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Escape from Slavery
The True Story of My Ten Years in Captivityâ"and My Journey to Freedom in America
By Francis Bok, Edward Tivnan
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2003 Francis Bok
All rights reserved.
I have told the story many times about that day in 1986, when my mother sent me to the market to sell eggs and peanuts: the day I became a slave. But, as I begin to tell my story here, I realize that I have never before discussed how happy my life was just hours before it changed forever. Too many bad memories left no space for the good ones. Yet, before the misery, loneliness, and constant fear that my childhood became, before the ten years when my only friends were Giemma Abdullah's goats and cows, I remember my father's farm in southern Sudan, where every day seemed full of family, friends, and love. I was only seven years old in 1986, and now that I am in my twenties I have many questions about those days, which that little boy in far-off Africa cannot answer. But even as a mere seven-year-old, I was aware that my life was good and might get better.
It was not so for everyone in our village, and I felt sorry for the poor who lived there. Sometimes people would come to our farm to beg for milk and cheese. We had plenty of both; we had chickens, goats, sheep, and cows; we had beautiful green trees with ripe yellow mangoes that we could pick off and eat, and coconuts as big as your head. My family grew peanuts and other kinds of beans. We were surrounded by green fields of sorghum where I would play with my sisters, Amin, who was twelve, and baby Achol, who could barely walk. We lived in two large houses — one for the men, the other for the women — made from mud and topped by straw roofs shaped like upside down cones. Even the cattle had their own hut with a roof of straw to keep them warm in the winter and to protect them from the rain. Our farm was full of life — animals, plants, families — and there a little boy could do almost anything that he wanted.
I did not go to school. No one in my family had any formal education; I don't think I knew what a school was or what happened there. I had heard the word "school," but all it meant to me was a place that some kids from the village had been sent to in Juba, the capital city of southern Sudan, near the borders of Zaire and Uganda. In Gourion, my village, there was no school, and like most little Dinka boys, I spent my days in a pair of shorts, nothing but underwear really, no shirt, barefoot, playing with my sisters and friends.
We played alweth: We would run off and hide in the fields, leaving one of us to find the others. And when he found someone, he would chase them and try to touch them — hide-and-seek, Dinka style. We also had our own kind of baseball or cricket, called madallah. All we needed was a stick and a chunk of rubber the size of a hockey puck, made either from the heel of an old shoe or from an old car tire. Then we made teams — four on a side — and someone threw the puck and another hit it, and someone else tried to hit it back, as hard as possible. The point was to keep the rubber in the air. Whoever missed it, lost. Madallah is a game of energy and power, and I loved playing this game.
If I was lucky, my eighteen-year-old brother John — I called him by his Dinka name Buk — would let me watch him and his friends at their games. In the evening, when it was cooler, the big kids played jeddi. Ten boys, five to a side. Each boy would bend a leg at the knee and hold it by the ankle, jumping around on one leg within a big circle. The aim was to get one person on your side past the others by blocking and preventing them from pushing him over. My little friends and I also played jeddi. If we got a good game going, other kids would come to watch and want to play. That would increase the excitement of the game, and all of us would try even harder to impress the audience.
One of my favorite activities was making little cows. The Sudanese measure wealth in terms of how many cows you have, and little boys like me created our own herds out of the clay from the ground. My brother was very good at this, and he taught me how to take a handful of mud and sculpt it into a miniature cow. My friends and I spent hours sitting in the village under a tree making animals, sometimes goats and sheep, but mainly cows. Days passed unnoticed; in the morning I would begin molding the clay and suddenly it was time to go home to eat. Each of us made a shelter for our cattle, which we were allowed to leave right there in the village in a special place until the next sculpting session.
But what I liked to do most was follow my father around the farm. If he was digging in the fields, I began digging. If he was pulling sorghum grasses from the ground, I tried to pull them, too.
"Go play with your friends!" he would say. But I wanted to help my father, and he seemed to be pleased that I liked to work at his side. I felt my father's love every day. He had eight children, four older than this eager seven-year-old running in his shadow. But he always talked to me, encouraged me. He often would hug me and hoist me up on his shoulders and let me ride him on his visits to his friends in the village. "What do you want, Piol?" he asked me every night, and "What do you need, Piol?" every morning. That he had named me "Piol" was an honor. It was a favorite name in his family, the Dinka word for "rain." Francis was my Christian name, but in my village I was Piol Bol (my father's name) Buk (his father's name).
One day my father called me by a new name, muycharko, which means "twelve men." I asked him, "Why do you call me muycharko?"
He laughed at my question. Then he explained that out of all his children I was the one who wanted to work the hardest, the child who always got what he wanted, the one who would never give up.
"You are like twelve men," he said. "I think you will be a successful man. I think you will be able to do something important when you grow up."
I felt my father's words flow into my body and fill me with happiness. I had never heard my father say such a thing to any of his other children. My father thought I could be a great man, so I dreamed of being a great man with a big farm and many cattle.
I had heard people in the village refer to my father as ajak, which in the Dinka language means "rich man." We had hundreds and hundreds of cows, sheep, and goats. The story was that, to marry my mother he had to pay eighty cattle as a dowry to her family. He also had another wife for whom he paid more than a hundred cattle. We kept a hundred and fifty or so in the large hut near our houses, and a thousand head more grazed in the grasslands a long walk away from the family compound. (My father's other wife Marial and their four children lived nearby and tended his other herd. I visited them often and Marial was a second mother to me.)
My father often went to Juba to buy and sell livestock. He also had traveled to other countries in Africa, places with strange, beautiful names like Kenya and Uganda, where they did not speak the Dinka language. I, too, dreamed of traveling to those places — and others. I would be ajak like my father Bol Buk, who owned what seemed to me the best farm in Gourion, a village of the Dinka people near the River Lol, in the state of Aweil, in the Bahr al-Ghazal region of southwestern Sudan, about sixty miles south of what the maps call the Bahr al-Arab River (the Dinka call it the Kiir), the border between the north and south of Sudan.
When my mother told me that she had instructed the other kids in the village to bring me along on their trip to the nearby market town of Nyamlell, I saw it as the first step to becoming the important man my father thought I could be. This would not be my first visit to Nyamlell. My father had taken me to the Nyamlell market to trade animals and sorghum, and my mother often walked there on market days, balancing a huge tin of milk or cheese on her head. A few times she had brought me along to help her sell our extra milk and cheese and buy other things that the family needed.
Our family also attended a Catholic Church there, the same church I was baptized in. I never knew why my father was a Christian, or when he became one; perhaps his family had joined the church generations before, during the British colonial era in Sudan. Christian missionaries had been encouraged to travel through the south to help the people, and representatives of various denominations built churches and schools, preaching the gospel to the Dinka. Today, about twenty percent of the people of southern Sudan call themselves Christians, adopting the version of Christianity of the local missionaries who happened to move to their area. My parents were probably baptized into the Roman Catholic Church because the closest church to our village was the Catholic one in Nyamlell. I have no idea why they chose the name "Francis" for me, though I am now aware that there are several famous saints with that name. Our family did not go to services every week. Attending mass, I will confess, was not my favorite activity as a seven-year- old. I quickly got bored with the ceremony, and my father would let me leave to play outside with the other little kids.
On market day, Nyamlell was filled with people, a whirl of sounds and smells that did not exist on our farm. Nyamlell made my skin tingle. Today I would be on my own. I knew my mother was giving me a big honor, and I wanted to prove that she was right to trust me to sell her hard-cooked eggs and peanuts. I would show her — and my father — that I was a great trader in the making.
The other kids turned up, about ten of them, including my eleven-year-old friend Piol Kvol, and two twelve-year-old girls named Nyabol and Abuk, both of whom my mother trusted to supervise me. I was wearing my shirt to reflect my responsibility. She handed Kvol the pole with two tins of eggs and peanuts attached to it and gave me my instructions.
"When you sell something," she warned, "give the money to the older children so you do not lose it." She also set the rules: The trip to Nyamlell was about business, not fooling around in the marketplace with new playmates. I must listen to the big girls, Nyabol and Abuk.
"Yes, yes," I said and grabbed the carrying pole from Kvol. They were my goods to sell, and if I was big enough to go to the market without my parents, I was strong enough to carry two tins of hard-cooked eggs and peanuts. I adjusted the pole to my shoulder for the right balance, and we set off on our adventure, the children from Gourion marching to Nyamlell on official business.
We walked toward the sun along a dusty road, across the river called Lol, and soon we could see on the hill up ahead the buildings and trees of Nyamlell. I adjusted my pole for the final stretch to the market where I would get a good price for my mother's eggs and peanuts. After all, I was Piol Bol Buk, also known as muycharko — "twelve men."
When we arrived at the marketplace, people were already set up under the shade of the trees and a dozen or so lean-tos made from burlap and sticks. It was still the dry season, when the sun is very hot in my country. The marketplace smelled rich — the fresh meat hanging by the stalls, the fish, the fruits, the vegetables, the fresh tobacco leaves on sale, all those odors mixed with the sweat of the people. (Every time I smell tobacco, I am back in Nyamlell on market day.) Flies buzzed around the meat and fish and pestered the little half-naked kids running around the area, laughing and pushing each other. But there was no playing for me, just selling. I was excited to get my trading career started.
The big kids picked a spot under a tree. It was late afternoon. In my country, we do not care about the time. No one had a watch. When the sun went down, it was time to go home. Even a seven-year-old knew that. There was plenty of light in the sky, and I had several hours ahead of me to sell my eggs and peanuts under the shady trees of Nyamlell. People approached the Gourion kids to check out our goods. They asked for prices, and when we told them, they tried to negotiate.
"Why are these eggs so expensive?" they complained. I did not know. Kvol and Nyabol had been told how much we could sell our food for, and they helped me make sure my customers did not get too much of a bargain.
The sun moved down in the sky. I made some sales, and gave the money to Kvol, just as my mother had said. I was selling more eggs than peanuts, but the people kept coming into the marketplace, hundreds of people, and I was sure they would buy all my food. Maybe I would also have time to play with the kids from the other villages who were running around the stalls.
Then something changed. People began walking faster, talking to each other rather than looking at the food. They seemed excited; some were pointing toward the river. I continued to sell my eggs and peanuts, but something was going on. I could not help listening to what the people were saying:
"Smoke" I heard, and "in the villages." Something had happened in the villages. The trees in the marketplace blocked our view of the river and plains below Nyamlell, but people now arrived from the part of town with a clear view of the villages to the west. What they saw worried them.
"There was big smoke," I heard someone say. All the children were listening, and more people came running into the market with news.
"Too much smoke for it to be only one house burning," one person said. Another added, "There was a storm of smoke rising from one village."
A storm of smoke?I wondered what that meant.
"Maybe the murahaliin came," I heard someone say. "They came and burned the houses." I was not sure what they meant. Murahaliin? I had heard people in my village talk of these "militia" from the north, dangerous men with guns who killed people and stole their cattle. There had been some kind of "war." But these were people I did not know, and I had never seen these murahaliin. I was seven years old, enjoying my first trip to the market on my own, selling my mother's hard-cooked eggs and peanuts.
But people had stopped buying. They were no longer looking at what we were selling. The adults understood what the others were talking about, the people who saw "the storm of smoke" rising from the direction we had just come from, from the village of Gourion, my village, where my family was.
The customers began to rush from the marketplace. The other sellers began gathering their things. Before the children from Gourion could decide what to do, we heard strange noises, bursts of loud sounds — tut-tut-tut-tut, tut-tut-tut-tut!
Suddenly, everyone was running in every direction. "The murahaliin are coming!" And wherever the people scattered, they ran into men with guns entering the marketplace. First men on horses, shooting people with bursts of fire and smoke from their rifles. Then men on foot, running and shooting and slashing at people with their long knives. Not ten men, not twenty, but many more, more than I knew how to count, maybe hundreds of men riding and running into the marketplace, shooting and hacking people to the ground with their swords.
They were not Dinka people, but those my father had called "Fuur." I had seen them in the market before, black men, but with lighter skin than ours, in their headdresses and robes, who came from the north on camels loaded with the important things we do not have in southern Sudan — salt, sugar, tea. I had also heard people call these men (I had yet to see one of their women) djellabah, for the djellabah, or hooded cloak, they wore.
"Who are those men?" I once asked my father. He explained that they also lived in our country but were different from us; they had a different religion, were Muslim rather than Christian. According to my father, there were many of these kinds of people he called Juur — Arabs — in northern Sudan, whose border was several hours by horse from our village. Today, the Arabs did not come with their tea and sugar; they had brought guns and swords and were shooting Dinka men, slashing with their swords, chopping off heads with a single swipe. I had never seen such violence before, rifles that shot so many bullets at once. On our farm, to protect our livestock we kept old rifles that shot one bullet at a time.
And I had never heard so many screams.
"Run!" yelled Nyabol. "Leave your things and run!" I raced from the marketplace — and right into a huge horse with a militiaman pointing a gun at me. I stopped; I could not move. The thing that scared me most was a big horse, and here was the biggest horse I had ever seen standing in front of me like a wall topped by a man with a rifle screaming at me in a language I could not understand.
My heart was trying to leap from my body.
Someone grabbed me from behind. Another Arab, yelling at me and waving his gun. What was he saying? My mind was not working. I was sure he was going to kill me. All around me, I saw people screaming and falling on the ground and not getting up. But he pushed me back toward the marketplace with the other kids, boys and girls, those who could barely walk along with five-year-olds and bigger kids like me, ages seven to ten. Everyone was crying and screaming for their parents. I was crying, too. What was happening to us? The older kids, including my friends Kwol, Nyabol, and Abuk, were herded into another group and the women into a third. They were all crying. The Dinka men were lying all over the marketplace.
Excerpted from Escape from Slavery by Francis Bok, Edward Tivnan. Copyright © 2003 Francis Bok. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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