In-depth Story: Surviving a 769-km Journey on Foot to Safety

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Anita Grace is a South Sudanese woman with incredible wisdom and a powerful story. Seeing the woman she is today, it’s hard to imagine the horrors she has lived through.

“I would describe myself as a strong, confident woman who believes that no matter how tough circumstances become, I am always ready to fight and overcome,” Anita told The Weight She Carries. “I went through some dark moments but survived because of the strong faith I have in me.”

Her troubles began early in life. Anita’s father left while her mother was pregnant, and her mother walked away from Anita when she was just a year old. As a result, Anita was raised by her maternal grandmother and uncles.

“Where I come from, they don’t value girls,” she said. “I was called names, denied the right to an education and was given a lot of work at a young age. I was mistreated and abused in every way.”

“They defined my future by my parents’ choices and my current situation and not by my potential. That was psychological torture.”

Anita longed to be like the other children she saw wearing uniforms and going to school in the morning while she stayed home to babysit her uncles’ children and complete house chores.

When she turned 11, she couldn’t bear it anymore. An education was the only shot she had at a brighter future.

“I decided to join a community school for less privileged children,” she said. “I was there for two years and my mind started opening up. I loved school.”

As the oldest child in Grade 1, Anita’s classmates made fun of her. Ignoring them, she focused on her studies and completed Grade 1 and 2 in one year.

When Anita’s family expressed their plans to give her away in marriage at the tender age of 12, she fled and began living with strangers. To support herself, Anita started selling boiled maize on the side of the road to raise money for her education.

By 2015, Anita was 17, had completed her primary education and had plans to enrol for high school the following year, but war erupted in South Sudan.

As the violence escalated in the urban areas, people in her city were advised to flee to the village. It would be safer there.

“They told us we had to move for maybe two months or so. Then, when the situation normalized, we would come back to the city and start our normal activity again,” she said. “When we went to the village, I spent three months with strangers. I did not know them, but they took me in as part of their family.”

The war was brutal and continued to claim the lives of countless civilians. The rebels raided villages, and no place was safe.

“My own people were killed; my peers were killed; there was a lot of bloodshed in our country. So we decided that we would walk from South Sudan to Uganda.”

The 769-km journey would be risky, but they were certain that staying where they were meant sure death. So they set out. Anita was the only woman in a group of 15. Along the way, they met armed men who arrested them, accusing them of being part of the rebels.

“We were taken to their barracks and held underground for one month. I was the only woman there, and I was surrounded by strange men. For a whole month, I didn’t see the sun; everything was dark around me. We were fed twice a week, and it was only boiled maize. I had to be strong and tell myself that one day, things would be fine.”

Eventually, Anita’s group was brought up out of the dark hole.

“It was time to kill us, they said. Three men were shot instantly in front of us. One person standing next to me was slaughtered the blood splashed onto me. I was crying. One of the soldiers walked straight up to me and he looked into my eyes. I was praying in my head saying, ‘God you know the reason why all this is happening to me. Since my childhood I’ve been going through hell, but you created me for a purpose. If you say I am not going to die here, that means I still have to accomplish my purpose.’”

One of the men looked at Anita, turned to his fellow soldiers and convinced them to let her go.

“She’s an innocent girl,” he said.

Miraculously, they agreed. Anita was so malnourished she couldn’t walk more than a few steps. The men left her by a bush and went away.

“I was picked up by some people who found me lying by the nearby bush. They thought I was dead, but when they came close and checked on me, they saw that I was alive,” she said.

Anita was taken to a small village, where she was cared for by strangers. They were on their way to Uganda but knew she was too weak to join them just yet. So they waited. A month later, Anita had gained her strength back, so the group set out on foot.

“On our way, we met a group of rebels. We started out a group of 20, but only three survived. The others were killed. The woman who sacrificed a lot to take care of me, the one who picked me when I was left to die by the bush, she was chopped to pieces in front of me. I saw other women who are old enough to be my grandma being raped before my eyes. I was heartbroken.”

At one point, Anita was tied to a tree for 24 hours. She was certain that the rebels would kill her eventually, but they released her. The remaining three carried on walking, hoping to make it to Uganda alive. They encountered wild animals that attacked them, but they managed to escape.

They walked over tough terrain, swam across rivers and lived on wild fruits.

“The darkest moment was when we were down to just three of us – two young boys, and I was the oldest – walking through the bush at night and we were scared. We knew we were just walking corpses because we knew anytime, we could die.”

Unsure whether they were still on the right track, they pressed forward. Miraculously, they saw a sign for Uganda in the bush. They followed the directions on the map and, a few kilometres away, came to the border in late 2016. The journey to Uganda had taken them two months.

When we reached the border, people saw us and immediately came to our aid. We were finally safe. It was a great feeling. Uganda was a land of promise. It was a place where I would not be abused and a place I would find my education. So I felt relieved.”

The trio were taken to a refugee camp where their needs were provided. The first month was tough. Anita fell sick and had difficulty adjusting to life in a new country.

Once her health improved, Anita decided to start school.

“We would trek for five miles to get to school, but I had to sacrifice for my education.”

She woke up at 4 a.m. each weekday, and by 6 a.m., she set out to school with a group of other students. The last five years have been glorious, Anita says, although she struggled with nightmares stemming from the trauma she lived through.

Today, Anita is in her final year of high school, has moved out of the camp and is living in a city called Arua. She spends her weekends working so she can pay her tuition and hopefully save enough for her higher education. Her dream is to be an activist and advocate for women’s rights.

“It is sad to see my fellow women going through a lot,” she said. “They have to look beyond the situation they’re going through. Don’t allow the suffering of today define their tomorrow. Allow God to be your guide when you feel discouraged.”

“When bad things happen to us, we shouldn’t ask why it happened; we should ask ourselves how we should deal with this. It is not good to wallow in self-pity. Move forward.”

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