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Freedom (Befreit)

By Mende Nazer and Damien Lewis

Freedom book coverIn the summer of 2007 escaped former slave Mende Nazer decided to risk all in a journey back to the Nuba Mountains of Sudan, her homeland. She would be leaving the relative security of London, her new home, to return to the war-ravaged land of her birth. She would be risking all in an effort to try to find and make contact with her family. This is how she writes about the driving imperatives that made her face the epic journey and the risks that accompanied it – from the story as told in her new book, Freedom (Befreit).

In London I was often alone and I was often depressed. I fought against it. I told myself over and over that I deserved to be happy and to have a life and to be free. I told myself that I could build a new life in London, as a British citizen, a citizen of the West. But I still cried often and I cried alone and I cried without anyone hearing me. In spite of my freedom I was still crying alone, just as I had done during my years as a slave. Still I had no family to hear my pain, to dry my tears and surround me with affection and love. And when you cry alone and no one hears you, then you are crying the tears of silence.

Finally I realised that there was only one way to break the silence, to make my cries heard. And there was only one group of people who would listen – really listen – and feel my suffering and my pain. I knew then that I had to attempt the impossible: I had to try to make the journey home to the Nuba Mountains to try to find my family. I had no idea how to go about doing this, but I had a sense of the risks involved.

My country, Sudan, had been at war with itself for years and years and years. Hundreds of thousands have died. There are millions of refugees. And right in the very centre, at the heart of the killing fields, there lie the Nuba Mountains. My people had suffered more than most. The assault upon them had been likened to a genocide. And it was into that isolated, war torn and insecure land that I would have to go if I were ever to find my long lost family. But there had to be a way. There had to be a way back to my family. There had to be a way home.

Excerpt

Chapter Thirteen: To Darfur

Over breakfast the following morning Shwaya alerted Damien and Hannah to the problem with our UN flight. In all the mad rush of the previous day I'd forgotten to mention it. The situation was typically confused, and it seemed as if the UN flight might be coming three days early, which would mean tomorrow. It was far too soon to be leaving, especially as I was supposed to spend today visiting the Darfur refugee camp.

"Unbelievable!" Damien exclaimed. "It's a scheduled service, isn't it? Every Tuesday and Saturday there's supposed to be a UN flight into and out of Kauda."

No one – Shwaya included - seemed to know why it had been changed. That was just the way the UN were, she said. They were forever changing the flight schedule at zero notice. In fact, the UN flights were so unreliable that none might come for a whole month or so, and then there would be four in one week alone. Damien, Hannah and I went and found a quiet corner of the compound where we could discuss our options.

"Right, let's recap," Damien announced. "Our first UN flight from Loki was cancelled. The second – Hajo and Mareike's flight out – was also cancelled. The third – our flight out – has supposedly been rescheduled to come three days early. I have zero confidence it will arrive. It looks as if the UN service is 100% unreliable. Question is, what do we do?"

"What can we do?" I asked.

"These are the options," said Damien. "Option one: we go to the airstrip tomorrow and hope and pray a UN flight arrives to fly us back to Loki."

"No. No, we can't do that," I cut in. "It's just too early. It feels like I've had no time at all with my family."

"I agree," Damien said. "So, if we want to be assured of getting out of here on time and as planned, the only option left is to charter a plane ourselves, as we did to fly in here. And you know what that means: it's going to cost us $5,000 - minimum."

"Well, $5,000 is a lot of money," I said. "Why don't you call the UN and see if you can check?"

Damien sighed. "Because I won't believe them whatever they tell us."

"I can't lose the last three days with my family," I said. "I was counting on each and every one of them."

"Okay, then we'll charter Turbine Air, the people who flew us in. But even that's not going to be easy. I suppose we'll have to try to get a radio message through to the MORDAR people in Loki, and ask them to take it over to the Turbine Air office. It's a bloody nightmare. And you know it's me and you, Mende, who'll be footing the bill?"

I nodded. "I know. But it's my family, so the money doesn't really matter, does it?"

The journey to Lwere the previous day had been tough on Awad's Land Rover, and he had his head stuck under the bonnet again. We wouldn't be going to visit the Darfur camp anytime soon, and at least that gave us some time to try to fix up our flight. By mid-morning Shwaya had managed to get a radio message through, and confirmation had come back that we were booked. But Damien still didn't quite believe it, not unless he himself had spoken directly to the Turbine Air people.

Awad declared that the Land Rover was road worthy again, and we prepared to leave for Darfur. Everyone seemed more than happy to be getting out of the compound, even though our destination was a refugee camp on the far side of the airstrip. Kuku Khadia turned up to accompany us, and we headed for the Land Rover. My mum and dad climbed in beside me in the rear seat, and right away they started on at each other.

"Let me sit by the window," my dad demanded.

"Why should I?" my mum retorted.

"I need to be by the window – I spit a lot." My dad was referring to his habit of spitting out his chewing tobacco.

"Ha! I spit much more than you do," my mum fired back at him.

My dad pointed to the pocket in the door of the Land Rover. "Well, just check if my stuff is in there."

"What stuff?" my mum asked. She knew very well that he meant his tobacco. She was just teasing him.

"Just put your hand down there and check. I don't have to say it."

My mum put her hand down, felt around, and reported that there was nothing. My dad started to try to clamber across me and my mum so he could check for himself. I found myself getting crushed between them.

"What are you doing?" I asked my dad, laughing. Then in English, to Damien in the front seat: "Look at my family – such trouble makers - wriggling around like worms."

I translated what I'd said for my family's benefit, and suddenly everyone was laughing. My dad still hadn't forgotten his chewing tobacco though. He made Awad pull over so he could have a proper look. Everyone had to get down from the Land Rover, whist he checked that it hadn't fallen down the back of the seat or onto the floor. Needless to say, he couldn't find it anywhere, so we had to turn around and head back to the compound.

"My God, look at my family," I remarked. "Why is it so difficult getting anything done? No wonder it took them three days to get here . . ."

My dad wandered off, found his chewing tobacco in the hut, and got back into the Land Rover. As he did so he must have brushed against the door hinges.

"What've you done to yourself?" my mum exclaimed, pointing at the black smear of oil on his white robes. "Look at you – all covered in mess."

"I don't know where it came from," my dad protested, trying to brush his robe clean. "Where did it come from?"

My mum shook her head in mock dismay. "I can't take you anywhere. Just look at yourself."

"Why don't you move over and give Mende some more room?" my dad asked, trying to change the subject.

"What d'you expect me to do?" my mum retorted. She was jammed tight against the door. "Jump out of the window?"

We drove along in this fashion, everyone teasing someone, and then my dad turned his attention to Hannah. He decided that she needed a Nuba nickname. Damien had one already – Corba. So Hannah needed one too. What were her key characteristics, my dad wondered? She was very quiet. Very peaceful. Very gentle and polite. So what would suit her?

"It needs to be a name like 'the quiet girl'," my dad suggested. "What's the Nuba for that?"

"Urunday," Babo suggested.

My dad stared at Babo. "Don't be ridiculous. Urunday means 'the very white girl'."

"Well, she is very white," Babo retorted.

"You can't call her Urunday," I said. "That'd be like her calling you 'the very black man'. How would you like that?"

"Well, I'm not, am I?" said Babo, holding his arm next to mine. "See, I'm actually lighter than you."

The Darfur refugee camp was further than I had expected. It was a two-hour drive across the plains, and for most of this time my family kept up a constant banter. But by the time we reached there, no one had come up with a suitable Nuba name for Hannah. The camp was set in a baking bowl of rock and dry dust. The first thing that struck me as we pulled into the place was the children. There were crowds and crowds of them everywhere, sheltering from the burning heat under sheets of old plastic and other refuse.

Damien, Hannah and I followed Kuku Khadia into the centre of the camp, with my family coming after us. As we did so I heard the now familiar cries of, "Khawaja! Khawaja! Khawaja!" Suddenly, the kids were all around Damien and Hannah, their faces dripping mucus, and swarms of flies buzzing around their mouth and nose.

Damien crouched down, pulled out his camera and start taking photos. But no sooner had he done so than I saw a raw, animal terror fill the eyes of the youngest child – a little boy barely a year old. He started screaming and fighting to get away, as the older children tried to control him. Whilst the bigger kids clearly understood something of what was Damien was doing, the little ones seemed totally petrified.

I suddenly understood why. None of the children appeared to be scared of my family or me. But Damien, with his tanned face and week old stubble probably didn't look so different from the Arab raiders who had attacked their villages. And to the smallest of the children his big, Nikon camera could just as easily have been mistaken for a raider's gun.

I crouched down and picked up the terrified little boy, and did my best to comfort him. I wiped the mucus and the flies away from his face with the palm of my hand. I wasn't the slightest bit revolted. That's how we used to clean a little child's nose back in my home village. And when I was a little toddler that's how my mum used to clean me. I heard Kuku Khadia calling out to me, and I turned to be greeted by Noor Haroun, the camp co-ordinator. I asked him to tell me the little boy's story.

"Ah, it is very sad," Noor replied. "Very sad. You know, he saw his mum killed in the raid. He lost his dad too, and he came here with the other refugees. Now he spends all his time looking for his father. He thinks he is still alive, but where is he?"

"So who looks after him?" I asked, in horror.

Noor shrugged. "We all do. There's two hundred kids here just like him, with no parents. We are one big family . . . Everyone has lost someone – some people are the sole survivors from their family. I will gather them together to tell you their stories."

I heard a voice off to one side, coming from under some trees. "Who is that woman?"

I looked where the voice was coming from, and saw a young Darfur woman dressed in a sky blue tope. She was pointing at me. "The baby will make her dirty," the woman continued. "Look, she's dressed all in white. Someone go and take the baby."

"It's all right," I called over. "It's all right, I don't mind."

I went and joined the women under the shade of the trees. There was a brass teapot and some tiny tea glasses arranged in a circle on the ground, along with a pot of sugar. They invited me to take tea with them. As I went to greet each of the women in turn I was struck by something that I hadn't expected here – a sense of the women's extraordinary beauty. One in particular drew my eyes to her. She was wearing an orange headscarf, her hair beneath it braided tightly, and the bright material framed her features perfectly. In spite of the dirt and squalor of the setting, she was elegant, dignified and self-possessed. She was immediately and strikingly beautiful - enough to take one's breath away.

She introduced herself to me. Her name was Intesar, and I felt an immediate, instinctive closeness to her. Who was she and who were the other women: were they mothers, widows, orphans, rape victims? I didn't know. All I did know was that these were a remarkably beautiful people.

"We're going to gather over there, so we can speak under the big tree," Noor remarked to the women. "So, if some of you might come with us and tell the visitors your stories?"

"Maybe Intesar, can you come?" I asked. "It'd be nice to speak with you."

Intesar nodded her head, shyly. "I don't mind, sister."

With Intesar at my side I picked my way through the flimsy shelters made of old UN aid sacks stretched over branches bent double. A growing crowd of women and children – plus a few men - were coming after us. We crouched down as one in the dirt beneath the spreading branches of a big tree. This was the unofficial meeting place for the people of this vast, sprawling refugee camp. A crowd of thirty or more people gathered. I looked around me. Most were children, and then there were the women, plus a very few men.

My family stood behind me, waiting for something to happen, for someone to speak. I decided to begin by telling them my story.

"Just before I ask you things, I want to tell you a little about myself," I said. I was addressing my words at Intesar, although it was for the whole crowd to hear. It gave me a face that I could focus on, someone I could talk to. "I think it might help you to hear it. I am a Nuba, from a tribe called the Karko …" I gave the refugees a brief version of my own story. By the end of it, Intesar was in tears, as were many of the other women.

"So, now I have come back to the Nuba Mountains," I concluded, trying to hold back my own tears. "With the help of my khawaja friends I came to see my family." I turned to look at my mum and my dad. "So, this is my mum and my dad, and my sister over there – they're crying because they know how much you have suffered. I've met them after so many years. And for me to be here with you all now, I feel it very strongly, I feel it in my heart. So, feel free to speak - I want to share your plight, to hear your stories."

As I finished speaking it was as if a dam had suddenly broken. Stories of indescribable horror came rushing at me from all directions.

"I just ran for my life as the raiders attached … I lost my parents in the shooting …"

"My children … My children … My children … All of them are gone …"

"I've lost my sister, I don't know where she is …"

I couldn't help noticing Sharan's reactions. "Oh my God, you poor things," she murmured, as she buried her face in her hands. "How can this be happening, all over again . . ."

All around me people were breaking down before my very eyes. Women and children wailed out their loss, unable to hold back the tears. The few men present tried to restrain them, and then they, too, began to cry. I hugged those nearest to me, and cried with them. I felt their pain and their loss as if it were my own, searing into my very soul.

"Have patience, have patience, have patience," I heard my Dad saying to the men, trying to comfort them. "You never know what will happen . . . You never know . . ."

I glanced behind me only to find that my mother was in floods of tears, the suffering of these people reaching deep inside her. She touched her hand to her heart, repeatedly, as she heard them tell of their terrible grief - a gesture that in our Nuba tradition means, 'I feel your suffering in my very heart'. I wondered for a second if I should really have brought my family here.

"We're brothers and sisters in suffering," I remarked, tearfully. "Brothers and sisters in suffering."

It was difficult enough being so close to Intesar, and the other women and children, and feeling so acutely their trauma and pain. But somehow, seeing grown men cry like this was even more shocking for me, and I didn't know how to react. I was surrounded by a dark sea of grief, and I felt it sucking me down into its shadowy depths.

I turned to Noor. "Has no one ever talked to these people? I mean, it all seems so fresh and so raw."

Noor shrugged. "Here in the Nuba Mountains? No one ever comes."

I tried to muster my thoughts, to think of something useful to say. "So, was there any pattern to these attacks? Any reason?"

A man sat near me overheard the question and grabbed my arm. He introduced himself to me as the Sheik, or the traditional leader, of the camp. He had a little toddler lying in his lap, but he too had lost one of his children in the raid on his village.

"The raiders always come at the same time," he told me. "In Autumn, when their animals have good grazing and can rest safely in their pastures. They come on horseback, two to each horse, one riding and the other firing his weapon. Look around you: everyone here has lost someone . . ."

I glanced around me. It struck me that there were no old people, no grandparents. I asked why?

The Sheik laughed a bitter laugh. "Only if you are young and fast can you have a chance to escape. The old people, they don't even manage to leave their huts. When the raider set fire to the huts they're burned alive."

I shuddered at the thought of it. "You think that is bad?" another man cried out, from behind me. "I tell you, if they find a pregnant woman they slash open her stomach and pull out the child. They set a pot of water to boil and throw the child inside . . ."

A man thrust a tiny girl towards me, barely three years old. "And any of the females – even girls as young as this one – they rape them. Either they rape them until they die, or they kill them afterwards."

"Even daughters are raped in front of their mothers," another cried out. "Daughters raped in front of their mothers. There are girls here this has happened to. You can speak to them. Then you will know it is true."

I shook my head in horror. I felt sick inside, a wave of nausea rushing up from my heart to engulf me. I didn't know if I had the strength to hear such stories. I didn't know if I wanted to. It was all so real. Then I glanced around at the faces before me – twisted in grief and the agony of loss, and so desperate, so desperate for someone to hear to their pain. And I realised then that I had to listen, I had to hear them. No one else was going to. Maybe just by listening and sharing their pain, I could lessen the burden somehow. And perhaps there was a way that I could find to communicate this to the wider world.

I felt the Sheikh's hand on my arm again. "And there are many children that have just disappeared … The raiders tie them onto their horses and carry them off to their villages …"

I shuddered again, then shook myself and gathered my strength. I tried to focus onto what he'd just told me.

"Why do they do this?" I asked. "I want you to tell me. I want you to tell me everything."

"At first we didn't know," said the Sheikh. "But then we heard the survivors' stories. The raiders say that they will make Sudan an Arab country. Either we go or we will be killed. 'If we catch you alive', they say, 'all you will have is your bed – you will be our slave'."

"But you are Muslims, and the raiders say that they are Muslims too. So how can they do this to you?"

I saw several of the men and women grab and pull at their skin. "They attack us because we are black! Because of our colour! They say they don't want black foreigners in their country. But they are the foreigners - this was our country long before the Arabs came."

I shook my head in disgust. I asked the Sheikh who he thought was responsible, who was the driving force behind such horror?

"It is the Sudan Government!" a man cried out. "They send the raiders to attack us."

"Sometimes they come with their helicopters, and shoot us from the air," another cried. "And sometimes their planes come to bomb us."

"Ask yourself who gave the Janjaweed their weapons?" the Sheikh added. "It was the Government in Khartoum. Who gave them their uniforms – they come to attack us wearing khaki, just like real soldiers. That too was the Government in Khartoum. Where is the justice in this – that our own Government is killing us?"

 

"It's just like the Government sent the Arabs to attack the Nuba," I remarked. "And all because we are the black people, the original people of Sudan."

"The Nuba, you are like our brothers and sisters," the Sheikh added. "After all you have suffered, you have given us sanctuary. We feel safe here, and we have you to thank you for that safety. But we want to go back to our villages, we want to go home . . ."

Intesar leaned closer to me. "Come and speak with the women," she whispered. "They want to tell you what happened to them, but they need to do so in private."

"Will you tell me your story, Intesar?" I asked her, trying to smile.

She nodded, shyly. "Of course. But mine is nothing compared to some of the others here . . ."

Intesar gathered together two women and a little girl. She led them to a quiet corner of the camp, in front of some giant UNICEF aid tents. A broken tree formed a makeshift bench. The little girl sat down next to me. She pulled her pink headscarf closer around her face and hunched forwards. I could see that her eye was swollen and bruised still, thought it looked like an old injury. Her name was Fatima, she told me, in a voice so faint I could hardly hear. She thought she was nine years old, but she didn't know her exact age. She could barely look at me. She kept her eyes glued to the ground.

"Tell me what happened to you, Fatima," I asked.

"I was in the forest when they attacked," she murmured. "The first thing I knew was when a Janjaweed smashed me in the face with a rifle. He hurt me in the eye. Then two of them carried me to a tree and pushed me onto the ground. I can't remember exactly what happened next, I just can't remember. Suddenly, this huge shadow fell over me and it all went black."

I placed my arm around Fatima's shoulders, and pulled her closer to me. "Its all right," I told her. "I know. I know."

"I came to sometime later," she whispered. "My clothes were scattered everywhere, all over the ground. I was bleeding from between my legs and there was this terrible pain, so I knew they had done something to me, but I didn't know what exactly. I lay there and I was in so much pain that I couldn't even move. As I was lying there and I saw some passing villagers. I called out to them. They tried to help me but I wasn't able to walk."

"I'm sorry," I sobbed. "I'm sorry … I know, I know …"

I hugged Fatima and tried to comfort her. But at the same time I was grief stricken, the hot bitter tears trickling down my cheeks. This little girl was so delicate and so innocent. And she had had the innocence and joy of childhood ripped away from her by truly evil people. That the same horrors were happening all over Sudan, year after year, decade after decade, cut me to the heart. It was so awful and so inconceivable, and yet so terribly, horribly true – for here was the human evidence before my very eyes.

"The people who found me dressed me again," Fatima continued. "And they made a stretcher from tree branches. Then they lifted me up and began walking. But they knew they couldn't take me back to the village, as it had been attacked. So they took me with them and guarded me and we just started walking, trying to get away from that place. Eventually, I met my mum on the road to Kadugli. It was like a miracle when I found her, a true miracle. And since then we arrived here and stayed together in this camp."

"How long did it take you to walk here, little sister?" I asked.

"We walked for six months."

"Oh my God! Six months … But how did you survive?"

"We were hungry and we had no food, so we had to beg off people on the way. I'm happy to be here now, alive and with my mum. I'm just tired. I'm just so tired."

I sat there and held Fatima close to me as her story came to an end. From behind me I could hear sobbing and I knew that my mum and my dad had started to cry.

"I know, my little daughter, I know," my mum whispered, as she stroked Fatima's hair. "You can do nothing, can you, you can do nothing …"

"Bless you, Mende, bless you," my dad said. "Bless you that you talk to these people and listen to their pain, and see ways to get help for them."

I just hoped beyond hope that my dad was right – that there might be something that I could do to help, that my being here might achieve something.

A young woman called Medina stepped forward to speak to me next. She had been beautiful once, and might be so again - but for now her face was screwed up into a bitter mask of anger and pain. She was in her late twenties, Medina told me, and she had three young children. But when the Arab raiders attacked her village at night she lost her husband in the chaos. She still didn't know until today if he was alive or dead. She ran back to her hut to save her children, but the raiders cornered her. Three of them dragged her away to a clearing in the forest. They had held her there for three days.

"They ripped my clothes away," Medina said, her voice strangled with fear and revulsion. "I can't tell you what they did to me. People know what men do to women . . . It was horrible beyond any words. When they'd finished with me, they threw me into the bush to die. That's where the people from the village found me. My youngest boy was just one-and-a-half years old. He was crying for me and needed my milk, but I didn't even want to feed him. I didn't even want to live. After what those men had done to me, I just wanted to die. I didn't even want to stay alive for my children . . ."

Medina's voice was full of an embittered rage, and as she spoke her eyes were dry of tears. Her anger and her pain was bottled up inside her still, her trauma internalised and gnawing away at her soul. I could barely imagine what she had been through. What sort of horror would make a mother to want to abandon her infant child and die? What sort of evil men, what sort of animals, could do this to a defenceless woman? A mother? A fellow human being?

"So, what did you do?" I asked her, as gently as I could.

Medina looked at me. "My friends from the village convinced me to live. I don't know how, but they did. They convinced me to stay alive for the sake of my children, for them, so that they too might live."

I took her hand in mine and held it tight. "I'm so glad …"

"We knew that we couldn't stay in that area," Medina continued. "So we started walking. At first we didn't know where we were headed, but then we heard there was sanctuary in a place called the Nuba Mountains. So we walked for four months. We were just walking and begging for food. We told people we were starving, we had been in the war, we had no clothes and nowhere to sleep, and so people helped us. And finally, we made it here - to safety."

I didn't know what to say, or how I could thank Medina for talking to me. I was feeling punch drunk from the trauma, overwhelmed by her suffering. I gave her a hug, and tried to find the right words. But before I could do so another woman came forward to speak to me. As Median turned to leave my eyes met hers', and in a look I tried to communicate what my voice had found so difficult to say. Thankyou for speaking to me, but more, so much more that that - thankyou for living. Those evil men may have taken your body, but they didn't kill your spirit. You survived, and with you your children survived too.

I turned to face the next woman. As she sat down next to me and I recognised her from the group I had spoken to under the tree. Even then, she had seemed to me to be one of the most distraught and hopeless of them all. I wondered what unspeakable horrors her story might entail, and I wondered if I had the strength to hear it all.

Her name was Khawa Ahmed, she told me. She tried to go on, but she seemed so totally overcome by anguish that her body had slumped and collapsed in on itself. Each time she tried to speak her shoulders hunched forwards and her face collapsed in a paroxysm of grief. Yet slowly, sentence by painful sentence, her story started to emerge.

The Arab raiders had attacked her village just before dawn. She awoke to find her hut on fire. Her children were still asleep but her husband was already awake and at the door. In an instant he was gunned down in front of her very eyes. Flames were in the roof thatch now and they quickly engulfed her hut. She tried to grab her three children and run, but the Arab raiders were all around her. She turned from their hooves and their guns and fled, losing hold of her children in the chaos and terror. She didn't even know if her children had burned to death in the hut. All she knew was that she had lost them all.

I was speechless, frozen with disbelief. A fire like ice was raging deep inside me. All I could do was hold Khawa closer, and dry the tears that were streaming down her face.

"Oh my God, you poor thing," my mum whispered, from behind me. "If you know they're dead, at least you can pray for them. But this not knowing, that is the worst thing."

Khawa's mum and dad had lived in a neighbouring hut. But the last she saw of it as she fled the village was a sheet of crackling flame. How did she manage to find her way here, I asked her? She had walked, following the other survivors. It had taken them seven months. People gave them water on the way. They had heard about a place called the Nuba Mountains - a place where black people like them could live in peace and be free.

How did she survive the journey, I asked? She didn't know. It was a miracle. She had begged food from villagers on the way. Those that could feed her did so. It was a terrible time. But now was worse. Now, she was completely alone and she had nothing left to live for.

I sat with Khawa for several minutes, just holding her as she wept. I had never met a person so bereft of everything that had made life worth living. I wondered what on earth made her go on, why she hadn't just died somewhere on that epic journey. As I held her close to me I felt her cold, empty darkness seep into my heart. I shuddered. How would she ever recover, I wondered? How could she ever come back from here? No human being should ever face the evil and inhumanity that Khawa had suffered. How could anyone endure it? How could she still want to live? What was there now to live for?

It was Intesar who finally came and prised Khawa away from me. She placed an arm around her shoulders and led her away to a group of women nearby. Then she returned and sat beside me and began her own story. There was something so different about Intesar, about the light in her eyes and the pride on her beautiful face. I wondered why? I could only imagine that her tale had to be so different from Khawa and the others.

"At night they attacked my village," Intesar began. "I have two children and we were sleeping. They set fire to the huts and then they were killing everybody, screams all around us. Either you stayed in the hut and burned to death or you ran and they killed you outside. But I took one child and my husband took the other and together we fled."

I held Intesar's hand tightly. I willed her story to have a happy ending, something to lift me out of the darkness that surrounded me.

"We ran and we ran and we escaped the raiders," Intesar continued. "We walked for four months to get here. When we reached some of the towns on the way, we saw Arabs on the streets and we knew we weren't safe. We were terrified of them, so we carried on walking. Sometimes we didn't eat for days on end. Finally, we heard of a place called the Nuba Mountains and we made our way here. And when we got here we found safety."

"But what about you children?" I blurted out. "Are they okay?"

Intesar smiled. "I have a little girl and a little boy, and both of them are here safely with us. We carried them most of the way. We feel safe here, we feel secure. There is no racism. No one tells you that you are black and that because of that you should be killed."

I smiled at Intesar, tearfully. "Thankyou," I whispered. "Thankyou for telling me a story with a happy ending …"

Intesar laughed, gently. "Thankyou. Thankyou for being so brave, for talking to us. Especially the others: they need someone to hear them, to know their stories …"

Intesar went to rejoin the other women, and I was left alone on the little bench. I felt someone come and sit beside me. It was my dad. We sat there in silence for a while, united in the terrible sadness that we felt at the stories we had heard. For a while my dad just held my hand tight and stayed close to me. Eventually, he wandered off to where a group of children were playing in the dust. He stood there, silently watching them – and I knew he was feeling their pain and their loss deep in his own heart.

Hannah and Damien had been filming me speaking to the women, and Hannah said that they had to go off to do some more shots of the refugee camp itself. My mum, Sharan and I went to join the group of woman sitting nearby. Intesar was there with Khawa Ahmed, the lady who'd told me about losing all of her family in the raid. She had her head buried in her arms, her tear-stained face hidden from view.

"How is your life here, sisters?" I asked them. I didn't want to dwell on the horrors anymore.

"It's better here than Darfur," one of the ladies answered. "At least here we feel safe and secure. But there is trauma and suffering everywhere, as you've seen …"

We talked for a while longer, and then there was a call from the direction of the Land Rover. It was time to leave.

"You know that word 'Janjaweed'," Kuku remarked, as we drove away from the refugee camp. "It is two Arabic words joined together: the word for a special type of gun, plus the word for a horse. So, they are the 'horse gunmen'. It is the word they gave themselves, when they decided to do these things."

"Those people I talked to …" I began. "That little girl, Fatima, how can she ever recover? After what happened to her … Someone has to write a book telling their stories." I glanced at Damien. "Why don't you? Why don't you write a book telling Fatima's story?"

He looked at me, his eyes grey and hollow with exhaustion. "Because, to be honest, Mende, I don't know if I could handle the pain."

The drive back to the Hotel California was completed mostly in silence. Each of us wrestled with our own dark thoughts, each one of us tried to deal with the unspeakable horrors we had just witnessed.

Buy Freedom (Befreit)

Book Details

Published in German under the title Befreit (Freedom). Not availablre in English yet.