For Kadi Lokule, civil war in South Sudan meant living in fear of being targeted for her appearance—an experience that has shaped her vision for peace.
“‘You look like our enemies,’ the soldier screeched. ‘What proves otherwise?’”
As a young child, I grew up surrounded by my people—people who looked like me. Later when I moved to Libya, I realized that all around me were people of a different skin shade. They were Arabs, I was told. I accepted this and lived with them in harmony.
When I was 7 years old, I moved again, to Kenya. At first, everyone looked like me. Then, I began to grow taller, leaving my peers behind. I attained a skin shade everyone considered way too dark for their liking.
My paternal aunt always told me, "You know, you look different from the rest of us."
“What do you mean?” I would ask her.
"You're taller and darker than our people, you know our tribe,” she would answer. “We are mostly short and lighter skinned in our part of the country. You on the other hand have the opposite complexion." She meant it in a nice way. But if I knew then what I know now, I would have detested my appearance and most likely, never returned home to my country.
I did not realize the true meaning of the differences my aunt always spoke of until 2013, when civil war erupted between the government of South Sudan and opposition forces. I returned home before the 2011 independence referendum created the new country of South Sudan. In December 2013, President Kiir accused his former deputy Riek Machar and ten others of attempting a coup d'état. The battle became divided along ethnic lines and all things appearance came into play. I suddenly became much more aware of the possibility of being caught up in the insecurity that was taking place.
The leaders on each side of the conflict were from the Dinka and Nuer tribes—both tribes noted for their height and dark, shiny complexion. To many people across the country, these tribes of cattle keepers and warriors evoked an aura of fear and intimidation.
When the conflict made it too dangerous to remain in the city, I attempted to cross the infamous Juba Bridge. This was one of the only exit points out of the city toward the border with Uganda. This beautiful bridge on the famous River Nile was guarded by soldiers on normal days. But on this day, the soldiers were red-eyed drunk, screaming at civilians. It was a bridge we had crossed many times for trips out of the city. Unfortunately, on this occasion, it was our doorway to freedom.
As I waited to cross with my neighbors, all girls between 16 and 18 years old from the Lotuho tribe on the Eastern Central Equatoria region, we began to hear stories about what was happening at the crossing. The government soldiers would scan your appearance and ask you your tribe. You had to produce a document to prove your origin. If you were believed to be from the Nuer tribe, you would be pulled into the nearby dusty bush and shot dead while the rest waited in line for their fate to be sealed.
“You look like our enemies," a soldier screeched to the girls ahead of me. "What proves otherwise?" I watched the soldier threaten the girls with rape and death if they lied. He said, “We will deal with you accordingly as you’re ladies and I know you know what we mean.”
The girls produced their nationality cards, which never expire and which indicate the name of both the father and mother and indicate tribe by location. The soldier looked at the document, sneered, spit to the ground and threw the ID down. The girls scampered to grab this element of their freedom before it got away. They crossed the bridge safely and were saved!
As I watched all this, I began to back away from the line so slowly, no one noticed due to all the commotion. I had no ID. I was tall, dark, and couldn't defend myself. I did not even know my local language, and couldn’t converse in it if my life depended on it.
A week later, I went to the bank to withdraw some money so that I could consider air travel to leave the country as soon as I could. I took a boda boda, a motorcycle used as a means of transportation in my county. I noticed a car with dark, sinister windows following us. When the windows rolled down, I saw two fellows inside, staring right at me.
I overheard their conversation, "She is one of them...no she couldn't be...she wouldn't be moving all by herself... she knows the gravity of the insecurity on her life if she did." My heart beat as loudly as I could imagine. As the motorbike fellow turned off the dirt road, even he warned me against traveling by myself. “I know you’re not one of the fighting ethnic groups,” he said. “But you look like them. My advice to you is lay low."
As I got off the boda boda, I kept my eyes straight ahead. All I could think of was how to get myself out of all this mess. I had never felt so insecure in my life. I wished that 2013 never happened. Because I was born at the beginning of a 20 year civil war, I lived outside of my country for most of my life. This new civil war was a reminder of the fate of the next generation that would never understand their country or contribute to its existence and development.
I did manage to leave the country for neighboring Uganda for a year, but I was forced to return to South Sudan to make a living. Here in South Sudan, I can support my family. I am safe for now, but we live in constant fear. The tension of 2013 is not totally eased.
Civil society and women’s and youth groups in South Sudan have signed peace petitions, lobbied for peace, and tried to put a stop to this war. This has led to ongoing peace and reconciliation processes.
This is a start. The only way I see this conflict going away completely is to go back to the time when students, doctors, and civil servants were sent to different parts of the country to serve and study through exchanges between the different states. This promoted an understanding of the different cultures and even an appreciation of them and good humor when associating with them.
We need systems in place that promote understanding and cooperation. There is no security without peace, and peace needs to be incorporated into the syllabus of schools, into police training and into the rotations of assignments for doctors and teachers. We need systems that prevent people from ever again being targeted for their ethnicity or their appearance. Only then will there be a feeling of security in South Sudan.
This story was published as part of the Future of Security Is Women digital event and is sponsored by our partner Our Secure Future. World Pulse runs Story Awards year round—share your story with us, and you could be our next Featured Storyteller! Learn more.