For Woman in Sudan, No Escape From Misery

Mary Nyekueh Ley

Mary Nyekueh Ley has a quick way of summing up her life. “My life’s a curse,” she said. Her first husband was wounded in battle and died in her arms. Her second husband beat her. Two of her children perished from one of the most curable diseases — diarrhea.

And now she is a southerner in a northern land, a conspicuous dark-skinned outsider, with traditional swirling scars all over her face, trying to raise two sons and two daughters. Worse still, the only marketable skill she has is cooking up homebrewed alcohol, a serious crime in Islamist Sudan that has landed her in jail more than 10 times and earned her dozens of lashes.

“See,” she said, pointing to the ribbons of shiny white scars up and down her shins. “The police.”

Mrs. Ley’s situation is extreme, no doubt. But it is not unique. Hundreds of thousands of Southern Sudanese who have spent most of their lives in the north now find themselves straddling two worlds, their lives upended by a tumultuous border that recently split the country in half.

In July, after decades of an underdog guerrilla struggle, South Sudan broke off from Sudan and formed its own nation. Most Southern Sudanese were ecstatic. The partying in Juba, South Sudan’s capital, did not stop for days.

But for southerners living north of the border, like Mrs. Ley, whose stooped back and cracked, calloused hands tell their own story of suffering and toil, the south’s joyous independence compounded their misery.

Because of the enmity between Sudan and South Sudan — the two have been massing troops on the border, bracing for another major conflict that could ripple across this entire region — there will not be any dual citizenship for southerners living in the north, and it is not clear what the status will be for northerners living in the south.

The Sudanese government says it is going to strip all southerners of their citizenship starting in April. If they want to remain in Sudan, they must apply for a visa, work permit, residency papers and the like, all of which will be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to get for impoverished, illiterate people like Mrs. Ley who often have no documents showing when or where they were born. She thinks she is around 45 years old.

Even if someone was born in the north, like Mrs. Ley’s 9-year-old son, Georgie, the restrictions are the same. If the person belongs to an ethnic group that is from the south — including Mrs. Ley’s, the Nuer — then that person is considered a southerner.

Facing all this, more than 350,000 southerners have recently relocated, by bus and by barge, from the north to the south, part of a huge migration facilitated by the United Nations and the South Sudanese government. Many others are in line to go.

“I’m just waiting for my pension papers,” said Palegido Malong, an elderly southern man who worked as a guard at a government hospital in Khartoum, Sudan’s capital. “I’ll die where I’m supposed to die.”

And as Mrs. Ley soon discovered, a lot of people are dying in the south right now.

It was around December 2010 — Mrs. Ley says with a laugh that she is not strong on dates — that she and her children boarded a bus back to her ancestral home, a place called Mankien, just south of the north-south border. She said she was excited to participate in the south’s referendum for independence, held in January 2011, and was all set to move back with her people.

But one morning, a rogue militia stormed into Mankien, part of a wave of communal violence and insurrections that recently have been sweeping the south. Southern Sudanese soldiers rushed to confront them. The fighting raged for two days, and when Mrs. Ley emerged from her house, she said, she had to step over dozens of bodies in the grass — men, boys, girls.

“We were all about to be killed,” she said.

She was also disturbed by the lack of development in the south — and it is not as if she were ensconced in modernity here in Omdurman, which is just across the Nile from Khartoum. She lives in a mud-walled house with paper pictures of Jesus taped above the bed. But in Mankien, there are no paved roads or electricity, few wells and few schools. South Sudan is one of the poorest countries on earth, where 83 percent of the population lives in thatched-roofed huts and a 15-year-old girl has a better chance of dying in childbirth than of finishing school.

A few months after arriving in Mankien, Mrs. Ley and her children decided to take a bus back to Omdurman, choosing the lesser of two evils.

They did not receive a warm welcome. Her 14-year-old daughter, Nyapay, said her toes were crunched in the market one day by an Arab man who intentionally stepped on them. Mrs. Ley said people kept giving her nasty looks and saying things like, “Why are you still here if you have separated?” She had always felt like a second-class citizen in the north. Now, it was official.

Mrs. Ley struggles to feed her children anything beyond wal wal, a tasteless dish of sorghum and water. She does not have any relatives nearby who can help. Her first husband, a tall, skinny man named Walkat, was a guerrilla fighter, and when he was killed, she was handed over to Walkat’s brother, who regularly beat her children and punched her in the face.

She fled to Khartoum about 20 years ago and has been brewing and selling illegal alcohol ever since.

“It’s all I know how to do,” Mrs. Ley said, as she stared listlessly at the tools of her trade — a big blue plastic jug and a set of dented plastic soda bottles.

She once spent six months in prison and cannot count all the times the police have whipped her with leather straps, as dictated by Sudanese Islamic law.

Mrs. Ley adores her children, and on a recent afternoon, she poured Georgie a cool glass of water and beamed at him as he tipped it back. But her eyes dropped straight to the dirt floor when the subject of school fees came up.

“I’m out,” she said.