Over the last 48 hours I have listened in horror to the tragic news of the shootings of the British family in the French Alps. The detail that makes me shudder most, that fills me with the deepest distress, is the fact that the youngest child, a four year old girl, was so scared that she sheltered under the legs of her murdered mother for eight hours. I cannot imagine the fear and utter trauma that must now envelop her, and her critically ill seven year old sister.
That sense of terror, of shell shock, reminded me of a story I heard in Sudan. I interviewed a woman called Sara, who aged 21, is only a few years younger than me. She told me how when she was only five, government soldiers stormed into her village and shot everyone they could see. She was so frightened she could not move.
Sara’s story is one of dignity and of hope and of survival against all odds. But above all, it is a story of one woman’s strength. I think you will find it an inspirational and a moving one. I hope so anyway.
“I was born in Al Llafa, near Fato, in Kassala, in the east of Sudan.
I remember the first day the war came to Al Llafa. It was in 1996. It was early morning, the first day of Eid and my best friend and I were holding hands and walking through our village, going to the celebrations. At that moment, we heard gun shots. We couldn’t make it back to our families in time, because of the fighting. I was separated from my mother and was so scared. Most of the villagers fled, they ran into the desert and hid. But I could not move. My friend and I stayed together, cowering under a bush, and then under the cover of the night we found our families. I still have nightmares about the sound of the guns. A school friend was hit by a shell. We had to travel to a safe place in the same truck as her dead body. I still remember the smell of the blood. For months afterwards I couldn’t eat or drink anything, I felt so sick all the time. The smell of the blood.
Organisations like the Red Crescent came to provide shelter and build a camp for the people who were fleeing the war. We stayed in this camp, in little tents. My whole family in one tent – my parents and my three brothers and my four sisters. We lived in that tent for two years, until I was seven.
Then another NGO came and helped us to build some new houses in Fato. Slowly, very slowly, we have rebuilt our lives.
I didn’t go to school for two years. I was just in a constant state of shock and also my parents had no way of earning money for the school fees. They had been farmers in Al Llafa but when we fled, we left the land. It was an impossible time. We used to get food from some of the kind people in the village, and from the World Food Programme. My parents used to sell the food from WFP so they could earn enough money for my school fees. We were hungry but at least I was getting an education.
Sometimes I can’t believe my childhood was like that. I can’t believe I got through it.
I left school when I was 15. I didn’t pass my Maths and English exams. Since then I have stayed at home helping the family.
Every day I get up at 6am, pray, and I clean the house. I cook our breakfast. It’s my job because I have siblings younger than me. The duties are divided between me and my sisters. The boys don’t do very much.
We buy water from the water tank in the village and my father goes to get the firewood. We cook on an open fire which means that there is lots of smoke inside the house. It can be difficult for our chest and our eyes.
We get electricity in our home by using our neighbour’s generator. This means we have can have light. The main reason for getting electricity though is so my siblings can read in the evenings. We’ve had it for one year and it has changed our lives, although we can’t afford it all the time, and we can’t afford our own generator.
During the afternoon I’ll make coffee for the family and then I cook dinner. In the evenings I help my brothers with their homework. Then we pray. Then we sleep. My days are very busy.
I am a member of the Village Development Committee which Practical Action helped us to set up. I was nominated by my village to be in the VDC because I am strong-minded and have my own opinions. The men worry about women like me. The fact that I completed my school education was also a good thing. No-one had a bad word to say about me.
One of the things our VDC has done, with Practical Action’s guidance, is set up a social fund. Everyone pays in a small fee to a central pot each month and then if someone gets sick there is money to help the ill person and their family. All the villagers will also come together and help that sick person with the farming work – planting seeds or harvesting, or whatever needs doing.
Practical Action has also trained me on food processing. I was one of 30 women who participated in the training. We learned how to make jams, spaghetti, cakes, biscuits, juices, and chutneys – all of this from the produce we grow on the land. Food processing is a wonderful thing for us because it helps us to make our food last longer and also get more value from what we sell at market. Instead of selling a pumpkin, we can sell the pumpkin chutney we make, which enables us to earn more money.
I’m proud of myself because food processing helps me to make a living and also take care of my family. For example, I am paying for my brother to go to school so he can have a chance at life.
I am so happy that now I have skills because I can earn money to have control over my own life. My Dad cannot tell me what to do. I have freedom. Thank God for this.
As a child I had no hope. I never thought I would be strong enough to live again. I am happy Practical Action has changed my life in a way that brings our community together. Before everyone was isolated, as if we were all existing in our own separate shells. But now we are connected. And the men in my village respect my contribution to the development of our community. I never ever thought I’d have the chance to come to Khartoum. I didn’t even have to ask my Dad’s permission. I could just come, because I wanted to. Because now I am free.”