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A former soldier returns home - Sudan

31-07-2003 Feature

For years Abraham Machar, 23, was a soldier with the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), one minuscule cog in the devastating machinery of Africa’s longest-running civil war. A bullet wound last year left him paralysed and drove him away for good from the battlefield. In July 2003, he was reunited with his family after six long years of separation. Until a few months ago, he could almost not have dared hope for it.

 
   
    Abraham Machar returned home after six long years of separation from his family.    
 
 
 
 
   
    Abraham tries out his new tricycle wheelchair.    
  

Abraham Machar was a soldier from southern Sudan’s Dinka community. But his days fighting forces of the northern Khartoum government ended in September last year, when a single bullet wound left him paralysed from the waist down. He was then evacuated to a field hospital in southernmost Eastern Equatoria region, some 600 kilometres southeast of his home in Rumbek, Lakes region.

After regaining consciousness, the doctors informed me I was going to be OK though I had very little chance to walk again ,” he recalls. “ I said to myself: ‘ Well that’s God’s plan. ’ But I was stranded so far from Rumbek, I didn’t know when I would ever have the chance to go back home, ” he says. A glimmer of hope came in May when he had the opportunity to send a message via the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) to his family. They wrote back a month later, and the ICRC was requested to organize a reunion. Abraham Machar returned home after six long years of separation from his family. “ I was stranded so far from Rumbek, I didn’t know when I would ever have the chance to go back home ”.

    

 “Abraham’s reunion is so satisfying”  

Every year the ICRC, with the help of Red Cross Red Crescent National Societies, forwards millions of so-called Red Cross messages around the world to restore links between family members sepa rated by conflict. At war since 1983, Sudan alone has at times accounted for a staggering 10 percent of all messages sent. But despite the vast numbers exchanged both in the north and the south of the country, there are often disappointments.

I find it frustrating with tracing cases that were opened two or three years ago and we still cannot locate the people ,” says Emmanual Zino Riko, one of the ICRC’s Sudanese field officers based across the border in Lokichokio, northern Kenya. “ Which is why, Emmanuel says with a smile, Abraham’s reunion with his family is so satisfying.

As the sun rises over the vast semi-arid plains of northern Kenya, a Twin Otter aircraft takes off from Lokichokio airfield carrying Emmanuel and New Zealand nurse Marion Picken, bound for southern Sudan. One and a half hours later, in a breathtaking change of landscape, the aircraft lands amid the lush, sub-tropical hills of Eastern Equatoria. After a short wait, an ICRC vehicle arrives from the local hospital and those who have been caring for Abraham carry him from the vehicle and onto the Twin Otter.

I didn’t know that I was going to survive ,” Abraham says after take-off, rolling up his left sleeve to show where the bullet entered his upper arm. It exited through his back, clipping his spinal cord. Another two hours and the aircraft begins descending towards Rumbek. A slow, deep smile works its way across Abraham’s young face. Little in this part of the world ever goes quite according to plan, and the expected reception committee is not there to meet us. Undeterred, Abraham uses the airstrip to practise manoeuvres on the hand-driven tricycle wheelchair provided by the ICRC. As no one arrives, Marion and Emmanual set off on foot through the stifling humidity towards Rumbek. After a bit of asking around, they fi nd Docbol, the local tracing officer, one of 100 volunteers in southern Sudan who form the backbone of the tracing network here. Notification of Abraham’s arrival did not get through, so Docbol sets off by bike to find a family member. After 20 minutes, he returns with a white-haired man, Abraham’s uncle.

 “Morale 100 percent!”  

As often during reunions, the initial encounter is formal, a handshake, a nervous look, and everyone sits for a moment in silence. The uncle moves stiffly to a corner but the ice quickly melts: “ I’ll take the boy back to the house, and we’ll take good care of him, ” the uncle says, his old eyes slowly brightening. “ Thank God he is still alive, I am so grateful he didn’t die. ” Abraham, who is clearly exhausted, manages a wide grin. Ground time has run out.

Marion makes sure both Abraham and his uncle know where to go if the wheelchair needs repairing, and reiterates the messages that he must not spend all day in the wheelchair to avoid sores, and must look after his thin, immobile legs. The tiniest scratches turn nasty with frightening speed in this climate. “ Morale 100 percent! ” says Abraham.

So Abraham is left to his future. Peace talks in Kenya have led to a ceasefire and possibly the best chance of peace that Sudan has ever faced. But for one young soldier, this war is over.