Monday, 6 October 2008

Memories of Sweetville

Whilst visiting the nearby town I met quite a few young people who had fled from a various towns and villages for many kilometres. One young man I spoke to affectionately refers his home town as Sweetville, as if it now remains in his memory like a childhood dream or nightmare, like Oz or Neverland, or Limbo. The young man, whose name is Joseph, is trying to find his mother and here he tells me his story

08 10 08 / IDP camp, N. Uganda
Present: Alan Hackston, Reuters, Joseph

Subject: Joseph’s account of Hopetown

JJ: My name is Joseph, I’m sixteen years old and I’m on my way to Hopetown.

AH: Ah Hopetown!

JJ: You've heard of it? Hopetown’s not its real name but that’s what I’m going to call it. There’s about five thousand people camped there, people like me who’ve got caught up in this war and had to leave their homes. Have a look for yourself; more than one and a half million people were made homeless by the war so there’s a lot of camps of different sizes. They’re not great places to live, but they’re safer than my village was. I mean they’re not like holiday camps. I’ve heard on the radio as a kid the music festivals that you guys go to in the UK and they look like brilliant fun. Now imagine being there without the music, without your friends, not knowing if you can ever go home. You have to have hope, right? Take me for instance; I know I’ll see my Mum again even though we got separated five years ago. I don’t know where she is but I know she’s alive, I can feel it in my heart and I’m never going to give up looking for her. She’s all I’ve got left in the whole world, her and the skanky pair of old trainers I’m wearing that are way too small. And so today, I’m leaving for Hopetown.

AH: So how did you get here?

JJ: Things haven’t quite turned out the way I planned if you know what I mean. Imagine, five years ago I’m living with my Mum and Dad and my little sister in a town that is actually not that far from here. It’s about 100 kilometres away but it might as well be another world. You can call it Sweetville. Look, there’s my little sister sitting in the shade under that Sequoia tree; she’s always reading because she wants to be a teacher. Me, I play soccer. After we’ve done our chores my friends and me practice for hours everyday because we all want to try out for the professional team. My Mum and Dad are farmers, I mean we keep a few animals, grow our own food and we’re able to sell some of it. We have an ok time you know, yes there are way too many chores to do day and night and there’s plenty of things I want but it’s a sweet life. People are always talking about the war but it seems so far away, it’s something that can only happen somewhere else and I don’t pay attention. This one afternoon though, the war comes to Sweetville. Men with guns seemed to just appear out of nowhere. I’m kicking a ball around a car park when I hear rapid gunshots. At first I can’t work out what it is then I hear it again and then someone runs screaming past me and I get a really bad feeling in my stomach. I run towards our house and the men are already in our street. I see my Mum hiding in a doorway with a look on her face I’ve never seen before. I ask her where my Dad and my sister are. They’re on their way home from their reading class but sometimes they stop and buy mango as a treat on the way home. The men are outside our house now and I see two of them grab our old neighbour and throw him onto the ground, he’s pleading with them not to hurt him when my Dad arrives. He tells them to leave the old man alone but this makes things worse. My Dad tells my sister to run but she won’t let go of his hand. We want to shout to her but we can’t. My heart is beating so fast I think I’m going to pass out. Then it happens. They grab my Dad and because my little sister won’t let go of his hand they just shoot them both. My little sister’s body fall on top of my Dad’s. Everything after that seems to go silent as a dream. I stand there frozen until my Mum pulls me away. She knows we can’t go back for their bodies we just have to run. I can’t remember much about the rest of that day I just remember my feet in these same trainers running across the fields with everyone else until there’s nothing but around us but dust. We come to the river and there are crowds of people all desperately trying to get into these few tiny boats. My Mum pulls me by the hand as she tries to push her way through to the boats. If we can cross the river we’ll be a lot safer. Then suddenly there’s gunfire again nearby and everyone’s pushing so tightly around us that my Mum loses her grip on my hand and she disappears. That’s the last time I see my Mum, after that I have to keep running away from the gunfire and I end up a long way in the forest. I hide in the trees all night and eat some leaves because I’m so thirsty. It’s impossible to go back to the river and in the morning I start walking along a track made by all the other people. No one has any food or water; they’ve all had to run for their lives just like me. I feel a kind of numbness all over and can’t get the images of my Mum, my Dad and sister out of my mind. I just keep walking and following other people, until two days later I’m suddenly kind of brought out of my trance. There’s this man riding around on a motorbike with this loud speaker in his hand. He’s telling everyone to go just a kilometre in this other direction, where we can get help. For some reason I suddenly find him really hilarious. I start laughing and can’t stop, I laugh hysterically until my sides ache. I then start walking in the direction he’s pointing and end up in a camp.

When I arrive in the camp there are already thousands of people trying to get in where they think they’ll be safe. I’m thinking that it’ll be ok to stay here for a few days until I find my Mum, and then we can probably go back home together in a week or so. I was wrong. There I meet a woman who I recognise as my Mum’s cousin and I end up staying with her.

I didn’t stop trying to find my Mum, though. The Red Cross has helped a lot of people in the camp find their missing loved ones. I tell them about my Mum, I tell them her name and that we’re from Sweetville; I draw a vague map of where our town is. I can’t believe how little I know about the geography of this part of the country. I tell them about all the relatives I can think of that she might have talked to – a few of them escaped from the country a long time ago, when the fighting was really bad. The Red Cross say that I’ve done good and they’ll try to find her but it might take a long time, it might be never. They said maybe one day I’ll get a message.

For five years I lived in that camp and no word about my Mum. I’ve no idea whether anyone is even close to finding my Mum yet. Everyday I wait and wait but don’t know who to turn to find out more. I met a journalist today called Alan – he is following the Red Cross and he knows today is the day when the messenger comes to another camp, nearer my village, called Hopetown. I’m tired of waiting. Today I’m heading for Hopetown to find this messenger to see if they have any news of my Mum. He’s only going to be there for one day. Today’s my last chance; I have to find the messenger. And so I’m walking to Hopetown.