Saturday, September 13, 2008
John hitched up his shirt to show the bullet’s entry and exit wounds through his belly. He’d been lucky, he said: he’d been drinking heavily before going on patrol so hadn’t felt the pain, only realising he’d been shot when he touched the blood saturating his shirt.
Like thousands of his peers, John was a child soldier with the SPLA. He told me how he and the other boys and youths in his village would wake at 3 each morning to go out to the bush for fear of the arrival of government troops, only returning at 9 each night to eat, sleep and do the same the next day. He’d lost family and friends, seen infants impaled on sticks, known people shot, kidnapped, enslaved, castrated.
So without a chance for education and little prospects for the future in such an environment, John joined the SPLA at 14. At first he was carrying equipment then made the transition to a fighting soldier. He said he was last in Kurmuk back in ’89, a very different place to today’s bustling market town, though it still bears dozens of ruined buildings as a result of the fierce bombardment it received.
Despite the brutality of his youth, John is optimistic for a peaceful future for Sudan as a whole. He’s now working with a medical charity, and acknowledges the atrocities committed on all sides – including his own - during the decades of civil war, especially against non-combatants, who had the hardest time of all. In his work he’s now shoulder-to-shoulder with people who would have been former enemies, not forgetting the past, but learning from it and working for peace and reconciliation.
John was eloquent on the political future for Sudan as a whole, despite the appalling events in Darfur, and I wondered if we’d see him as a politician in a few years’ time. No, he laughed, he had a plan to return to his home village, buy a tractor, fence off enough land for a hundred smallholdings, provide tools and seeds for people to become self-sufficient and grow extra to sell, then charge the farmers a small amount at the end of each year from their profits.
I’ve often felt despair here for the future of the people in Sudan, but meeting John with his vision, good humour, compassion and confidence that he’s not just a voice in the wilderness, made me believe that there may just be some hope after all.