Out of the Impossible by Paul Deng Kur
As a child, Paul Deng Kur was separated from his parents during the Sudanese Civil War. He spent months wandering through the jungle as war ravaged his village, and banded with other orphans, becoming one of the Lost Boys of South Sudan. He became a soldier in the Sudan People’s Liberation Army at age eight, and escaped from refugee camps multiple times, hoping desperately to avenge his family. His novel, Out of the Impossible, reflects on the life he endured as a child of war, and how it continues to shape him today.
Sampsonia Way presents an excerpt of Out of the Impossible, available for purchase here.My cousins and I were disconnected from our families for months. The war got worse and worse as time went by. The cattle that were left, which we kept at home and continued to look after, were raided constantly by SPLA and even more so by the Sudanese government to supply their soldiers with food. Looting happened day and night. The SPLA soldiers would shoot bullets in the air at night in order to intimidate peasants from confronting them so that they could have easy access to the cattle. Their strategy worked.
We usually hid when we saw both the rebel and the Sudanese government soldiers alike. Later, we learned to observe what they took to anticipate their needs in the future. For instance, they liked goats because of the meat, so we knew that our goats would be targeted. However, even if we had wanted to stand up to the soldiers, we never would have been able to; the new tactics were very brutal and grew more threatening every month. The newest tactic of the Sudanese government—the abduction of children for slavery—had just begun, and the results devastated families.
The government, especially the Arab portion, was now resorting to taking children as slaves in order to enhance the economy in North Sudan. Children were being taken north to be enslaved, but many people didn’t immediately realize that this was a major part of the agenda for the ground and air attacks. Thankfully, my cousins and I escaped enslavement. Once we saw our abandoned, burning village, we set out on our own. This marked the beginning of our loneliness and our long, tremendous suffering—the moment when we left home to wander the country, looking for our loved ones. It was not an easy task, especially for children.
As we began our journey, we met many children who were sent to the forest to avoid being kidnapped and enslaved by the northern Sudanese armed forces. The SPLA had started to intervene to ensure the safety of the children and of the peasant population in general. But for us, it was too late. Our families were nowhere to be found.
After a fruitless three-month search for our loved ones, we finally accepted the intervention of the SPLA; they offered to help all children who were disconnected from their families. A huge number of children remained parentless. My cousins and I felt that we would eventually get a hold of our families, but our hope faded a little bit more every day.
As much as the SPLA wanted to help us, they had several things on their hands, including our safety and their position on the frontlines. Food had grown scarce; the SPLA started killing bulls for us, as the only other food available was wild fruit, and even that had been entirely depleted. Once there were no more bulls to slaughter, the children relied on leaves as food. We were all becoming severely thin, and that was only the beginning of our problems. At this early stage in the civil war, the SPLA lacked precision in their leadership. The soldiers helping us were always receiving misleading messages from those in charge of the movement. These SPLA soldiers demonstrated very little leadership guiding us out of trouble, but their presence added a little hope to our fragile lives. However, they weren’t very effective providing us with information. Telling us, “We will locate your families,” did not increase our morale. On the contrary, when it turned out to be an empty promise, it sunk us even further into despair.
Every single day, the SPLA was attacked multiple times. They tried to think of where they could relocate the children for better protection, and they came up with the idea of sending us to Ethiopia—a place that was quite far away. Before they did this, they gathered as many children as they could in the forest. Luckily, my cousins and I were able to connect with our four other cousins who were all girls. The girls had not seen their families for almost two months, just like us. Just like that, we became a group of nine.
We began to wonder if our journey with the SPLA was a wise decision, given that they were no longer able to provide us with any substantial food. Our vulnerability was also a mounting issue; shelling from the village would reach us in the forest. Life had become extremely difficult, and it was getting harder and harder every single day. At this point in the crisis, negative thoughts consumed my mind. I worried constantly of what could have happened to my family. This mental restlessness stayed with me for a very long time. Some nights, I could not even sleep for thinking of my family. This made me sick because then I would have to walk all day searching for food and water without any rest.
My life was deteriorating, and like everyone in our band of children, my hopes of finding our families were diminishing too. There were no signs of them. I cried many times every day—alone, hiding my tears. I just wished I could see my family; it never seemed like too much to ask. As time went by, we arrived in another village, and Mayol spotted a couple of our cousins in the cattle camp. He noticed them before everyone else and started calling their names. It was a great moment. In total, we were able to unite with another six children, four of whom were our cousins from extended families (the other two were related to one of my cousins, but those two didn’t stay with us), so we were now thirteen in number. I didn’t know any of the four of them very well, but I heard about them from the rest of my cousins.
My cousin Thon asked the new arrivals if they had seen anyone from our families, and they also wanted to learn from us. They hadn’t seen anyone, and neither had we. During the latest wave of attacks, the government had chased them away from the cattle camp, so they had no knowledge of anyone’s whereabouts. They had spent the past couple of months looking for their families and avoiding abduction by the Sudanese government, just like us.
The search continued after my four cousins joined us, but we were still unsuccessful. I was very depressed and felt defeated by the circumstances at hand. I had not yet accepted the full extent of the government’s treachery and oppression, but I was aware that something had definitely changed in my life and in the lives of my cousins. However, we believed that as long as our hopes continued to thrive, life was worth living. This mentality prolonged my hope and my desire to continue looking for my family, even though nothing about my surroundings was the same. Things were progressing at a very fast pace even though the process of finding our families was tortuously slow. During this time, I felt numb and lost, physically and mentally. Sometimes we remained in the jungle, unguided. While that state of limbo was difficult, there weren’t words to describe my state of mind. I was losing focus little by little, and in spite of our devotion, the energy required to uphold our search was running out. Our prospects grew thin, and there was no way to avoid it.
At this phase, I was acting independently to make choices that were not always productive. Basically, as a child, I was making an adult’s decisions. No child deserves to live this way, but I had no choice. The unflagging guidance from my parents and other mentors—their emotional support, their protection, their wisdom—had been stolen from me by life-threatening forces.
Every child should have that kind of parental guidance and support, but in my case, I acted as the parent and the child at the same time. Nowadays, when I hear people in the United States say, “I was abused as a child,” it makes me wonder: should I, would I, categorize my suffering and the suffering of the Sudanese children in the camps, out in the countryside, and in the military as “abuse”? As children in South Sudan, our welfare during the second civil war was obstructed and endangered, certainly, but the circumstances were wildly different. Still, I hate to ignore the fact that abuse was indeed part of our childhood during the movement, so I say, “Yes, I was abused as a child.” Although I confess to this awful truth now, I don’t tend to say it when someone asks me about my childhood. However, our abuse was disquieting because many of us were not abused by a failed system or uncaring, even violent caregivers; people just never realized that we were only children and that they should treat us as such. During the civil war, children were seen as expendable commodities or nuisances, nothing more.
Daily routines and many other aspects of my life were bridled by the day-to-day conditions at hand. I started to believe that those who created war were evil-minded because they separated children from their families and exposed us to horrors we would not experience with our loved ones. War changed everything. Even the animals were altered by the presence of violence. During this dire time, for instance, some of the normally gentle animals began eating children. We would wake up in the morning and find blood everywhere.
I didn’t like the direction my life was taking, but I had no choice but to go along with all of my cousins. The gratification we sought was the reunion with our families and enough food to keep us alive. We kept our feet moving; it was all we knew how to do. There was no real rhyme or reason to our searching; we even went deep into a dark jungle searching for roots, wild fruits, and leaves of familiar trees, trying to avoid lions and other animals. Again, we didn’t have a choice.
I remembered when my cousins saw a warthog digging a hole, and they grabbed a couple of dried sticks and encircled the warthog. They attacked it, beating it in the back, hoping to kill it. I had never seen a warthog, so I was scared and climbed into a little bush with my youngest cousins. When the warthog realized what was going on, it knocked two of them down and ran. They got up unharmed and started to laugh. Pretty soon, we were all laughing; it was the only time I really laughed in three months. Anger had overshadowed our happiness throughout the journey. As children, we had difficulty adjusting to the experience of prolonged pain. Naturally, the laughing ceased because we couldn’t feel happy when we had no food or water, when we were exhausted from walking, when we were terribly homesick, and when we lacked the protection that parents provide. There was no room left for real happiness. On a daily basis, trepidation drove our minds and fear occupied our hearts.
Everything seemed to occur in an inopportune manner, and we had no control. Again, we adopted many of our parents’ responsibilities since they were nowhere to be found. We weren’t well equipped to handle everyday crises, but we couldn’t blame ourselves for our lack of capabilities at such a tender age. In the meantime, our problems kept building. One of the biggest issues, obviously, was the constant shortage of food. Well, some of my cousins thought the warthog was a very forgetful animal, so they went looking for it; indeed it was eating not too far from where my cousins first attacked it. They decided to encircle the animal because they believed the warthog was very young, so it could be easily caught.
Let’s just say, warthogs are quicker than they look. And no warthog, no meat.
We went on looking for wild fruits and roots of certain plants. My cousins had a more sophisticated understanding of life in the jungle than I did. Their knowledge reduced our suffering while we wandered among the thick bushes on the outskirts of our village. In the bushes and the jungle, word spread that all children should walk toward Palek, where a gathering was taking place at Anyidi to address the number of homeless children in the region.
We didn’t have anything to lose, so we walked to Palek and met the elders and the Chief of Anyidi, Ateny Leek Agot. Ateny is from a well-respected family in Anyidi. From the moment we met him, his generosity was apparent in his words and in the bulls he slaughtered for the children. His words empowered many of us not to take the current disintegration of the villages as a permanent situation, but rather to remember what was happening and use it as a lesson for our own children someday. He told us, “You are the future of Dinka Bor and Sudan.” For the first time in months, I felt comforted.
Ateny also went on to say, “This land is worth fighting for, and you are the reasons why the SPLA are fighting tirelessly to protect you, your mothers, fathers, grandparents and indeed our cattle.” While standing in front of us, he spoke calmly, praising us for the strength we exhibited for the past couple of months that we spent in jungle, scrounging for food. He talked briefly about the problems that had clouded our lives. He valued the legacy of the family, and it was this legacy that he showed us throughout our stayed in his village of Anyidi. I remember when he looked slowly around the throng of children, surveying our group. I’m sure he realized in that moment that we all were barely clinging to hope and to life, but he didn’t admit it.
For this reason, perhaps, Chief Ateny decided to tell us the truth. He said, “Some of you may not see your families, as the Sudanese government and the Arabs continue to attack villages and take children to be their own.” Upon hearing that, I got up from where I was seated, went behind a tree, and started to cry. Within hours, the village of Anyidi fell under attack, so we fled into the jungle once again.
This excerpt is reproduced by Sampsonia Way with the permission of Paul Deng Kur. Copyright Paul Deng Kur, 2014.