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Story Publication logo June 29, 2007

Part 1 - Ethiopian refugees: a side story


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Gabriel Deng, Koor Garang and Garang Mayuol, Southern Sudanese "Lost Boys" in the U.S., were forced...

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Multiple Authors

Jen Marlowe, for the Pulitzer Center

A man wearing a green, yellow and red knitted cap with the words "End Racism" greeted us as we walked through the Ethiopia market in Kakuma Refugee Camp. (Kakuma was established to house the influx of Sudanese refugees escaping from camps in Ethiopia in 1991, but since has sheltered refugees from Ethiopia, Eritrea, Somalia, DRC, Burundi, and Tanzania--exact breakdown in next post)

"Come in, come in!" the man ushered us warmly into his hut, built of mud with a corrogated tin roof, right on the 'main road' (made of dirt) passing through 'Ethiopia'.

"So this is your home?" Garang asked.
S. (name not revealed for his protection) practically snorted. "Home? This is not a home. It's a prison."

He drew our attention to the wall. Taped onto the white-washed mud was a sign that read "Life or Knife" and a picture that our new friend had drawn. There was a person holding onto a tree that he had climbed. There were snakes dropping towards the person from the branches. An axe was thrust into the base of the tree--someone had apparently been chopping it and it was only a matter of time before it fell. A hungry lion and crocodile were waiting below the tree to eventually devour the man clinging to the branches.

The picture was titled "My Life". The man in the tree was asking in a bubble coming from his mouth, "Where shall I go?" The axe chopping the tree was labeled "UN". The lion represented "African leaders" and the crocodile "No future". The snakes were "UNHCR staffers".

S. had written at the top: "To Whom it May Concern: I am not an artist, but I thought that this picture can give 'my life' see and understand how my life look like. I am the one on the tree. Thanks and regards."

Naturally, my interest was piqued. But S., eager as he had been to invite us to his hut and show us his picture, was reluctant to talk about why he referred to Kakuma as a prison and even more reluctant to be filmed or photographed.
"Come see me tomorrow," he said. "And I will set up a meeting with the leaders of the Ethiopian community. They can explain everything, representing the whole community. I cannot do that."

The next day, at 4pm, David and I found ourselves sitting in a bare but clear room--floor and walls made of mud, two whitewashed and two left brown. Ceiling the corrogated tin roof that was a staple of Kakuma homes or buildings. A solid wooden table and two wooden benches. It seemed to serve as sort of a community center room for the Ethiopian community--the leaders, of the community (elected democractically each year, we learned), held court there at any rate.

Y. and F. were sitting across from us, and S. joined us a few minutes later. Y. was soft spoken and articulate. His sense of hearing was so acute (he knew just where to extend his hand to receive a handshake from David and me) that, were it not for his dark glasses and cane, it would be easy to miss that he was blind. F. was quiet and serious. Only S. had the same exuberance of the day before. We explained to them what we were doing in Kakuma camp, and our project with Bol, Garang and Koor.

"What will you do with our story?" F wanted to know right off. It was hard to answer--after all, we hadn't heard the story yet, and our main focus was, of course, on the Sudanese refugees. We had understood from S's reluctance to be filmed and some information we had gotten from the mass information assistant at UNHCR that morning that there had been an incident recently where a journalist had possibly endangered lives of people who were at political risk by showing footage of them on a mainstream news broadcast. We realized the situation, whatever it was, was sensitive, and could only assure them that we would not reveal their identity and would do what we could to enable their voices and story to be heard.

To be continued in the next post...electricity is showing signs of faltering, want to get this posted before it's lost!


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