Martha's Story

Surviving war and the battles beyond it
 

“School can change your life.”

The war ended. South Sudan had broken from Sudan to become its own nation. And Nyamal and Martha’s family went home.

They ended up in Juba, where their mother trained to become a soldier for their new country and the girls enrolled in school. “School can change your life,” their mother told them. Nyamal took those words to heart and poured herself into her studies. But Martha was a different story.

At school, Martha would lash out and get into fights with the other children. And more often than not, she wouldn’t go at all. Her mother scolded her and tried to force her to go, but Martha would run and hide and throw fits.

“Don’t you want to go to school?” Nyamal asked her. Martha shook her head. “Why not?” said Nyamal.

“What if we can’t come back?”

They were at school when the last war broke out. To Martha, school was still that place—where your mother could be taken from you, where the whole world could turn over.

Nyamal could not promise her it wouldn’t happen again. But she said to her:

“We can't live in fear of what might be. We have to live for what could.”

Martha summoned the courage to start following Nyamal to class. And every time she did, the day ended with them walking back together, to home and family and peace. She started to go more and more. Until eventually, Martha completed primary school and told her mother she wanted to go to secondary.

But this time, the world would turn over in the night.

A soldier herself now, their mother was stationed in the local prison that night. And the girls awoke alone to the gunfire outside. Their neighbor, a pastor, helped the girls escape, and Nyamal and Martha took their sisters and fled.

The president of South Sudan had declared war on the ethnic tribe of his political rival. Nyamal and Martha and their family belonged to the rival’s tribe. This meant their mother was a soldier in an army that was now hunting her and her people.

The girls would not see their mother again.

They made their way to the United Nations Mission in South Sudan, where they had heard that UN soldiers were guarding refugees from the ethnic violence. But the girls arrived to the rattle of machine guns at the entrance. The president’s forces were firing at refugees as they tried to enter the mission, and the UN feared that any engagement would spark an international incident. So the guards did not fire back. And the girls had to run unprotected through the gunfire to the mission gates.

But even inside, the chainlink walls around the encampment were no protection from the bullets. Nearly every day, the girls and the other refugees endured sporadic gunfire from the hills surrounding the mission. The refugees inside would all scatter and drop low to the ground when they heard it starting up again. Here and there, bullets would strike bodies and leave them motionless in the dirt. For an entire month, this was their life.

At last, they were escorted out of the mission and out of the country. They were put in the Dadaab refugee camp in northeast Kenya. There, they had a tent to themselves where Nyamal, Martha, and their sisters could sleep through the night without waking to gunfire and screams.

At the camp, Nyamal started working for the UN as a counselor for victims of SGBV (sexual and gender based violence). Her whole life, Nyamal had seen in her mother what it meant to be a strong woman. She herself had been looking after her sisters and the other young girls in her family before she was big enough to hold them. She wanted to do the same for other young women, for those who did not have someone to look after them, to protect them.

Nyamal and other counselors would receive word of an incident in the camp—a husband abusing his wife, a father abusing his daughter, a rape. Each counselor would then set out alone to find the woman or girl, document the incident, and bring her to medical help and safety. It was difficult work, and Nyamal could feel a rising tide of animosity around her—from the abusive husbands and fathers, from men offended by a woman interfering in their affairs. They’d threaten her, throw stones at her as she passed. She reported this to her superiors at the UN, who gave her a bicycle so she could escape the dangers more quickly. She started wearing a hijab to be less conspicuous in the Islamic areas, where people would curse her exposed face. But she could not outrun or hide from the anger swelling around her.

One night, three men came looking for her.

Martha awoke to a machete on her throat and harsh whispers demanding to know where Nyamal was. Martha told the men her sister was not there. It was the truth—Nyamal was away at a training course for her counseling work. The men looked at each other. Martha’s younger sisters were waking now, one asking Martha what was happening. Martha told the girls to go back to sleep.

The men demanded Martha give them their ration cards—a currency in the refugee camp, the only way to get food. Martha told them they didn’t have any. The men called her a liar. Then they pinned Martha to the ground and raped her.

Nyamal returned days later to find their youngest sisters fetching water as Martha sat silent in the tent. Martha had not seen daylight in two days. After the encounter, people in the camp treated her like a pariah. Friends would not speak to her. Neighbors cursed at her. Rumor had spread that she had seduced the three men. That she was now infected with HIV—a fear that Martha herself shared.

Nyamal decided she needed to get the girls out of the camp immediately. She needed to get Martha medical help. It wasn’t safe for any of them there.

Through her connections at the UN, she managed to locate an apartment they could move to in Nairobi. As soon as she could, she gathered Martha and the girls and fled the camp.

But still Martha was overcome with shame and dread. She refused to go to the doctor, worried the tests would only confirm her fears. Nyamal was scared too. She felt helpless. She had counseled many rape victims through her work, but this was her sister. It was painful to face the reality of what happened. But the reality became all too clear as Martha’s belly grew. She was pregnant.

Martha felt no love for the child inside her. But perhaps somewhere in her was a mother nonetheless, because it was then, with more than her own life at stake, that Nyamal’s words echoed in her mind:

“We can't live in fear of what might be. We have to live for what could.”

 
 

Martha got tested and discovered she does not have HIV. Today, she and Nyamal live together in Nairobi with their sisters and her healthy newborn boy, Bahati—meaning “luck.”

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Martha dreams of one day becoming a lawyer and helping to bring justice to those who cannot fight for it themselves. But money is scarce. She cannot afford to go to school or even eat regular meals. The girls often go days at a time without any food. But what Martha does have now is fearlessness. She learned this from Nyamal and a lifetime of surviving. The girls have forged their own business, making peanut butter and honey, and Martha often heads alone to the market to sell and trade it. She looks after her son and her younger sisters, feeding them when she can and helping distract them from their own hunger when she can’t. She has chosen a school close by where she will continue her studies without knowing when that day will come.

With your help, that day will come soon. Our education program provides scholarships for refugees, like Martha and her sisters, who have been displaced by the violence in Sudan. Together, we can help her follow her dream and bring that hope that kept her walking when she thought of what life could be.