I was 14 when I realised I could be shot at any time, however careful I was,” Awa Rose says, adding that Sudanese forces killed many civilians in her village Kisangani, not far from Yei town. I thought if I was around guns, I would be safe. I managed to run away with one sister... it was a narrow escape.”
Unsure how to join the rebel SPLA, she signed up with the rebel police in Ombasi Centre, a walkable distance from her village. There she worked as an SPLA policewoman for three years, until 1996, at the height of war in what was then Southern Sudan.
I was 14 when I realised I could be shot at any time, however careful I was.”When word spread in her village that the SPLA wanted new recruits including tank drivers, she seized the opportunity. Being a combatant, however, was considered a man’s job and her new role did not go down well with all her family. I remember my late mother begging me not to join the fighting forces,” she says. But I had made a decision.”
Her memories are fresh of the military training that made her a rebel soldier and tank driver for the SPLA. Foreigners coached fighters for the insurgency, then led by John Garang. The Khawaja (white man) liked me because I grasped things quickly,” Awa says.
There are no statistics on how many women soldiers there are in South Sudan, but the overwhelming majority are men.
Since 1999, Awa has taken part in many missions. She also got married and has five children. Her oldest child is now eleven and her youngest is two. Like other South Sudanese mothers, Awa balances working and childcare.
She regularly reports to her battalion in Juba, about 170 kilometres away from her family. Every time I get back home my young kids tell me they want me to bring them tanks to drive too,” she says. She declines to say whether she has a gun in her house like most South Sudanese.
She says that she understands people’s reluctance to give up their weapons as violence has spread fast in South Sudan since last December. Estimates suggest many thousands of people have been killed across five out of the ten states of the country, reminding Awa of the violence which made her become a fighter in the first place.
The ‘enemies’ we are combating are our former comrades,” she says. Earlier this year she and her troop were ambushed in Juba. Many of our comrades died, few survived,” she says. Despite all these challenges I still love my job.”