When a job becomes the path to a new life

Life changes during a war.  When towns are attacked and children, young people and the elderly have to flee. That is what happened to 21 year old Thuok and to Chol who is 36 when their homes in South Sudan were attacked.  They are refugees now, but with help from DanChurchAid they are also working.  This is their story about a new life as refugees that can change when their skills are put to work.

By Nikolaj Albrectsen

They say that it is no use worrying because most of one’s worries never happen.  Thuok tried to think like that until the day when worries became reality. One day they were there suddenly. Bang after bang followed each other in the air, which turned grey from the smoke of the explosions.  Soldiers raced around the town, people ran, terrified, from their houses – away from the main street and out into the bush to avoid being killed.  It was government soldiers who came driving into Malakal, a town in northern South Sudan where the rebels were staying.

Dead bodies fell limply onto the gravel.  Thuok’s life changed when night became day and the battles continued.  At one part of town, Thuok had hidden all night with three of his friends.  His family had been dispersed during the attack, so he and his friends stayed together. But the hiding place wasn’t good enough.  A group of soldiers surrounded the four boys and took them prisoner.  Thuok was terrified because all around him he could see the bodies on the gravel road


People fleeing from Malakal in 2016 – the year after the first attack on the town happened.

Instead of killing the friends, the soldiers made a deal; if the boys didn’t speak any language other than Nuer they would be killed.  Thuok and the boys were members of the Nuer tribe that was the major tribe among the rebels while the government soldiers were from the rival Dinka tribe.  Language would determine the boy’s fate.  Thuok began to talk in a different, third language.  His mother is from the Shilluk tribe, so therefore Thuok knew their language, but the soldiers didn’t.  Even so, they wouldn’t let them go.

“They said to me, ‘We will find someone you can talk to and if you can’t, we’ll kill you.  We’ll kill all of you.’.”

Burning houses

A long way away from Thuok and another place in Malakal, a house was burning.  Many houses burned when the government soldiers set fire to them and to the rest of the town.  But this particular house wasn’t like the others. In Malakal there were both small huts with poor people and houses with tin roofs and wobbly walls.  This one was built on a solid foundation, had four rooms, a guest house and a veranda.  But now it was burning and the woman who usually lived there fled.

Chol was in her early 30’s when the attack happened.  She got her four children out of the burning house, and grabbed a few things from the house before she started her flight.   At that point she didn’t know what the family would experience when the soldiers got closer.

Yellow vests

Three years after the attack Thuok Gatbiel and Chol Wal Gaack are standing together in Kule, a refugee camp in western Ethiopia along the border to South Sudan.  Both of them have neon-yellow vests on over their clothes.  Thuok’s yellow, sleeveless uniform hides a Manchester United shirt whereas Chol wears a dark patterned dress.

Standing across from them are 20 women who are well dressed like Chol in characteristic multi-coloured dresses.  Some are carrying infants in their arms; others have sent their slightly older children farther away so they can watch from a hillock in the shade of a treetop.

©Nikolaj Albrectsen

Chol Wal Gaach explainsabout the cooking to the women

Thuok and Chol are employed by DanChurchAid and they smile when the group of women laugh together at one of Chol’s funny remarks about carrots that none of the women have seen before.  The two are employed to teach the women about hygiene and cooking because the women, who all have small children, are part of a nutrition project, which will ensure their children good nutrition.

The way Thuok and Chol stand there on a worn out lawn in Kule it is clear that their fate as refugees has brought them close.  But they would both wish it hadn’t come to this.

©Nikolaj Albrectsen

Chol and Thuok with the group of women who are learning about both food and hygiene

Life in Malakal

Long before life in the refugee camp, before a civil war tore South Sudan apart and our main characters knew one another, Thuok was just a teenager.

He grew up in Malakal but was sent to the capital of Ethiopia, Addis Ababa, to learn English at university.  Thuok’s uncle worked as a government policeman in South Sudan’s capital, Juba, and it was he suggestion, and with his economic support that Thuok got the chance of an education in 2012.

Also see: A Million People Trapped in a Stateless Future

Disturbances broke out in Juba

The 16th of December 2013 the uncle went to work as he did every morning. But outside, everyday life had changed.  There were riots.  The first indication of civil war was seen in the town before evening. And what happened outside the walls now poured in to the uncle’s office, Thuok says.  Soldiers who were loyal to the Dinkas stormed the building and the uncle was dragged into the street with several of his colleagues.                                                                                    

Thuok recounts quietly how the soldiers killed the uncle and set fire to his body.  The colleagues around the body were asked to eat the remains, and if they didn’t do so, they would suffer the same fate.  One tried, but couldn’t.

©Henrik Stubkjær

Salva Kiir surrounded by soldiers back in 2010.

Thuok doesn’t know what happened to all the uncle’s colleagues, but one of them phoned home to Malakal and told the rest of Thuok’s family about the attack.  That was during the first days of the civil war, of the internal strife between the government on the one side with SPLA and Salva Kiir as leader and the rebels SPLA-IO and Riek Machar on the other side.  Machar dominated in the north where Malakal is located.  The conflict broke out just a few years after the country’s independence and has since then been the focal point of the civil war in South Sudan.

That is why Thuok had to come home from Ethiopia.  The support for his education stopped and instead, the killing of his uncle became a permanent reminder that everything had changed in the young country.

Gathered injured up

Chol was at a different stage of her life when the disturbances started in the country.  She was settled at home in Malakal with her husband and four children.  Before that she had lived in Egypt with her two brothers where she was trained and then worked as a cook.  The goal was to earn enough money so the brothers could go to USA.

When that was accomplished, Chol moved back to Malakal.  She is the kind of person who is outspoken and looks directly at you when she speaks.  And she does so without hesitation.

©Mathilde Utzon

Chol’s admission card from one of her meetings as women’s spokesperson in Upper Nile State

She says she has always fought for women’s rights and so she got involved in that too when she went home to northern South Sudan.

She was appointed as women’s leader in the region for SPLA-IO.

“The main thing is to cheer up the women since many have lost their husbands, so I wanted to make them see hope of living in peace and not see Dinka as their enemies, but so that we can live together no matter whether we are Dinka or Nuer,” she says about her role. A role she still takes upon hersels partially despite living as a refugee.

That is also how she met Riek Machar.  And how she, a few months before the attack in Malakal ended up in an army uniform and stood on the battlefield. There she saw how the battles between the government army and the rebels cost many lives – also civilians. She fetched the wounded from the front line and brought them home to the doctors for treament.

©Mathilde Utzon

Chol Wal Gaach from her time when she helped wounded at the front

“I couldn’t just let people die, and that’s why I picked them up.  No matter who they were.  There were no strangers when I saw people being attacked, “she said.

At that time, in February 2014, she did not know that three months later, when she had returned home to her house and her family in Malakal, she would be attacked herself.

Talk or die

Meanwhile back in Malakal, the soldiers who had taken the boys prisoners, considered what to do with Thuok and his friends.  One of them left Thuok and his friends and went out in Malakal to look for someone who could speak Shilluk.  The rest of the Dinka soldiers still kept Thuok and his friends as prisoners.  Thuok’s only hope was that he could talk his way out of his death sentence.

But the soldiers couldn’t find a Shilluk.  In the town most people were from the Nuer tribe like Thuok and his friends, but the soldiers came back with a commander.

“What are you doing?”

“These guys are on Machar’s side and so we want to kill them.  If they are Nuer we will kill them, but if they are not, we will let them go,” Thuok repeats the soldiers’ answer to their chief.

©Anders Paulsen

When people flee they often end up in a temporary UN Protection Camp like this one outside Juba

He and his friends were terrified.  They were Nuer and had been captured now for five hours.  But the commander put the soldiers in their place.  He told them that they should not just kill people.  The boys were not on any side.  They were civilians.

The boys were set free, but they were not free.  They were fleeing.

Four family members killed

At the other end of town, Chol could see her house burning and she only managed to take a few pictures and some blankets.  The soldiers didn’t manage to catch her, but not everybody was so lucky.  Not among Chol’s family either.

©Mathilde Utzon

Chol still has a few photos from when she was young and lived in Malakal

Many of her family members lived in Malakal when the soldiers raided the town.  Her aunt, uncle and two cousins were killed by the soldiers that day, which was Chol’s last day in town.  She fled, like so many others, from the town that once was home to 70,000 people but now was a war zone.

Chol was, from that day on, like Thuok, on the run.

©Anders Paulsen

The UN establishes protection camps for civilians.  The camps are located away from areas where there are battles.  Like this camp outside Juba.

Many roads lead to Kule

The boys walked on dusty roads with the sound of battles in the horizon behind them.  Thuok and his friends quickly got in behind the barracks at the UN base in Malakal. A temporary shelter, protected by soldiers and fences while the battles continued on the other side of walls and barbed wire.

The safety was shattered two days later.  Soldiers attacked the UN compound, which was there to protect civilians, so once again Thuok and his friends had to run for their lives.

Once the boys got away from the shooting and wounded soldiers, a seven days walk started. They went toward Akobo, a town in the eastern part of the country.  On the way, they met soldiers who let them go on, toward a new life.  They were after all civilians and the new life was to start in Akobo, 250 kilometres from Malakal.  The friends’ parents were there but Thuok was still alone.  His mother and siblings had fled to the north, into Sudan to the city of Khartoum.  His father was in the southern part of South Sudan and was fighting as a soldier.  So Thuok sought safety in Ethiopia, close to Akobo.  That is how he ended up in the refugee camp in Kule.

©Mathilde Utzon

One of the bigger roads in Kule refugee camp

Chol’s route was shorter and faster.  With her children, she walked from Malakal to a town nearby.  Two days on foot with four children, but once she left Malakal she wasn’t afraid.  The soldiers stayed in Malakal and didn’t pursuit civilians.

After the two days, Chol and her children were driven in a UN bus all the way over the border to western Ethiopia where three refugee camps lie next to one another.  Chol ended up in Kule. She was reunited there with many other people from Malakal. And that is where she met Thuok.

Life in Kule

In Kule the ground and the trees compete for attention.  Brown and green shades form a duo of contrasts which together with glimpses of the tops of huts that peek out from behind them gives a  close backdrop to the tree tops.

The area is enormous and between small lakes and barren earth the huts are placed closely together.  The place here is crowded with sad stories.  Some of the almost 50,000 refugees in the camp are enterprising and have started small shops where they sell everything from meat and coal to old electronic devices.  Others are not.

©Mathilde Utzon

One of the enterprising refugees who has a shop in Kule

Thuok and Chol arrived almost at the same time in May 2014, and Kule was the final destination of their flight. They both have to adjust to the new status: Refugee.  A life where they are dependent on UN food supplies and a private life that is so different from their life in Malakal, Egypt and Addis Ababa.

Both found, and still do to some degree, life in the camp difficult.  They both describe how life previously was comfortable. Life was good.  A life where they could dream about a future for themselves and their family.

How can they recreate just a little of that life which was torn to pieces and was left behind in South Sudan?

By having something to do, they both say.  A job.  A purpose.  And that was how Thuok and Chol met one another.

Hygiene and good food

In a shady spot from the big tree tops, a blue tarpaulin is spread out. The heat on this day in May 2017 is about 35 degrees, so the trees are an important factor when one is active in Kule.  In neon yellow vests Thuok and Chol stand in front of a group of 20 women.  A mismatched double act who entertains and educates the group of young mothers.

The group is selected to be a part of a project supported by DanChurchAid; they will be able to buy fresh food with a credit card at a food market in the outskirts of the refugee camp, and everyone has to be trained in how to prepare nutritious dishes.  And this is where Thuok and Chol are involved.  Chol as the cook who teaches about the actual cooking and Thuok, partly to translate for various people, but mainly to teach about hygiene.

©Mathilde Utzon

Before the women start to cook they also get a course on hygiene.

That is in order to reduce the risk of sickness in the camp and to teach the mothers about fighting bacteria.

Thuok’s language skills mean that he in a few years has gotten to know almost everybody in the camp, he says.  Therefore, he also have a vital follow-up role in the job; together they go around in the camp and make sure the women remember the hygiene advice, and Chol tastes and seasons their food and gives good advice.

“I got the job when DanChurchAid asked around in the camp for someone who was an expert at cooking.  Many women knew me and my past, so they said I was an obvious choice,” says Chol.

Dream about their native land

For both of them it is a turning point in their lifes to have a job, to earn their own money, to have something to wake up to in the morning.

Thuok doesn’t have contact to his siblings or his mother.  They are somewhere in Sudan and Thuok doesn’t have his mother’s new phone number.  Instead, he has managed to get his father to the camp.  His father was posted in the southern part of South Sudan and was fighting as a soldier, when he got tuberculosis and was admitted to hospital.

©Mathilde Utzon

Thuok has lost touch with his mother and siblings after they fled into Sudan.

“When he was in Nimili I was very worried.  I didn’t know how he was.  I just heard that he was suffering a lot.  So I went to get him.”

The father has now come to the camp and is getting better but is still not cured.  Thuok goes on working, but to have his father with him, reminds Thuok of his dream:

“I want to get more education.  I really do hope so.  My dream is to be a doctor. People suffer outside the camps.  There aren’t enough doctors, and many people don’t survive the illness’s they get.  That’s what I want to help.  That is why I want to be a doctor.”

South Sudan will be beautiful again.

Chol dreams too.  She tells about it as she sits in a plastic chair in the middle of the open courtyard around her hut.  There are two cows tethered there that Chol doesn’t pay attention to as she gets small plastic bottles out.  Chol is one of the enterprising refugees.  The cattle is hers and she could afford them because she, among other things, makes a sort of perfume based on animal fat and oil that she sells to the women in the camp.  A project she took with her from South Sudan.  So even though she is one of the better off in the camp, she dreams about being somewhere completely different.

©Mathilde Utzon

Chol has four children that she looks after in the camp.  Her husband is still in South Sudan.

“We live here, five people in one room.  Everyone can see the consequences of war.  In South Sudan I lived in my own beautiful house, I had a private place for my guests and now there isn’t much space.  I miss my old life.”

She and Thuok miss peace.  They don’t want to be strangers or refugees any more.  They want to go home and hope that the war will end soon.  Because they miss their own country.

Version in Danish: Når et arbejde bliver vejen til et nyt liv