My first memories of my childhood start when I was about five years old in my homeland of Sudan, the day when my parents’ house was burned. It was the last day I saw them. I ran with thousands of other young children in a very hard journey we made it across the desert all the way to Ethiopia. I was small so the other children carried me there. I have many memories of my time in Ethiopia. I survived through the worst sort of life that I’d ever seen. Every day people were dying. I was living with a group of children in Panyido, Ethiopia who had also lost their families. In Panyido, I couldn’t do a lot of the things that the other children did because I was the youngest. For example, when they swam in the river I couldn’t do it because the crocodiles would pick on me. I had to be scared all the time. I was good at climbing trees, but not at swimming. One day I decided to cross the river with a few of my friends who carried me across so we could get to a tree to catch some mongoose. Somebody came with a gun and he shot at us in the tree. He was an Ethiopian who hated us. We all had to jump down. We fell into the river. When I jumped into the river, I went too deep and my stomach was bleeding and I couldn’t breathe. I thought I would be someone who wouldn’t live anymore. It was painful. One of my friends was killed and one kid drowned in the water. They never found his body. I lived.
In 1991, when the government of Ethiopia fell apart, the new government chased us out of Panyido. We were chased to the edge of a big river that ran very fast, called Gillo. They kept shooting at us, so either you jumped in the water and they knew that you would drown because the water was way too fast or you would be shot. I didn’t know how to swim so all day I watched people being killed. There was a lot of crying. The people crossing the river had to throw all their bags away but it didn’t do any good because the shooting continued. I was crying as people near me were being shot. The river was full of people. You realized later they were all dead. I needed to get across the river. I was thinking all day what I could do about it. I knew there was no one to help me. It seemed like forever. I was too little and I didn’t have parents to help me cross the river and I didn’t know whether my brother had already made it across or not or where he was. I remembered how the elders had shown us how to protect ourselves, so I covered myself with a person who was dead. When the shooting cooled down, I asked the boy next to me if he would try to cross the river with me. He didn’t know how to swim either. I threw myself in. I don’t know how, but the river was moving so fast it brought me to the other side. That’s how I crossed the river that killed so many people.
I followed the other children who survived to a place called Pachala. It took three days walking by foot. We didn’t have water or anything. Pachala was on the Sudan side of the border with Ethiopia. When we got there, we saw hunger like I’d never seen in my life. There was no UN, no nothing. If you found one kernel of corn you lived off that for a day or two. Water and a little corn. It was a tough life. We lived like that for two months. Then the UNHCR came in and started bringing food. Just as things got a little better with food, the enemy from Ethiopia crossed the border and the fighting began again. We had to leave Pachala. Before I could leave, one of the ladies told me to wait while everyone left so they could see if I could be carried out in a Red Cross car for the injured and the smallest children, so I stayed behind.
A month after the rest of the kids had left, I was playing in the little river with the other children and the enemy came. While I was jumping in the water, I heard a sound. It was a bullet, but I didn’t know what it was. When I got out of the water, the kids I was playing with were gone. I couldn’t run because the bullets were all around me. I stayed flat and waited until nighttime. It was dark. I escaped from the river to the airstrip. There was also shooting at the airstrip. I stayed down. I tried to go to my house. I didn’t know that the people who were living with me were all gone. When I got to my house, I accidentally kicked a can and the enemy heard me. They captured me. They took me to the place where they had a lot of people they’d captured. I stayed there for most of the night. Sometime before morning hours, I escaped under the fence.
I walked all the way to Oboth. On my way, I found one of my friends dead on the road. I had lived with him. His name was Mabil. It took me a long time to get to Oboth. On the way, there was a lot of shelling on the road. I thank God I was not killed. The shells missed me. When I got to Oboth, I met with the Sudanese people. I walked for three days to get to a place called Okila. I found the Sudanese Red Cross lady that had told me not to leave Pachala. She was still alive. I was happy. From there, we went to a place called Buma. In Buma, I found the UN and they announced that they would take the little children. At night, we were trying to sleep but some people came and shot at us. Three of my friends were killed. One was my father’s brother-in-law. He was sleeping in the same bed as my brother, but my brother Aleer Gideon did not get shot. I ran into a tent but I didn’t know there was a cooking fire inside. I threw myself in the fire to escape the shooting. I was burned. In the morning, after we got shot at, we left Magose to go to Kapoeta. We didn’t stop there. We were with Red Cross vehicles and we went all the way to Nairus. We stayed there. There was no food for a while. The UN had to come in and give us food.
While we were in Nairus, the enemy captured Kapoeta again so the UN decided to bring us to Lokichiogio across the border into Kenya. When we came to Lokichiogio, we lived there but were still scared that something might happen again so the UN decided to bring us Kakuma, Kenya further in from the border. This was in 1992. In Kakuma, the native people treated us badly because they didn’t know us. They were nomadic people called Turkana. They didn’t know Sudanese. In 1994, I went back to Sudan. In 1995, I went to Ifo in Kenya. I lived in a refugee camp there trying to find a way to get to America. Three years later, I flew out of Nairobi to America and started high school in Rochester, Minnesota. I didn’t know if I would find a good way of living anymore before I came to America. When I graduated from high school, I started community college and now I’ll be going to Winona State University.
It took me a long time to realize that I have gained a lot from living with so many people in the refugee camps. Nobody can believe it that I can speak 14 different languages. It was a part of learning while going through bad things. You can go through a lot but one day things can change. With my classmates, I don’t compare myself to them. I didn’t have a good life when I was a young kid, but today I’ve learned more and I have a good life. This is a summary of my experiences but there is more to explain for each example I’ve given. I’m so glad I’m still alive and this is my story.
— John Deng Langbany, September 2, 2004.