Living through the nightmare of war in her home of Southern Sudan has given Haluel Herjok the dream of hope for her country.
words sally o’neill photos warren reed
For young Haluel Herjok, life in her village of Bor was idyllic. She recalls happy memories of days spent with her grandmother and cousins. “My grandfather had five wives and my dad had two,” explains this beautiful, eloquent woman. “We had goats, chickens and cows. Life was very good, because I was living a village life with my grandma and family. We were happy and running around – it was my happiest time ever.”
This innocent time was made possible by her grandmother protecting her from the awful truth of the war that has afflicted Sudan for decades. “I used to hear about war across our country and I’d ask grandma where we would go when the war reached our village. She would say, ‘It has nothing to do with us, we are civilians – it’s mainly a religious war’. But I think my grandmother was hiding the truth because I later witnessed many civilians being killed.”
Haluel’s carefree childhood ended abruptly in 1990, when she was eight. Shooting erupted in her village in the middle of the night. “I didn’t know why my sleep had been interrupted and why everyone was running and there was gunfire everywhere. I woke up and just had to run. My grandmother was calling to me to come back but I couldn’t stop – everybody was running into the bush to hide. It was dark and I couldn’t see her. I never saw her again – she died five years later.”
She was drawn into the bush with the fleeing villagers. “My village people were with me – we are all related, we are brothers, ancestors. They grabbed our hands and tried to take care of us, but they didn’t have food or water. I didn’t know what to do, how to act. I had never been alone without my parents or grandma before – it was horrible. We just had to eat leaves off trees and even drink our own urine, but if you don’t have water in your body, you can’t even urinate. It was just a matter of keeping our heads down, and keeping going.”
For 12 horrific days, they ran for their lives towards East Africa. “They were shooting at us. As I ran, I could see people falling, being injured, shot dead or raped. We could hear a lot of crying, but we had to keep quiet. When we heard the gunfire coming closer, we had to start running because that meant the soldiers were close.” During that horrific journey, a lot of the children fleeing died from their wounds, dehydration or starvation, or were killed by snakes and wild animals. Some children had to cross the river to Ethiopia, and many drowned or were taken by crocodiles.
Miraculously, Haluel made it to a refugee camp in Kenya, but more horrors awaited. “I remember during my earlier years in the camp, all my thoughts were about the beautiful way of life I had before I had to flee. I used to think about my village, my people, my grandmother’s beautiful hut and big farm and how my cousins and friends used to play together,” says Haluel. That was replaced by a crowded refugee camp with a dusty mud-hut with a plastic roof to call home. Overcrowding and poor sanitation made every day a struggle for survival. “We did get food twice a month, which was wheat, beans, oil, salt and powdered food mixture. Sometimes we were only given dried corn and had to grind it into flour. Queuing for food in the sun was shocking with temperatures often getting over 50 degrees.”
The rainy season brought a much needed break from the dust and heat, but brought new problems. Lack of drainage meant that shelters became flooded and diseases spread more easily. Outbreaks of cholera were a constant feature of life. “Aid agencies did try to supply enough medicine to keep people alive, yet many died everyday. I was struggling and alone – life was terrible. But I still considered myself lucky to have gotten out alive.”
True to character, Haluel found a positive through this adversity, the camp providing her with an opportunity for education. “Schools in South Sudan are for boys; girls don’t go to school. I didn’t know how to read or write. I started my 1,2,3 in Kenya and I learnt English too.” She studied hard, found employment with the UN as a Women’s Rights Activist, married and had two children – all within the confines of the camp.
Using her new skills and with the help of a cousin in Adelaide, Haluel applied for her family to move to Australia. When successful, she embraced the challenge with her usual strength and determination. But, Melbourne’s suburbs were a culture shock. “I was really homesick. Even though I had lived in a refugee camp, I was never alone. In Africa, your neighbour is a really important person in your life. When I came here, I couldn’t even see the neighbours. I thought, ‘Maybe there are no people – just houses!’ One time I tried to knock on the neighbour’s door. The lady asked what I wanted. I opened my mouth and she closed the door on me. I thought ‘Why, why do people have to be in their houses?’ – we have to get out and converse. That’s how we live in Africa. We don’t have enough to eat, but we live through hope and conversation.”
Finally Haluel settled to her life in Melbourne. “My community was getting a lot of bad press due to cultural barriers. I formed a small women’s group and encouraged them to help recognise their individuality in society. I held events for men and women to break down social isolation, keep their minds entertained and promote a feeling of togetherness. Home is where you sleep. You have to adapt to life here and just get on with it. I tell the women that the important thing is getting something out of this opportunity. It was by chance that we came here, and we have to make the most of the situation.”. Haluel achieved a Diploma of Community Welfare Work at TAFE and hopes to attend university in the future.
Haluel went back last year to Sudan with her children, to see and feel the country she left a long time ago. Now back in Australia, she is contented with her people’s progress. Immigration has now stopped so Haluel is focussing on helping women and children in Sudan and realising her dream of building a primary school for girls in her village. A block of land donated in September last year by the locals has now been cleared and fenced. The next step is to build six rooms for Prep to Grade 6, a water-well for clean drinking water and toilet blocks.
Haluel is trying to fundraise the amount of $A50 000 for this project. Helping her achieve this goal is Gippslander George Hendry, who was reduced to tears when he visited Haluel’s home village recently. He reels off some shocking statistics about life for women in Sudan: 94% of South Sudanese women are illiterate, one in six dies in
childbirth and one in six babies dies before the age of nine months. “The easiest way to change these figures is to give a girl a school uniform. The key to change is the women,” he says passionately.
Haluel dreams of returning to work in her own country one day – perhaps through the Government, helping women and children. But until then she is determined to make as much change as she can from her Australian home. Haluel believes that with hope, hard work and determination, you can become who you want to be, no matter what happened to you in the past. It’s all down to strength of mind, hope and self-reliance. “When the war came to my village, I felt that it was the end of my life. But I think I was led to safety for a reason, and that is why I want to help make a difference in the lives of those less fortunate than me.”
Perhaps her greatest regret is not seeing her beloved grandmother again though Haluel knows she would be very proud. “She always said I had a good heart and that if life allowed me to survive, I would serve others. I just wish she had lived to see who I am today and how I want to help others.”
I just wish you had been as lucky as I was to meet this inspired woman.
how you can help
Learn more at www.baaiborwomen.org.au
Donations can be made directly to the Baai-Bor Women via this website.
Contact Haluel: firstname.lastname@example.org
Alternatively you can contact George Hendry
www.brynsschool.net or email@example.com
George is planning to return to Southern Sudan to help supervise the building of the school when funds are in hand, and he is happy to talk to any group about this project.
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