On May 27, 1999, Victoria Ajang, a native of Sudan, testified before the Subcommittee on International Operations and Human Rights of the Committee on International Relations in the U.S. House of Representatives about the two times she narrowly escaped enslavement. Born in 1966, Ms. Ajang is currently a resident of Kansas City, Missouri, where she serves as a regional director of the American Anti-Slavery Group.
My name is Victoria Ajang, and I am from southern Sudan. Thank you for inviting me to testify before you today. I have come to talk about my own painful firsthand experiences in Sudan. But I have also come to speak for all of my family and my people, who—as we sit here—continue to face the horrors I twice survived and escaped.
As you will hear, I have been running with my family ever since my village was attacked in 1983. But here in Congress I know that I am in a safe place, and can speak in peace.
The First Raid
I was born and grew up in the southern Sudanese city of Wau. After attending high school in the town of Juba, I returned to Wau, where I married Mathok Geng.
In 1983, shortly after Mathok and I had our first child, the government announced a new policy to ship oil from southern oil fields to the north. People felt that the government was stealing our resources. Some schoolchildren reacted particularly strongly to this, and even marched in protest through the town. The government was very upset and decided to respond.
On a summer night, around 9:30, government militia forces suddenly swooped in on our village. We were all at home relaxing in the evening when men on horses with machine guns stormed through, shooting men, women, and children. With no guns to defend against soldiers armed with rifles, we ran out of the village. As the soldiers chased after us, I saw friends fall dead in front of me.
While my husband carried our little daughter, Eva, I ran with the few possessions I could grab. All around us, we saw children being shot—in the stomach, in the leg, between the eyes. Against the dark sky, we saw flames from the houses and building the soldiers had set on fire. The cries of the people forced inside filled our ears as they burned to death. Our people were being turned into ash.
At the edge of town was a river, and those of us who made it jumped in to reach the other side. But not everyone knew how to swim. While soldiers fired shots at us in the water, I watched those villagers who could not swim get washed away and drown in the current of the dark waters.
As some went under, they shouted out to me: "Bye-bye, Victoria. We'll meet soon in heaven." Their voices were resigned in death. "See you shortly," they were saying. "You too will die soon." These were the last words of a people who—because of the circumstances in which they live—expect that they may die at any moment.
Though my family and I reached the other side of the river, I also had no thought for the future. I was scared, and I kept asking myself: "How am I still alive? Why me?"
The Second Raid
After the raid, my family and I lived in a refugee camp in a nearby village until 1987. My husband and I helped to establish a school and feeding center. But the Sudanese military made it a point to bomb these social centers. Any schools or hospitals built in southern Sudan are favorite targets of the government forces. By destroying our infrastructure, they disrupt our lives and force us to become displaced.
It is also very difficult for the children. My daughter Eva saw her friend killed in a classroom by shelling. As a result of all this violence, we were constantly forced to move, always running from the threat of an army attack. In 1990, our family settled in Kaputa, a liberated area. We hoped that peace would come at last in our new home.
It did not.
It was a Sunday evening, the 25th of July 1992. At the time, I was pregnant with my fourth child. After the Sunday service, we gathered on the church grounds for singing and drumming. Despite the hard times, we sang and danced and celebrated life.
But then suddenly armed forces and government militias attacked. "Oh, no!" I thought. "It is all happening again." There was fire, looting, and gunshots. The soldiers tore through on horseback, shouting in Arabic: "Allah Akbar! God is great!"
This time it was impossible to grab anything, except the hands of my children. Everyone was running, trying to escape the bullets and the raiders. All around me, my children and I saw people who had been singing and dancing just minutes earlier, now lying dead on the grounds of the church.
Unlike in the raid in 1983, my husband Mathok and I could not run off together. I fled with my three children in one direction, toward the road that leads to Kenya. My husband, separated from us in the confusion, had to run off in another direction. I have never seen or heard from him again.
All around me I had seen my friends and neighbors abducted into slavery.
My aunt, Laual, aged 45, was dragged off by soldiers, along with her three grandchildren: Deng, a boy aged nine, Ring, his seven-year-old brother, and Laual, their four-year-old sister. I know that my aunt died shortly after the raid, after being repeatedly raped by the soldiers. I know this because her grandchildren not only saw her die, but also witnessed her rape.
I have heard that the children are still alive. They have been separated, and sold to different masters in the North. They have been indoctrinated to be Muslims. The boys have been forcibly trained to become government fighters—to join the regime's forces in raids against their own people. This is the plan of the fundamentalist regime: "Use the black to kill the black." Laual, their sister, has been enslaved and is most likely a concubine to her master.
My neighbor, Batul Adam, was captured as well. Her beautiful daughters were taken captive and given to northern masters. What has happened to these children who once lived next-door to me is typical. Arab raiders grab them and tie their legs to horses, and then ride hundreds of miles to the north. The children get deep wounds that will never heal. Some wounds are fatal.
There is a powerful ideology that drives these slave raids. In the government's mentality, all blacks are ‘abds, or slaves. Whether Christian, Muslim, or animist, we should be slaves forever. We are an inferior being who must submit or be killed.
My three children and I made it out of the village. In five minutes, our lives had been changed forever. We huddled in the brush, and we kept crying and crying in the dark. But finally I had to open my eyes and pull myself together. I had to protect my children.
We knew that even though we had escaped the village, there were still soldiers coming after us, hunting us down. The militia men are not paid. We were their rightful booty, their reward for serving the government. We heard them following us through the jungle, as they tracked our footprints in the mud.
This began a three-month attempt to reach Kenya. My young children and I had no clothing, no food, and no bedding. For ninety days we were surrounded by wild animals: snakes, lions, hyenas, and more. When we found rainwater, we would drink it with our hands. Our food was the few fruits and berries I could find. Hugging my children together around me, we would fall asleep at night crying.
Eventually we made it to the Kenyan border. Because I was pregnant, the UNHCR [United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees] officials there put me in a hospital and my children in a school. A few years after I gave birth to my fourth child, David, we were told that the UNHCR wanted to resettle us as refugees in Australia or England.
But I said no. I insisted that we should go to America. I had only heard of America, but in my mind I imagined a place where my children and I could be free. A place where I could tell the story of what happened to my people. A place where people would hear and respond.
In 1995, we flew to Chicago, and soon settled in Kansas City, where there are many other Sudanese exiles.
I am here by myself, with only my children. Today, Eva is 15, Abram is 13, Peter is 12, and David is 6.
One of my sisters who remained behind in Wau was abducted with her children in a recent slave raid. Her husband, my brother-in-law, was killed.
All my family remains in the targeted area in Sudan, including my mother and father. I pray that I might see them again. But every time the phone rings, I fear that it is someone calling with bad news about my parents.
You see, I live in two worlds. I may be here in Washington, but in my mind I dream about home. I see the bones of starved people, who do not even have the energy to bury the dead around them. I see the dead in the river and hear them saying good-bye. I see the children carried off by the government raiders to be slaves. I may be driving in my car to work in Kansas City, but this is what I see.
I often ask myself why I escaped. What is my life? Where is my real freedom? In the end, it is always my kids and the hope for their future that keeps me going. I hope that their future will not be like their childhood; that they will know only peace.
My heart is broken, but I still keep hope that people will fight for those who are left, and in memory of those innocents who have been killed. I tell you today that I am ready to speak with the President and his advisors. I need their help—and your help—to get my husband back. To save my parents and siblings, whose life is at risk every day. To protect my people.
I want to be with my people again soon. I want to go home. Please help me and my family and my people go home in peace.