After a two-month absence from Sudan, I was happy to return to work and my loved ones: first, I’d been stuck in Egypt during the violent days of the revolution in January; later, I was forced to flee Libya just before Muammar Gaddafi closed down the airport in Tripoli. It took two UN evacuations to get me home. Not long afterward, I was invited to participate in a cultural journalism workshop in Khartoum.
During my days abroad, while keeping in touch with my friends on Facebook, I noticed frequent comments posted on their walls by someone named Ajaa. By chance, I met her in person on the second day of the workshop.
In what can best be described as a small world moment, it turned out the owner of a magazine I write for had hired her as a graphic artist. We spent long hours jotting down ideas for the publication and debating critical issues over tea. Although we came from different backgrounds, we realised we had much in common, especially since both of us had lived abroad for many years before settling in Sudan.
We had both come home to a country we hardly knew.
From Mystery to Activism
I first became aware of Southern Sudan when I was 7 years old. We had gone home to Khartoum from Egypt for the summer when my mother told us that her cousin Ahmed was coming to visit. While waiting in our garden for the young man to arrive so he could take us to the ice cream shop in Molazmeen, we overheard the elders talking about Ahmed’s ordeal.
"The unlucky boy was literally kidnapped, put on a bus and sent to a training camp before they took him to the south," my grandmother stated matter-of-factly.
Read also "South or North, the heart has its own compass" by Ajaa Santino Anyieth
When Ahmed walked in, tall and frail, he looked like he was recovering from heat stroke, malaria or both. I suddenly felt an urge to stay home.
The place everyone referred to as “the south” remained a mystery to me. For years, I didn't understand why boys from the north were taken to fight there. Cousins and friends, some as young as 15, were recruited and sent away for "jihad.”
My knowledge deepened when I turned that age. To feed my passion for reading, my father bought me Emma's War, a book I read many times. Written by Deborah Scorggins, it traced the path of her British friend, Emma McCune, who founded schools and rescued children during the height of the war in Southern Sudan before dying in a road accident in Kenya. She’d been married to Riek Machar, who would later become Southern Sudan’s Vice President.
Haunted by the stories of brutality, I eventually contacted some of the individuals mentioned in the book and read reports published by Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and the Sudanese Organisation for Human Rights. A year later, when I started my undergraduate studies in Cairo, I decided to take action.
Living with the “other”
I never had any real encounter with southerners until my freshman year, when I volunteered as a teacher for young Southern Sudanese refugees at a church in Cairo. Most of them had fled Sudan under traumatic circumstances.
On my second day, I discovered that many of the students and co-workers had never met a northerner. They had presumed I was Egyptian, so when I told the staff I was Sudanese, they stopped in their tracks. A few seconds later, we all took a deep breath and realized that perhaps we needn't be wary of one another. After all, we do not represent a tribe or a region, but our own individual views.
North and South Sudanese coexistence - © Perfect Shot Films
For the next three years, I continued my volunteer work with Sudanese refugees, teaching at the Church and organising events. We forged deep friendships and have stayed in contact ever since.
In my junior year, when a professor asked me to contribute to a book on refugees in Egypt, I befriended a young man from the south who shared the story of his long journey from Yirol to Ethiopia, Kenya and finally to Egypt. I followed his love for music, attended concerts with him and documented his endless rejected applications to immigrate to Australia. As our friendship deepened, we became very close.
One day we decided to meet at a refugee church and walk to a café to have a drink and chat. The walk was less than five minutes, but as we made our way along the main street, I was stunned to hear hurtful comments by passersby, who made rude remarks about my friend and our being together.
Suddenly I looked at him and saw a young man who, despite his towering height, seemed scared. Slouching forward, his eyes looked downward as if he wished he were invisible.
From that day on, I became conscious of racial injustice and began to focus my writings on issues close to my heart.
Not long ago, I tried to help my mother locate one of her friends from college, a Southerner. We couldn't find her on Google, but we are not giving up. The two had become friends in first grade when my mother lived with her family in Malakal. When they ran into each other in college, they immediately recognised one another.
Achol remembered my mother's voice twelve years later. That is the kind of friendship I wish to have—one in which a person’s ethnic background doesn’t matter.
I feel fortunate to have found that kind of friendship with Ajaa.
The new reality of Sudan’s separation has a painful aspect for many young people who believed in unity. To be honest, I never really expected the referendum to happen. But now that secession is a fact, I don't think this will change my friendship with Ajaa or any of my other cherished friends from the south.
What matters is our friendship that's based on our similarities that outnumber our differences, along with a deep understanding of our culture that is not limited to tribal or regional affiliations.
Reem Abbas Shawkat is a freelance journalist who blogs at: http://www.wholeheartedlysudaniya.blogspot.com/
Editor: Alexa Dvorson
The views expressed in this report do not necessarily reflect the positions or opinions of the publishers of www.theniles.org