The story of South Sudan - A conversation with David Mayom

South Sudan, 15 August 2011

I spotted David Mayom in the third row of the conference hall. Even from a distance he radiated energy. He was tall and rangy, as are so many from the Dinka tribe, and he wore a languid, easy smile. Later, he was introduced as Commissioner for Awerial County from the state’s southern reaches. The presentation he gave of the challenges facing his people was compelling; his words spoken with a rare conviction and humility.

By chance, we met afterwards over coffee, and he shared his story in a soft voice. ‘In 1987, Colonel Garang ordered our people to send their children to school in Ethiopia.’ At the time, Garang was head of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army, and involved in peace negotiations with the ruling coalition in Khartoum just as clashes with the north were intensifying.

‘We could not refuse, and as a Chief my father wanted to set an example by sending his eldest son. My brother refused and ran away and I haven’t seen him since. I told the army that I would go instead, so that my father would not be punished. I was fifteen years old.’

David’s homeland is nearly a thousand kilometres from Ethiopia, separated by dense bush, vast swamps, and at the time, extremely violent militia groups. I asked him how he travelled.

‘We walked.’ he said simply. ‘There were thousands of us, some as young as 8 or 9. Many got sick, some died. We slept in the bush and ate whatever the villagers would give us. Most of the time though they had nothing, so we lived on handfuls of dried sorghum.’ The hardship he and so many others had endured was difficult to comprehend.

In 1989, Colonel Omar Bashir staged a coup in Khartoum, imposing military rule over Sudan. The informal cease-fire with Garang’s army was broken soon after with brutal attacks on southern strongholds.

A year later, David was sent from Ethiopia to the front line. It was clear that he was too young at the time to fully grasp the horrors he was about to face, nor comprehend the political tumult into which he was being swept. In 1991 the southern army splintered into warring factions, with groups forming and then betraying alliances in a chaotic spiral of violence that tore the region apart.

For the next five years, throughout the height of the war, he lived as a bush fighter in Garang’s army, fighting for, as he told me, ‘the hope of freedom from the north’. His reality however was a maelstrom of civilian massacres, cattle raiding, and village burning that killed hundreds of thousands and displaced millions.

His war, and nearly his life, was ended by a savage artillery burst that left him badly injured. ‘I was saved by an NGO from Lokichokio (a Kenyan border town serving as base for humanitarian operations at the time), then sent to Uganda.’ There he was taken in by a refugee camp run by the United Nations.

His injury was in all likelihood his salvation, for at the time the war continued to worsen as neighbouring Ethiopia, Eritrea and Uganda became involved, sending weapons and troops to bolster the south.

David lived in the camp for five years, as his wounds slowly healed. In the meantime, and with the North suffering increasing losses, a succession of peace deals were brokered, the first in 1997 among rebel groups, followed by the 2000 Libyan-Egyptian Joint Initiative paving the way for further agreements in 2003 and 2004. From these emerged the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement, which charted the course to independance just three months ago.

In 2002 David returned to Awerial, 15 years after he had left as a young boy. ‘It was so dangerous for us to travel at that time, but I had to go back home. My parents didn’t know if I was alive or dead’. After 8 years volunteering with an international charity, the state governor appointed him commissioner of his county. An extraordinary journey.

‘It has been a terrible struggle.’ He said, and then he looked at me. ‘But you have to understand that my story is not so unusual. So many of us lived like this, for so many years. My story is the story of South Sudan.’

Hamish Wilson