They were at school when the war came.
Nyamal was old enough to remember the last time the soldiers attacked their village—barging into their home in the night and killing their father as the family lay in bed. But her sister Martha was just a baby then. She had no memory of fleeing with their mother that night. No memory of their aunt, who died from wounds as they walked through the darkness, leaving her 8-month-old child in Nyamal’s arms. No memory of the journey that led them to this life. But this time, Martha would remember.
She ran without knowing where she was going, the other students clambering and screaming around her. Older boys trampling over the small and slow. She burst into the daylight with the others, everyone scattering. But a hand grabbed her. It was her sister, Nyamal.
Nyamal pulled her back toward the school, where a few remaining teachers and students huddled in safety behind the buildings. They peered back at the village. Gunfire echoing from the clutter of huts and houses. Their mother and siblings and little cousin were in one of those houses. But the teachers told them it wasn’t safe to go back. So Nyamal and Martha followed the teachers away from the gunfire, out into the bush.
For days and nights on end, they walked. Martha was slower than the others. At 6 years old, she was the youngest. Nyamal was 11. Nyamal tried to keep Martha from falling back, but the young girl dragged her feet, exhausted and weeping, crying for their mother.
“Mom went ahead of us,” Nyamal lied.
“She’ll meet us up ahead. We have to keep walking.” It was the only way to keep Martha moving.
When Martha was too tired to go on, Nyamal watched the other students and teachers continue off without them.
But still, the girls had each other.
Nyamal looked for others to walk with, knowing the roads were not safe for them alone. She heard that bandits were attacking travelers along the road, stealing women and girls.
But Nyamal did not have to search far for others. Refugees clustered on the outskirts of nearly every town and village. There seemed to be an endless stream of wandering souls, just like them, fleeing bloodshed and the ashes of their homes, searching for food and water and peace.
They were all headed for Juba. Word had spread that there was aid there. In Juba, they could find transport to safety beyond the border.
“Is that where mom is?” Martha asked. “Yes,” Nyamal would say. “We have to keep walking.”
It took them a month on foot, but Nyamal and Martha finally made it to Juba. A city turned refugee camp, overrun with starving bodies.
“Where is she?” Martha said. “She isn’t here! Where is she?”
“She went on ahead, across the border. We have to keep going.”
Trucks would come and shuttle people away to the border every day. But for every refugee escorted out, ten more would arrive, battered and hungry. For two weeks more, Nyamal and Martha waited for their turn to leave.
Then at last, they were loaded onto a truck—packed limb against limb, with scarcely room to move—and carted off. They rattled over rough terrain for four days straight, their bodies tumbling in the truck bed, striking against metal and bone. People got sick and vomited. Nyamal got sick and vomited. It was the first vehicle she’d ridden on, the movement foreign and relentless. When the truck stopped, the crowd would straighten and stagger out onto the dry earth and relieve themselves. When the truck did not stop, they’d urinate where they sat.
When they finally made it across the border into Kenya, the girls were unloaded into the clamor of foreign tongues. It was a refugee camp in Lokichogio, crowded with people from tribes all across South Sudan. Nyamal held Martha close, the two of them swept into that sea of strange faces, speaking strange words. She saw Martha looking across the crowd. She expected to hear that familiar question but Martha said nothing.
This is where the questions stopped. Martha didn’t want to hear another story of where they had to go next. She was tired of moving, tired of hoping.
But it was here that Nyamal’s lies came true.
Every day for the next five months, Nyamal and Martha would come watch the trucks arrive, unloading another group of refugees. Until one day, as if all of those false promises were solidifying in front of their eyes, their mother stepped off one of the trucks—and with her, their young siblings and the little cousin that Nyamal had carried during their first flight from war.
Their mother had been searching for them for seven months. She had made her way to Juba and learned there that Nyamal and Martha had been taken to the camp in Lokichogio. And now there she stood before them.
Nyamal couldn’t believe her eyes.
She rushed into her mother’s arms, both of them weeping. But when their mother turned to Martha, the young girl ran away. Their mother went after Martha, calling her name, but Martha fled, crying, “You left us! You left us!”
It was Nyamal who found Martha, hiding among the tents.
“She was looking for us,” Nyamal said. “All this time, she was trying to find you.”
“You said she went ahead of us. You lied to me. You’re a liar!”
“Yes. I’m a liar.” Nyamal said. “But I’m not lying to you now. She came all this way to see you.”
Martha listened. She thought a moment. “Does this mean we can go home now?”
Nyamal went quiet. She wanted to tell her yes. She wanted to speak the war out of existence. She wanted to tell her little sister everything she wanted to hear. But finally she said, “We have our home. It’s us. It’s you and me. It’s mother and our sisters. That is our home.”
Martha was still, staring at the ground.
After a silence, she asked the same question she’d been asking since they started walking.
“She’s right where we left her.” Nyamal said. “She’s waiting for you. Ok?”
Martha nodded. She stood up and took her sister’s hand, then walked with her once more toward the promises ahead.
We wish we could tell you this was the end of their story. We wish we could say the reunited family now lives together in peace. But this is not the end. And this was not the last the girls saw of war.