This is an extract from the book The End of Where We Begin by Rosalind Russell. The book is a true-life account of three young refugees who flee civil war in South Sudan
September 2016: Lilian, a 25-year-old widow, and her six-year-old son Harmony have fled fighting between government forces and rebels in their hometown of Yei in Central Equatoria, South Sudan. They are trying to reach the Ugandan border on foot.
They made it to Ombachi with a couple of hours of daylight to spare. Hundreds of people had gathered in this one spot, under the trees by the primary school: old ladies with aching, swollen legs, hungry children, anxious men. They quickly got themselves organised: men went to gather firewood, some of the women fetched water, other started the fires. They would pool their resources – they would need to, to survive.
“Go on, go and play,” Lilian gently encouraged Harmony. She had relaxed a little, there was a woman who had handed out cups of millet porridge to the children, and Harmony had finished the water she had collected in the jerrycan, gasping after each mouthful. Some kids had gathered under the school entrance, some playing with sticks, some just sitting on the steps, too exhausted to do much. Harmony wandered over shyly and soon seemed to be chatting to another boy a little older than him, and they started drawing patterns in the dust. Lilian offered her saucepan and some rice to the woman tending the fire. She enquired about cars, hoping they could leave in the morning. It should only be an hour’s drive from here to Kaya on the border, it was just her and her son; how much would they charge?
The woman heard it before her. She flopped down suddenly like she had been deflated, her face was on the ground then her hands clawed at the dirt, as if she was trying to get herself into the earth. That was when Lilian heard the deadly whoosh of the artillery shells, she felt the air sucked from around her; a split second of silence and then a searing white light.
At first she thought she might be dead. She had been thrown across the ground, her eyes were burned shut. There was a vacuum of time, her head was empty, numb, perhaps her brain had been smashed out of her, there was no real thought. Time passed: it could have been a second, a minute, an hour. Lilian heard herself breathing. She dug her fingers in the dry earth and willed herself back to the present, to sit up, to move.
The volume turned up, louder and louder. She sat up, stood up, heard the screams, the wailing. She opened her eyes to the glare of fires burning the trees, the buildings, the cars. Madness whirled around her, people running, screaming. The air was thick with smoke. Harmony! Harmony! Lilian screamed, but couldn’t hear her own voice. She ran in circles around the fires, crouching to touch a blackened body, running more, weaving around the horror scene in frenzied madness. The living were already leaving, fearing another attack. Cars revved away with doors open, other survivors just ran, scattering in all directions into the scrub.
“Come! Come now!” a man shouted, pulling Lilian’s arm. “You must run!”
She went along, pulled by the stranger who tightly gripped her forearm. He had been right to tell her to run – as they stumbled along a path of dry leaves into the forest, another explosion nearly threw them to the ground. An unnatural glare lit up the dusk and the acrid smoke descended.
“No!” Lilian screamed. “No! Let me go! I need to go back! I need to find my son!”
She wrestled with the man, who kept hold of her arm as they both fell to the ground. Lilian struggled and kicked, trying to free herself. She lunged forward and tried to bite his shoulder, her mouth falling hard against bone.
“No!” she tried to scream. Her throat felt as sharp as razor blades; she could hear no sound. She tasted blood in her mouth. She lunged at the man again.
“Bitch! Stop it!” the man yelled. “Stop it!” His lip curled, he looked crazed. His shirt had been ripped off; his chest was heaving; his eye was bleeding. “You stupid bitch! We have to run, or we will die. Don’t you understand? I’m trying to save you!”
They walked for hours through the night, a caravan of strangers – women, men, children, babies – who had all fled the bombing. They kept going until they came to the shelter of a mango tree. They dropped to the ground. The smallest infants, already limp bundles carried in arms and on shoulders, were placed down carefully after one of the women quickly swept the dirt ground with her hands. The older children sank gratefully onto the warm earth and fell unconscious, their dry mouths open and slack. Lilian lay down on her side and pulled her knees up to her chest. She had covered the tattered remnants of her primrose yellow dress with a kitenge that someone had passed to her. The shreds of the dress underneath were useless, but that was the last thing that Harmony had seen his mother wearing. When he started to search for her, she thought, if he had to describe her to someone, he would remember the dress, so she would not take it off, not until she had found him again. Her son had been wearing his blue shorts and blue-and-red striped T-shirt. Was he wearing them now? Where was he? Was he trying to sleep too, lying down with a group of strangers?
She lay behind a little girl a few years older than Harmony, probably about nine. She didn’t know her; she didn’t know anyone in the group. There had been no time for talking, but the others seemed to understand that Lilian had not been travelling alone before the attack. They helped her take sips of water in the darkness when they got to the stream. Lying still now, Lilian listened to the sleeping girl’s murmurs; she watched her tiny ribcage gently rise and fall. She wanted to reach out and place her hand on the girl’s back. That’s what she did with Harmony, and they would both drift off to sleep together, breathing in unison.
But Lilian could not sleep on this night. She lay awake, with the glassy, open eyes of a doll. She turned her neck to watch the dawn sky turn to violet through the canopy of leaves. Was Harmony looking up at it too? She should never have let him go and play, she should have stayed with him, holding his hand. She deserved the agony she felt, the stabbing pains in her heart, the nausea rising in her windpipe. She would not eat until she found him. She would starve herself, but when she found him again she would cook him his posho and beans, then she would kill a chicken for him, and they would eat it together.
What should have been a two- or three-day walk to the Ugandan border turned into an epic journey of endurance that Lilian bore without complaint. If anything, the pain felt appropriate to her, she deserved it. She even wondered, when she was walking, whether the more she suffered the more likely she was to see Harmony again.
The road to Kaya, the fastest route to Uganda, was unsafe. On the second day they had encountered a group of terrified retreating civilians, staggering up the road towards them. They had started off as nine, but they had been ambushed by rebel fighters who had robbed them, accused the three men in their group of being deserters, and slaughtered them on the spot with their machetes. They wouldn’t waste bullets on cowards, the rebels had said. The bodies were left on the side of the road to rot in the sun, then they gang-raped the women, including a twelve-year-old girl, forcing the two young boys to watch. When they had finished, they ordered the depleted group back up the road towards Yei, knowing that if government soldiers came upon them the routine would be repeated.
The six survivors joined Lilian’s weary band and, like her, became quiet, compliant followers, leaving all decision-making to the two men and one woman who had emerged as natural leaders. If the Kaya road was impassable, they would have to head west, through the bush to Congo, one of the men had said. He had been there before, when he was driving petrol tankers, but he hadn’t been on foot. He tried to laugh. This would be hard, at least a week’s walk to Congo, then they would try to get themselves down to Koboko on the Ugandan border. The Congolese were crazy, the man had said, but they won’t try to hurt us. It’s the only way.
They were constantly on the move, sleeping for two or three hours at a time and then heading on. Sometimes Lilian fell into a heavy sleep within seconds of lying down and would awake disorientated and remorseful if she had not dreamt about Harmony. Most of her waking hours she was thinking of him, from his babyhood to now, talking to him, replaying scenes in her head and desperately trying to scrape up fresh memories of their six years together. Like her, everyone in the group seemed to have retreated into themselves, conserving energy, barely speaking, except to chivvy along their shrunken, exhausted children. Lilian listened to their quiet, thin cries in the night and wondered if anyone was listening out for Harmony.
After days and nights that Lilian could not count they crossed into Congo. There was no border post but they noticed subtle changes in the landscape and then they saw the houses that were different from theirs and the sign by the church that they could not read. At the end of that day, two women had approached with stiff braids spiking from their heads like antennae, offering coconuts from a wicker basket. When the refugees turned up their palms to show they had nothing, the women conferred, cut open half a dozen shells with their pangas and handed out the brown husks to the children, who lifted them to their ravenous mouths and tipped them up for the warm, sweet juice.
They all felt safer in Congo, seeking out churches at night where they could rest nearby, and allowing themselves longer stretches of sleep. To the locals they were a curiosity, and despite the lack of a common language there was an understanding of the travellers’ plight. These borderlands were scarred by conflict: when one area had been at peace, another was at war. While the refugees felt no hostility here, they were resolved to reach Uganda. Congo was unfamiliar, and in times of trouble it was Uganda that had been the place of refuge for the South Sudanese; in turn they had hosted plenty of Ugandan refugees when their neighbours had been in turmoil. They were brothers, they shared traditions, languages and a way of life that stretched back way before any of these borders had been drawn. What’s more, it was in Uganda that the United Nations would be waiting for them, with shelter and food for their children.
They walked for more than a week. Their legs were pitted with scabbed and raw scratches, their feet blistered and bleeding. Pain was something they observed now, rather than felt. Their clothes were rags, their hair was red from the dust. Each morning, they smeared ash from the fire’s embers on their faces to reflect the glaring midday sun. By evening, the children stared at the adults, shocked at the creatures their parents had become.
On one night, just one or two days away from the Ugandan border, Lilian lay in absolute darkness, her throat so parched she could barely swallow and a dull ache in her belly. A black thought had stalked her through this whole journey, circling like a vulture. Each time she pushed it back, banishing it to that place in her head that was the repository of all things bad in her life – her mother leaving, her husband’s death. It was somewhere Lilian never went; that was how she kept going. Even through this painful trek she held out hope, pushing herself, starving herself, telling herself that with each step she was moving towards Harmony, not away from him. But on that night, lying once again on the hard ground, Lilian forced herself to reconstruct the twilight hour when her son was lost.
She had sent him over to the school steps to play with the others. He had been anxious about leaving her side, but she told him to go, and he would never disobey her. Harmony was a still a young boy but so sharp; he understood everything. Since his father died he had been watchful around her, anticipating her needs. When she used to wash the clothes she would wring out the water and he would stand by to take each piece and hang it carefully on the line. When it was time to make the fire he would run to collect the kindling without being asked. When she was tired he would fetch the water himself, staggering back with a half-filled container. One time he poured some water into a bowl and gently washed her feet. They would eat together, read Lilian’s schoolbooks together, fall asleep together. She had never told Harmony she loved him; their bond was unspoken.
Back to that day. The last time she saw him he was playing with the other children in front of the school. She was cooking with that woman; why had she let him go from her side? He had smiled at her, she remembered. How long was it, between the time she looked over to see him and the explosion? She had been busy with the cooking, talking to that woman, trying to make plans, how to move on.
Everything looked different after the attack. Everything was on fire. She didn’t know which way she was facing, which direction the school was in. She couldn’t find the school or any of the children. Had she been looking in the right place? There were fires everywhere, black smoke and bodies. Why didn’t she spend more time looking for him? Why did she run away? Lying on the ground in the dark, Lilian clawed at her arms with her brittle broken nails. She scratched and scratched until she drew blood. There was only one reason why she had left him. She knew why she had left her only son. Because he was dead.
The next morning, they kept on through the forest, walking through patterns of light and shade. One of the children spotted it first – a papaya tree! The little girl ran up to it, strangely silent; the children were all mute now. The others followed, wordlessly searching on the ground for a stick long and strong enough to shake down the unripe fruit. One of the men found one and set about beating the branches while two of the children tried desperately to climb the tree, which they would have conquered with ease when they were healthy. In half an hour they had plucked off most of the pale green fruit, each one barely the size of a chicken’s egg. They bit through the hard skin to the white flesh beneath. Lilian grabbed two in each hand and started gnawing on the unripe fruit, almost choking as she tried to swallow the bitter, sinewy flesh. The others watched her, surprised. They continued walking and Lilian kept on, spitting bits of skin to the ground as she searched for something to satisfy her desperate hunger. Two women behind her muttered their approval. This was the first time they had seen her eat. They thought she might be healing, trying to get her strength up. It was a hopeful sign, they thought.
They were wrong. The truth was Lilian had lost all hope. She felt no more pain, in fact, she felt a strange sense of elation. She was walking faster than ever on her bare, blistered feet, and constantly scavenging for food – green shoots, whole birds’ eggs, insects, anything she could find. She ate ravenously. She didn’t bother to share it. She was breaking her own rules now because nothing mattered any more. Lilian saw herself as just another animal, driven to survive, her heart empty and her humanity gone.
The book can be purchased via here. AOAV thanks Rosalind Russell for generously allowing us to publish her work.
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