Kenyan detained in South Sudan for three years tells his harrowing story
One morning, early 2011, my village friend John and four others I had known since childhood arrived home from South Sudan in style after a short stint in the war-torn country.
He was rich or so it seemed. In fact as a form of greeting, he gave me and anybody else he greeted a Sh200 note, saying “Enda kunywa chai mtu wangu (Go drink tea, my friend).”
This made me feel mocked and small, having passed so highly and gotten admission to JKUAT.
I realised that despite my academic achievement, I was no longer the hero in the village; he was.
John’s tales of earning thousands from the jobs pushed me to taking a trip to Juba on January 17, 2011, while on holiday.
My intention was to make money for a few months and return before the opening date; I wanted to return a rich 22-year-old.
Being green and new in the field, I was taught the tactics of survival, but realised life there was not as rosy as I had thought.
One needed to be very courageous and have the will to survive. The first job I got was as a gardener; I would slash and weed flower beds in homes.
I earned at least 40 South Sudanese pounds, equivalent to about Sh700, which I thought was a good start.
I later moved on to washing cars, blackmarket forex trade and pimping out rich Kenyan women, whose interests included government officials.
This was the best job you could land as a man; identifying rich men and setting up meetings with our girls in the name of business proposals.
The girls would then lure them the other way, and the proceeds in thousands of pounds would then be shared.
I returned to odd jobs four months later, but they were scarce, as the government had called for the prioritisation of citizens in employment amid preparations for independence day celebrations.
I decided to return to Kenya but did not have sufficient bus fare as I had sent all the money I made as a pimp to my family.
I made up my mind to trek to Tongpiny in Juba town where I fell asleep under a tree as I was hungry and tired after an unsuccessful job search.
I was woken up by kicks and shouts from about 20 uniformed police officers saying; “Asma…, Asma…, ita kwes?” in Arabic, meaning ”How are you?”
An officer told me; “Taal ita Waaraka (show me your immigration documents)”, upon noticing I was not a national.
My three-month visa had expired and I neither spoke Arabic nor Dinka, the other language the officers understood.
Since we could not communicate, the officers manhandled me to a standby police truck and I was taken to Tongpiny police cells.
The next morning we were taken to Juba Central Prison remand cells. They did not charge me with anything because we could not communicate.
Twelve people crowded every cell, of about 2 by 2 square metres, and we were chained to each other, with padlocks fastening shackles around our legs.
I remained standing as there was not enough space to sit, and there was stool and urine on the floor, but eventually sat down and cried myself to sleep.
The next day at 10 am, an officer came with 12 long dry buns that were our meal.
He then called out names of seven people in my cell, majority of whom were Ugandan – they had bought their freedom by giving the wardens 300-pound bribes.
I was left in the cell alongside another Kenyan, whom I was not allowed to see, a Congolese and two Ugandans, and remained there for more than two weeks, pending arraignment in court.
We were later moved to bigger cells with better conditions, but were asked to wait until after the independence day celebrations, which were two months away, for further action.
As time passed by, more people were released by having their friends and families bribe officers. Others went to the extent of offering to have sex with the officers to secure their release.
I ended up alone in a cell as only prisoners who offered bribes were given audience; many others died of malaria, cholera and cold-related illnesses.
I starved, ate and drank human waste, swallowed small stones, covered my nose with polythene bags with the intention of suffocating myself, but I still could not take my life.
I was later moved to a different cell with a Ugandan man of about 60. Kigaazi was calm and wise, and gave me a lot of advice.
After recovering from my suicide attempts, he told me; ‘You have a bright future, all this will end one day,’. I remember those words every day.
Realising prayers and suicide attempts would not work, I decided to be creative and apply my chemistry and engineering skills to escape.
I urinated on the padlock daily in a bid to make it rust, and later decided to keep it soaked in a plastic bag filled with the waste; it took six months for the padlock to rust completely.
I woke up one morning and decided to try unlocking the completely rusted padlock and to my relief, it opened. It was at this instance that I prayed for the very first time in months.
I then started drawing plans to escape the prison.
Sadly, I did not know the area; all I could see were the grilled door and the heavily armed wardens, who would open it once a day to throw us either buns or semi-cooked rice.
After picturing all manner of scenarios, including a blast and a gunfight, I was freed in March 2014, when a warden walked into the prison, read from a piece of paper in Arabic and left.
Nine others were unchained after which we were all pushed out into the sun, whose rays caused my eyes pain but that did not matter as I was finally free.
Kigaazi and I went to River Nile, which was 500km away, to take a bath. We had not done this for two years and seven months.
We then went to Malakal, to the house of an old Sudanese man I had worked for as a groundsman.
He could barely recognise me, but after I told him who I was and what I had gone through, he sympathised with us and gave us 300 pounds.
That is the money I used as my bus fare back home, to family members and friends who had lost hope of seeing me again.
I am now working towards resuming my studies as I was discontinued for being absent without notice.