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.
Children scattered, screaming, as Martha and Nyamal took cover behind the school with some of the others—gunfire echoing from the village. Their mother and siblings and little cousin were somewhere in that distant clutter of huts and houses. But their teachers told them it wasn’t safe to go back. So Nyamal and Martha followed them away from the gunfire, out into the bush.
For days on end, they walked. Martha was just six years old then. She cried and tugged at her sister and eventually refused to go on. She wanted her mother. Nyamal told her their mother went ahead of them—they had to keep going to catch her.
This was the lie that kept Martha alive.
When she was too tired and slow and the others moved on without them, it was Nyamal’s lie that got her to stand and walk again. It was all that kept her on her feet for the month it took them to reach Juba—a city turned evacuation zone. It was what convinced her to follow Nyamal onto the truck, packed with starving bodies, bound for the border. And as they tumbled in the cargo hold for four endless days—the rough terrain shaking them against metal and bone—it was the lie that kept her looking to the road ahead.
They crossed the border and were placed in a refugee camp in Ethiopia. And it was there, somehow, that the lie came true.
After searching and speaking their names to anyone who would listen, their mother learned that the girls had been put onto a truck bound for that very camp. Their mother was there with their young sisters and the little cousin that Nyamal had carried away from the gunfire years before. They were together again. All of them. They had survived.
But it was not the last they saw of war.
When the violence died down, South Sudan had broken from the north to become its own nation. Martha, Nyamal, and their family returned to an infant country finding its way. Their mother trained to become a soldier for their new nation’s army and the girls enrolled in school.
“Being in 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.
She refused to go to class. If her mother forced her to go, Martha would get into fist fights with the other students until she was sent home.
“Don’t you want to go to school?” Nyamal asked. Martha shook her head. When Nyamal asked her why, Martha finally looked at her and said:
“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. All she could do was go to school herself, every day. And come back home smiling at the end of it.
Martha would ask Nyamal what she was smiling about, and Nyamal told her only that she’d have to come to school to find out.
After weeks of this, Martha, brimming with curiosity, started following her sister to class. At the end of the first day, Martha gave Nyamal an accusing look, telling her she didn’t see anything to smile about.
Nyamal shrugged, “I guess you didn’t see it yet. You’ll have to come back.”
So Martha did, again and again, finding a little more courage with each day. Until eventually, she completed primary school and told her mother she wanted to go to secondary. Their mother was thrilled.
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.
They would not see their mother again.
Once again, the girls made their way out of the country. This time, they would not return.
They were put in the Dadaab refugee camp in northeast Kenya. There, Nyamal started working for the UN as a counselor for victims of 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.
One night, three men came looking for her.
Martha awoke to a machete against her throat and harsh whispers asking for her sister. Martha told the men Nyamal was not there. It was the truth—she was away at a training course for her counseling work. The men faltered. Martha’s young sisters were waking now, asking what was happening. One started to cry. Martha told them to go back to sleep. The men yelled at them to shut up. They grabbed Martha. “This is for your sister,” they told her before they pinned her to the ground and raped her.
It wasn’t until she returned days later that Nyamal discovered what had happened. She knew 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, Nyamal 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 fear. She refused to go to the doctor. She was afraid she had been infected with HIV.
She was afraid to learn it was true.
Nyamal 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.
The morning after they discovered this, Martha watched Nyamal leave the house, just as she had every other day—to sell things in the market and bring home food for her and their sisters. And at the end of that day, despite everything, Nyamal gave Martha a smile when she walked back in the door.
It reminded Martha of Nyamal’s smile all those years ago, when the older sister coaxed the younger to school.
Martha had thought back then it was another of her lies—and maybe it was, even now. It was the most difficult lie she could tell. It was courage in the face of fear. It was hope in the face of uncertainty. This was the lie she told as they wandered across Sudan.
And Martha knew all too well, Nyamal’s lies were the kind that come true.
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.”
Nyamal has a full scholarship to university, studying journalism in order to become a force for truth in her part of the world. And Martha hopes to once again follow in her footsteps. Her dream is to study law to help bring justice to those who cannot fight for it themselves. 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.
Support our work today, and help make that dream, and that hope, come true.