“Wake up. Wake up!” my father shouted.
I was sound asleep, dreaming.
In a panic, he jostled me. “Wake up, Yamun! Wake up!”
I stumbled out of bed and stood in the middle of the hut confused. I heard gunshots and opened my eyes. The blasts were loud, jarring, and nonstop. Deafening booms and bangs shook our hut.
My father—a tall muscular man—pushed me to the door. “Run, and wait for me in the garden.”
When I stepped out, my eyes grew wide. There was fire everywhere—devouring our whole village. Sparks and flames illuminated the nighttime sky, and thick plumes of choking smoke swirled all about as huts served as mere kindling—consumed as tinder for numerous bonfires. Terrified, I darted back into our hut.
“Do not come back here. Run away, and wait for me in the garden—over there,” my father pointed, “in our hiding location.”
My mother, Apiou, and my sister Achol had been in the room with me during the attack but had already fled to our hiding place, expecting to meet me there.
Outside, bullets whizzing overhead, I did not dare run but quickly crawled around the hut, then lay down on my belly and crept along the ground like a soldier. When the gunshots stopped, I got up and sprinted to our thick garden of cassava, peanuts, sesame, and maize that my father had grown that season.
Our massive garden’s dense foliage provided the perfect hiding spot. Barefoot, with no shirt and only a pair of shorts, I sat that blustery winter night beneath a cassava tree, shivering like the rustling leaves surrounding me. As I looked back at our hut, I could see that it was now on fire. Frightened and alone, tears streamed silently down my face.
My welling, cascading eyes gaped beyond the garden’s edge to our village as nearby gunfire echoed violently and sparks whirled like amber fireflies amidst tornadoes of smoke. Huddled in the surrounding foliage, I cried out for my parents and sister. “Baba, Baba, where are you?” I shouted. “Mama, Mama, where are you?” I wailed. “Achol, where are you?”
Alone in the garden, I couldn’t see anyone around me. My father—my baba—had said to wait for my mother and sister in the garden and that he would join us, but no one was there. Where was he? Where was my family? Little did I realize that I had hidden in the wrong place! I started to go back to look for them, but I remembered what my father had told me earlier: “Do not come back here.”
My night under the cassava tree was terrible. Spiders, beetles, and little bugs were crawling everywhere. Squirrels emerged from their burrows and scampered about fearlessly. Before sunrise, I decided I had no choice but to leave and hope that my family would find me somewhere up ahead.
I left the garden and began walking toward the forest. After a few feet, I stopped and listened. Then I walked a bit farther, stopped, and listened again. There were no more gunshots. The Arab-led Khartoum government soldiers who had attacked the village left after they burned it down. I looked back and only saw smoke and fire. No birds were singing or roosters crowing in the village. Where were all the villagers? How many had been killed, and how many had fled? Where was my family? I fought back tears and knew that I could not return home—now reduced to charred remnants of what once was. I had to go forward—into the forest.
Up ahead, in the distance, the forest was quiet. I kept walking as the morning sun crested the horizon and continued onward until the afternoon. As I trudged barefoot over dry leaves and rocks, my stomach started growling. Hungry, I wanted to eat, but I was only six years old and did not know how to find food in the forest. If there was food ripe or ready for harvest in our garden, I had not thought to take any of it with me, as I was so distraught by the attack on our village and my plight—having to flee for my life in the dead of night. As my hunger pangs mounted, I thought that maybe I could find some leaves or wild fruit. Looking up from my rock-strewn path, I saw a tree that seemed like one my father and I would eat from when we went hunting. I picked some leaves, put them in my mouth, and began to chew. Quickly I spat them out. They tasted awful. “This doesn’t taste like the same tree,” I thought. Discouraged, hungry, I continued walking.
An hour later I came across a lulu tree with ripe fruit. I plucked an orange-colored fruit from a limb, peeled back the skin, then bit into its sweet succulence. It tasted so good; it was like mana from heaven.
After finishing the fruit, I sat down to think about what to do next. Listening attentively, I hoped I would hear some people, but there was no sign of anyone. The four thousand people from my village seemed to no longer exist. I had walked mile upon mile from my home, deep into the forest, and beyond sight of the charred village. Soon it would be getting dark, and I had to think of where I would spend the night.
At sunset, I found a huge tree with a maze of thick intertwining branches. Because the forest was full of predatory animals, I climbed up to spend the night amidst the leaves and limbs. Safely perched there, I sat on one branch and rested my legs on two others. Hours crept by, but I could not fall asleep. Baboons sat in the tree next to me—their screeches punctuated by a hooting owl. After a while, a lion roared nearby. I sat there shaking with fear and shivering with cold. What would I do if a lion came near me? How could a little boy alone in the forest possibly defend himself against a lion? My eyes wide, my heart pounding, I spent a long sleepless night in the tree.
At sunrise, I clambered down from the tree and took off again, tramping onward and gathering various fruits and leaves along the way.
The next evening, I once again had to find a safe place to sleep. I came upon another huge tree, but it had few branches similar to the one I had spent the previous night in. Nonetheless, that tree had to do. I climbed up and sat on one limb. Viewing the tree from all angles, I saw that no snakes or animals were hiding among the leaves and branches. I breathed a sigh of relief, then thought about the night before—my shivering with cold; the screeches, hoots, and roars; the fear I had; and no sleep. On this second night, as I sat roosted in the tree, I was worried about falling while dozing, but mostly I was afraid of the wild animals. At that moment, I looked up at the stars glistening through the leaves, and said, “God, if you can hear me, let me sleep tonight.” The forest was quiet; I didn’t hear the sounds of any predatory beasts or pesky creatures anywhere around me. I felt safe and slept that night.
That night was my first time calling upon God for help. I wasn’t sure if reaching out to God would help, but given my situation and surroundings, I had to try. When I woke up, as the sun’s rays were shimmering through the canopy of branches overhead, I could not help but feel that somehow God had indeed heard me and was with me, protecting me.