Rolling Stone: Out of Africa

GABRIEL KUOL CUTS A STRIKING FIGURE as he walks amid a group of Hasidic Jews in downtown Jerusalem. He has the compact, muscular build of an athlete. A thin, chinstrap beard frames his angular face, and a scar in the shape of a river delta marks his ebony forehead. As we sit in an upscale café, Kuol’s presence invites the scrutiny of onlookers: Most people here are unaccustomed to seeing an African asylum-seeker sipping a cappuccino among them.

The Israeli government has labeled Kuol – and thousands of other Africans – an “infiltrator” and a “demographic threat” to the Jewish character of the state. In a few weeks he will likely be deported.

Kuol’s amicable personality and easy way of talking are at odds with his extraordinary life of hardship and misfortune. He was born in 1983, just as his own father and uncle were plotting a rebellion in South Sudan – as part of a cadre of military officers – that would last more than 22 years and leave millions dead or displaced.

Today, South Sudan is the world’s newest country – it became an independent state last July – and Kuol is one of hundreds of South Sudanese asylum-seekers living in exile in Israel.

Kuol was born in the city of Juba – now South Sudan’s capital – to a family from the prominent Dinga tribe. At the age of five he moved to his ancestral village of Bor. In 1989, Omar Al Bashir – then a colonel in the military and now Sudan’s president – took over the central government in a bloodless coup. He broke a ceasefire with the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) and by 1991 the civil war that Kuol’s paternal uncle John Garang De Mabior (the leader of the SPLA) launched had escalated dramatically. The government went to devastating lengths to crush the insurrection.

“We were chased away from our villages. We were always running from place to place,” says Kuol. “After we left Bor we were in the forest every day. We would hear the bombs. Our camps would be attacked. At night they would go on attacks and just kill.”

When Kuol was 16, his father was killed in a helicopter crash and the teenager decided it was time to pick up a gun of his own. “At the time there was always a hole in my shirt right here,” Kuol says, pointing to a spot just above his right hip, “from the Kalashnikov that never left my side.”

This ‘second’ Sudanese civil war – which pitted Sudan’s largely Christian and Animist south against a Muslim Arab north  – was, in all but name, a continuation of a conflict that first began in the Fifties as a result of a lethal mix of religious, ethnic, territorial and post-colonial strife.

After nearly three years on the run, Kuol and his comrades were captured in a military raid. Many were executed on the spot, according to Kuol. He was eventually taken to a prison camp in Khartoum, where he was routinely beaten and tortured.

“It was one of the most dangerous prisons in Khartoum. It was the prison where, if they put you there, your family forgets about you,” he says. “They beat me a lot. With sticks, with their hands.” He struggles to articulate the words. “Most of the time I was in prison, I didn’t think I would survive. But where I come from, you die hard. You don’t give up.”

In addition to the beatings, Kuol says he was often hog-tied and left on the dirt floor for an entire day. At one point, he says, he was put into solitary confinement – a hole in the ground – for three months, without seeing the sun.

Kuol has been told that – at the time – it seemed as though the abuse had had no effect on him; that he remained the same person. That is no longer true. “At the time I was very strong – physically I was weak, but my spirit was strong,” he says, stuttering over the words. He winces as he takes a sip of water, as if the memory causes him physical pain. “Now, these things are killing me.”

Kuol says that, nowadays, he is prone to sudden emotional breakdown. A lot of people who were in prison with him died – most as a result of torture. And outside the prison the war raged on, causing further death. Kuol’s mother and sister were both killed by a landmine explosion while he was locked up. The trauma that he was once able to block out in order to survive now torments him. “Anything small that goes wrong in my life makes me upset,” he says. “And it’s because of what I saw.”

In 2004, Kuol was shot while being tortured. He was taken to hospital. “I’m not sure why I was kept alive,” he says. Kuol told his story to a nurse who secretly tried to find him help. Eventually, a pastor at a local church convinced the authorities to allow Kuol to attend mass. When he arrived, the pastor gave Kuol 50 Sudanese dinars, a loaf of bread and some water. And Kuol ran.

Alone and on foot, Kuol fled north along the Nile for seven days until he reached the Egyptian city of Aswan. There he boarded a steamship to Cairo. He was a free man…

*The full version of this article was originally published in Rolling Stone magazine…

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