The penlight hanging from the lanyard around my neck bounces against my stomach as I walk, casting a faint orb of light forward and back, forward and back across the dark courtyard of Yei Children’s Village. I take careful steps, bottle of water in one hand and toothbrush in the other. The ground is wet from the rain earlier in the evening, and makes a soft suction noise when I walk, as if the ground is protesting with each step of my flip-flops.
All of the kids are in bed and the lights are turned out- after all, it is past 11 o’clock already- but three young men sit across the courtyard, conversing softly in familiar tones around a dying fire. They are 17, 22, and 24 years old and came earlier this year to live at the children’s center from the Nuba Mountains.
Why did they come here? To get a chance to study.
Why couldn’t they study in Nuba? The war.
“Musaal kher,” one of them calls to me.
“Musaal noor,” I reply to their greeting, as best I can with toothpaste and brush in my mouth.
Turning back across the yard, I find the ditch where I spit out a mouth of toothpaste. The ditch probably began with one bucket of dishwater being dumped, and has now become like a little river across the yard, carrying the water from washing dishes, bathing, laundry and, yes, even my toothpaste downhill, through a little gap in the bamboo fence, and into the green overgrowth between our compound and that of our neighbors.
As I stand up straight, having rinsed my mouth and toothbrush, the sky, just near the horizon, lights up brilliantly, illuminating mountains of cloud that were otherwise invisible. My mind knows this is just an electrical storm, but my imagination goes on a journey.
I’m swept back six years in time to a town at the foot of the Nuba Mountains. It is night, and I am a child crouching in the doorway of a small house, listening in on the quiet evening conversation of my father, uncle, and older brothers. They are talking in hushed tones about things that I do not understand, and yet, I am keenly aware that this discussion is serious. They speak of the war. Although our rebel forces have bravely resisted the northern army, the attacks have been relentless.
Father bends his torso nearly horizontally over his long legs as he warms his hands near the coals, his strong back filling the worn military fatigues. The flames from the fire cast dancing shadows on the faces of my brothers. They want to be men, like father and uncle, but they still wear the fearful eyes of boys.
Just then, the sky lights up, surprising me and rocking my perch on the balls of my feet. The flash reveals a mountain of clouds, a sight that would thrill many. Not me. My little body begins to tremble as the sound of mortar fire reaches my ears. I hear uncle call out, “Go to the caves! Take the children to the caves!” He pats the handgun at his waist and nods toward my brothers. We all force ourselves to move despite the terror. Women and children to the caves. I know this drill well.
I am young, yes, but I understand that our rebel forces have very few supplies and no way to propel an extended onslaught, so I let my gaze linger a little longer on my father as he straps his gun over his shoulder and hurries off to join the other men. Will they return?
Shaking my head, I come back to the present. A new burst of lightning calls to a distant rumble of thunder. I pause, taking a brief moment to appreciate the beauty of the electrical storm.
I wish the boys pleasant sleep. Then, toothbrush and bottle in tow, I gingerly cross the courtyard, returning to my tent.