Samuel Manhom: How I survived war, famine and crocodiles

By Mikaela Turner

Samuel Manhom was born in the wrong place at the wrong time – but it took a few years for that to become apparent.

Back in 1979, Rumbek in South Sudan was a peaceful place. Four years later, however, the first shots were fired in a civil war that would last 22 years. Two million lives would be lost as a country ate itself alive.

In 1989, aged just 10, Samuel set out to find his father, who had joined the rebel army several years earlier. That trek would take him all the way to a hospital in neighbouring Ethiopia – a two-month journey through a war-torn country. Samuel, remember, was just 10 – and travelling alone.

“There was no protection, wild animals attacked us and hostile tribes fought and abducted children,” Samuel says.

But the journey was worth it. Samuel found his father recovering from a gunshot wound to the stomach.

The reunion was short lived, however. Samuel was taken to an Ethiopian refugee camp full of South Sudanese children and teenagers. He didn’t know it then, but he had unwillingly become a “Lost Boy” – one of 20,000 “Lost Boys of Sudan”.

In 1991, the Mengistu regime fell and the new Ethiopian government turned on the Lost Boys, driving them back into their homeland at gun point. Worse was to come. North Sudan joined the fight, leaving the Lost Boys with two enemy armies to evade.

To return to South Sudan, the Lost Boys had to cross a crocodile-infested river. It was either that or be shot on the riverbank. Thousands died trying to get to the other side.

“We were being shot from behind, lots of Lost Boys drowned and the crocodiles feasted,” Samuel says.

Against all odds, Samuel made it back to South Sudan, but wound up in a remote forest with no food, water, medicine or shelter – and a persistent Northern militia on his tail.

The Lost Boys settled in a place called Pochalla, close to the Ethiopian border. It was at this point The Lost Boys’ plight caught international attention, resulting in planeloads of much-needed medicines, food and water being sent.

The only problem was there was no airstrip for the planes to land, so they would drop the large parcels from the sky. Some of the parcels would fall on the boys they were intended to help, crushing them in an instant.

“Everyone just scrambled, it was chaos, but you had to run (for the parcels),” Samuel says. “You grabbed what you could get your hands on and ran away with it.”

Eventually an airstrip was constructed so the planes could land, deliver the parcels and collect severely sick or wounded Lost Boys and take them to Kenya. Many succumbed to starvation or disease while waiting, however.

As devastating as malnourishment and disease were, they were secondary threats compared with the North Sudanese militia. One attack was so intense the group was forced to flee to Kenya – a precarious three-month journey. Yes, by foot.

Samuel well remembers the harrowing journey. “Everyone was very thin, we barely had any food,” he says.

“There was so much fear, people were shooting at us night and day. We were just children. Many of us made it, but still thousands didn’t.

“It’s life or death, you see another day and you thank God for it. Either you get killed from the attacks, you starve or you get sick and die from disease.”

Eventually the troupe arrived in Northern Kenya where they were greeted with … nothing. No houses, no toilets, no civilisation – just jungle. They set up a camp called Kakuma Refugee Camp, which is still in use today.

Finally they were safe, yet the chaos continued. Fights constantly broke out in queues for drinking water.

Queueing for the toilet, a long dug-out latrine, was not much better. Slowly, however, conditions improved. Mud houses were built and food became more constant, distributed every two weeks. It wasn’t enough to relieve the hunger pains, however.

“You ate once a day and often still ran out of food before two weeks was up,” Samuel says. “No breakfast, no lunch, if you’re lucky, dinner.”

For the next 12 years this camp was Samuel’s home, but he wasn’t meant to stay there that long. In 1999, he was promised a new life in the United States and, the following year, a plane arrived, but Samuel’s name wasn’t on the list.

Then after the 9/11 terror attack in 2001 the US government retracted the invitation and Canada and Australia became Samuel’s only hope of escape.

In 2004, Samuel finally found a haven in Australia.

“It was very joyful to be accepted,” he says.

Samuel spoke no English and had little education, but was determined to make a new life.

He studied English at night while working in a caravan factory during the day. He went on to study financial services, gaining his diploma and subsequently being accepted into university. In 2010, he graduated from Victoria University with a double-degree in accounting, banking and finance and, in 2012, a Master of Business.

In the meantime he became acquainted with the Rotary Club of Manningham, which sponsored a return visit to South Sudan in 2011, allowing Samuel to see his mother for the first time in 19 years.

“I had to be introduced to my own mother,” he says. “It was very emotional, there were a lot of tears,” he says.

Since then, Samuel has been back several times, getting married and starting a family in Kenya. He has two sons, aged one and three, who live in Kenya with his wife.

Samuel hopes they will join him in Australia once his wife’s visa is approved.

Samuel spoke at Building Bridges Through Story, an event celebrating diversity conducted by Manningham Uniting Church, on 12 October 2019.

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