"I will be the last person to leave" - The Dedication of a Displaced Dinka

Gabriel Ayuen Deng is a dedicated and courageous man who has decided to shoulder the many responsibilities of camp secretary at Lologo way station, which shelters some 3,500 Bor Dinka who are waiting for IOM’s return assistance to take them back to their ancestral homeland in the region of Bor, an 18 hour boat trip down the White Nile.

As camp secretary, Gabriel is the main local interlocutor between his community, the IOM and other agencies operating in Lologo. When I first met Gabriel at the crack of dawn, he was already going from tent to tent to make sure families knew they had to go to the IOM centre to get their pre-departure medical screening. He is also the person who patiently listens to the many questions his community members have, who seek answers from IOM staff and informs those displaced with him accordingly.

“I sometimes worry because I have no salary but it helps my people and gives me dignity.” 

Gabriel believes he must be in his forties. His weathered face sports deep tribal scarification on his forehead, which were inflicted with a razor blade when he was a child. “This practice is bad and I was happy when it was banned in 1986.”

Gabriel’s life story is in many ways emblematic of the tens of thousands of Dinkas who fled Bor in 1992 to escape fighting with the Nuer tribe, who according to him, was supported militarily by the Sudanese government.

“A great number of people were killed and the Nuer looted our property, stole our cattle and took many of our women. In October 1992, we started to walk. It was the rainy season and things were very difficult. Many more people died of illnesses and I lost one of my sisters when she gave birth to a stillborn child.”

According to Gabriel, the fleeing Dinkas split into two large groups: one headed towards Eastern Equatoria, the other trekked towards Mundri in Western Equatoria.

“We walked for more than two months to reach Mundri and some of us decided to go further west towards Maridi, which took us another month.”

He says life in Maridi was initially tough because the Dinkas had lost most of their cattle, which provides them with their staple food, milk. Slowly, they settled and planted the land, selling vegetables and grain, raising and selling goats and slowly built up their cattle ranches.

Life went on, at times more tense because of disputes over land and grazing rights between the local Moro and Zandi communities. Until news came in of the January 2005 peace agreement under which Bor and the neighbouring town of Juba were going to be handed over the new government of Southern Sudan. 

“This is what we had been waiting for. Going back to our land has always been the most important thing for us” says Gabriel with a smile, his first. 

But Gabriel’s face quickly turns sombre as he recalls how he and some 12,500 Dinkas left Maridi on 16 September 2005.

“Relations with the Moro and Zandi people had become increasingly tense. Dinka leaders sat down and decided we didn’t want to fight. So we gathered our cattle and started to walk towards Juba with the intention of travelling north along the White Nile back to Bor.”

But the trek was fraught with incidents as marauding armed gangs ambushed the returning Dinkas to steal their cattle. According to Gabriel, fourteen people in his group were killed between mid September and 30 November, when they finally made it to Juba.

“When we crossed the Nile on a big bridge with our cattle, we were welcomed by the governor. But the young men decided to go ahead with the animals to get to Bor as soon as possible. I decided to stay behind with the weaker members of the group.”

Asked what he expects for the future, Gabriel pauses. “I’m worried because my two wives and eight children are in Nimule, near the Ugandan border and I need them to be with me. Then, we need cows grazing on a rich pasture so we never go hungry again. I will build a Luak, a traditional cattle shed to start cattle rising. But most important of all, we need to put our hearts in the peace agreement so we can all have a good place to live, plenty of food and send our children to school.”

And yes, Gabriel will remain in Lologo until the last of his people has boarded the IOM ferry. Then will he leave “with a pure heart.”