I was around 10 years old and got screened several times but did not qualify. I even prayed to be diagnosed as malnourished to get extra food. I then decided to baby-sit for the children in order to be allowed to stay at the center. My goal was to have access to the center and take the leftovers home. This worked and I became an indirect beneficiary.

The environment was not favorable. Our toes were eaten by tukutukus or jigger fleas and we grew up co-existing with bedbugs, lice and maggots. Lice became our source of leisure. On sunny days, we would sit down with our aunts as they hunted for them in our heads.

On 1991, war broke out again in Kaya and citizens were forced to flee to the refugee camps in Northern Uganda. My uncle and I went to Zaire for the third time and settled in a place called, Azu, in the North East in Ituri Provence while my mother and siblings were left behind in the camp and my father remained in the bush.

I attended the primary school in Zaire and learned English. Later, I decided to reunite with my parents in Bgenge Refugee Transit Camp in Arua District in Uganda and joined the UNHCR-funded refugee primary school. With the funding shortage, children had to compete against each other to qualify for UNHCR scholarships. The children of the urban refugees who stayed in Kampala, Arua, Koboko and other towns often won the scholarships to better schools, while children of the poorer refugees, who could not afford to live in towns, had to study in the refugee schools.

In the refugee schools, we were in a class of over 300 children studying under trees. As children, we used to carry stones to sit on during the class. Later, we improved the situation and erected tree poles for sitting. The school (Supiri Primary School) had 99% untrained teachers.

There was no water in the camps. Women often had to fetch water at 1:00 am. Children were warned not to waste water as it was reserved for household needs. Every morning, we walked in nearby bushes using the morning dew to clean our feet before school. Bathing was a luxury. We used to go to Inyau River in Terego County, a 10km walk to bathe and swim.

I completed Uganda primary leaving education in 1999 and passed in Grade 2 with aggregate 14. This qualified me for a UNHCR scholarship to go to Yivu Secondary school in 2000 in Terego County, Arua District. Due to the funding gap, UNHCR introduced a cost-sharing scholarship which meant that parents were to cover 30% of the fees.

At that time, my mother died delivering her 11th child. There was no transport during the night to take her to the hospital. In the morning, a UNHCR ambulance arrived and I went with her to the hospital. Little did I know was escorting a dead body.

In order to pay for our share of the school fees, I rode a bicycle I had inherited from my father to cultivate sesame and peddle them at the refugee camp. During holidays, I joined UNHCR’s food for work projects, cleaning roads and planting trees for two years.

I had only two pairs of clothes to wash and a school uniform. I completed secondary school in 2003 and passed with good grades. That same year, Imvepi Refugee Settlement was hit with a food crisis. My father and my brothers did not have food to eat. They sold the goats and chicken I raised to buy food. I moved to Koboko town to look for a job to support my family.

In 2004, I got the opportunity for a Uganda Advanced Certificate of Education to study in St. Charles Lwanga College in Koboko, which I completed in 2005, the same year my father died of hunger and frustration in the camp. I was left to care of five younger brothers.

In 2006, my cousin bought computers and asked me to start a business. Even if I was not trained and I did not know anything about the new technology, I agreed.  He only showed me how to start a computer. I had to learn the rest on my own. I later became the best computer tutor in Koboko district and a consultant to companies such as MTN Uganda. 

My cousin agreed to pay for my university fees to study for an Advance Certificate in Education.  I took care of my personal needs, studied and worked at the same time to send my brothers to school. I became a teacher and a broker in Kampala, allowing me to pay the bills and school fees.

I had the faith that things would change for the better. I resolved to get good grades to qualify for a scholarship grant to go to a city school. My brothers also did well so I did my best to support them.

I graduated with a degree in Economics & Management from Uganda Christian University and returned to Juba in 2009. Being an elder brother, I cannot imagine my brothers dropping out of school so I have to get any job to keep them in school. These pressures which I call a test to my faith shaped my life. It also affected my career path. I accepted jobs for the sake of my family.

I struggled to find my purpose in life as my first job was to train ex-combatants on life skills. I worked as National Civilian Training Consultant with a UN agency and various organizations. I call this journey a “crisis of career” as I went along with whatever opportunity to help my family survive.

In 2011, I turned down a scholarship for a Master’s Degree in Environmental Economics from the University of Pretoria in South Africa and also in 2013, a scholarship to study for a Master’s Degree in Economics in the UK as I needed to keep supporting my family. They all depended on me and leaving them behind was unthinkable. Instead, I left my dreams behind.   

In 2016, I joined World Vision South Sudan as Fleet Manager. It was a time when South Sudan was in the middle of intense fighting. Working for World Vision has been a turning point in my life. I consider it a “miracle job” where I discovered my purpose. The role has been both challenging and rewarding.

I serve as a part-time preacher at Episcopal Church of South Sudan and the St. Emmanuel Parish. Finally, I am back in school studying for my Master of Science Degree in Economics at the University of Juba and also plan to complete a Master’s Degree of Divinity.

For refugees to rise from their condition, organizations and governments should look beyond the crisis. During my life as a refugee, we were viewed as guests and were not allowed to work. Refugees should be integrated into host communities, given life skills to make them self-reliant. Education should be a top priority. For children, losing the chance to pursue their studies is devastating.

Dennis married to Juan Suzan and a father of three children Manasseh Duku, Hannah Keji and Adamina Blessing.

Dennis Ayume and team. His life serves as a guide and inspiration to young humanitarians who are also former refugees.