With the recent social media push to make Joseph Kony famous (prompted by Invisible Children in an attempt to bring down the head of the Lord’s Resistance Army) I wanted to share with you a piece I wrote in 2006 about my friend’s life growing up in a refugee camp after being chased throughout Sudan and Uganda, only to end up in the camp in Kenya. This is a true story.
Born in the midst of Sudanese Civil War… my friend shared with me his story.
Awer Gabriel Bul spent his childhood running from ﬂames and bullets only years after he learned to walk.
Bul, a self-taught artist, is now a sophomore painting and printmaking major planning to double major in kinetic imaging. To Bul, who grew up in the midst of the Sudanese civil war, “there is no limit to school.” He plans to teach art in America as well as return to Sudan throughout his life to teach art workshops.
The war tore Bul from his parents when he was 7 years old. Many different people raised him, which paved the road to his future in art.
Photo by: Cynthia Merchant
“What brought this art to me was the war,” Bul said. “I was not under a special training or anything. I just used it to express my ideas.”
As a young child, Bul sat in refugee camps confused about the war but unable to ask about what was happening. He passed the time perfecting his art.
“It’s a way for me to speak out,” he said. Bul used whatever art tools he could ﬁnd to draw his point of view of the wartime suffering. He drew “people in danger and war and tired,” Bul said. “I started to draw my life story and tell people who I am by doing art.”
Sudan was established as a British colony in 1899 and declared independence in 1956. The Sudanese were overjoyed, but the celebration was short-lived. After the British occupation ended, Sudan was left vulnerable and unprepared to brace itself for what happened next.
Arab Muslims moved in and “assassinated many people,” Bul said, especially their tribal leaders. The Arab Muslim majority of northern Sudan, who wanted to enforce Islamic Sharia law, took over the country, Bul said.
“They took over the schools and tried to make us become Muslim,” he said. “We didn’t want that to happen.”
The Sudanese rebelled against the government in 1983, and civil war between northern Islamic and southern Christian groups raged into action. That same year, Bul was born.
Bul lived four years untouched by the war. He passed the quiet days with his family in the self-sustaining Dinka tribe, embracing the traditional culture and beauty of Sudan.
But in 1987, the northern forces attacked Bul’s village and the Dinka tribe scattered.
“People were just running from any direction,” Bul said.
The entire village was burned to the ground. Bul, only 4 years old, stayed with his parents while his older brother, Abraham, ﬂed to Ethiopia. He and his parents hid behind the safety of bushes and “tried to establish a new life,” Bul said. They started farming and lived in a mud house. When Bul was 7 years old, Arabs found them and shot at them.
“Animals were killed,” Bul said. “People were getting killed.”
The family left what little they owned in their mud hut and didn’t look back.
“People just kept on running, and I just kept following them barefoot,” Bul said. “I didn’t have any shoes or clothes. I just kept on running, running, running.”
Once again, everything was burned.
Bul was separated from his parents in the rush. He walked through ﬂooded areas, night and day with strangers. There were no clothes to protect his skin from the sun and no shoes to protect his feet while running over sharp rocks and through muddy water.
The only thing he knew was to stay with people who looked like him and to keep moving. He ate wild foods, not knowing if they were safe, but he had to eat to keep running, he said.
Bul and his fellow refugees, which included many young children, headed to Uganda, which is south of Sudan. There they found a refugee camp congested with thousands of shattered and starving people sitting and waiting.
After days of running, Bul thought he could disappear in the mass of people and rest. But as the sun slipped below the horizon, anti-government rebel groups attacked the camp.
“They come at night and run into the camp,” Bul said. “They shoot people and take away our food.”
Exhausted, Bul ran from the camp back to Sudan in hopes of ﬁnding his parents.
“I didn’t know where my parents were,” he said. “I kept thinking I would see them one day, but it never happened.”
When he arrived in Sudan he saw his country still overwhelmed with war, so he continued on to Kenya.
Bul arrived in Kenya in 1994. Another camp, similar to the one in Uganda, welcomed him.
“The life was the same,” he said of the camp. “They didn’t have anywhere to go but just sit in the camp. It wasn’t happy.”
One day Bul was sitting with thousands of other refugees when a group of them recognized him. They found a strange boy and brought him to Bul.
The boy was his brother, Abraham.
“I didn’t even recognize him,” Bul said. “People recognized us as brothers, and I was excited because I had forgotten him for most of my time.”
Together the brothers would share what Bul called “silent moments” and think, “Where is my father and mother? And the rest of the children?” The brothers waited for someone to recognize their parents among the thousands of people in the camp. No one did. They waited for a letter, but none came.
“We kept on praying that someone would come to us and say, ‘We have seen your parents back in Sudan, and they are here,’” Bul said. “It never happened.”
The boys passed their days by attending school in the morning. But the schooling was poor and inconsistent, Bul said.
“In the camp was a boring life,” he said. “There was nothing to do.” So the boys helped ﬁnd food, dropped from United Nations airplanes, for those in the camp.
“They would drop food anywhere,” Bul said. “Then we’d go and ﬁnd some food in the bushes. But the food was not enough for the people,” he said. “We used to support ourselves as a group. If I ran out of food, somebody may just give me a little bit of his food so I could wait for when the food would come.”
The camp was located in one of the most arid parts of Kenya, meaning they also went without water. During the rare times it rained, the harsh wind blew dust into refugees’ eyes and lungs.
But more severe problems brewed.
A Kenyan tribe claimed the land on which the camp was located. They used the trees for charcoal to sell, but with so many people cluttering the land, the resources were unreachable.
The frustrated Kenyans began attacking the camp at nightfall, to which the defenseless refugees could not respond.
“They would come at night and shoot people,” Bul said. “And we didn’t have a choice to go anywhere, so we just sit there and wait for your day to come and see what will happen.”
One day Americans came to the camp to offer aid. Language, however, created a barrier between the refugees and the Americans, so the refugees had to pantomime their pains.
“We had to show we’re here in the camp. We don’t have parents; there’s no good life,” he said. “And we proved to them that we didn’t have any good life.”
After witnessing the lives of the refugees, the U.S. government labeled them “the lost boys of Sudan.”
There were no young girls in the group, as they were sold into slavery and prostitution, Bul said. Men were killed by the northern forces, which feared reprisal.
“The Arab people think we may come back later to them, and we may establish another government or kill them,” he said. “So mostly guys ran away.”
Bul and his brother decided to go to America after American volunteers proposed the idea to them.
“We didn’t have a dream of what America looked like or a good place looked like,” he said. “Coming to America was only for the rich people.”
In 2000, Bul and his brother came to America under the care of Catholic charities. Bul lived in the Virginia Home for Boys in Richmond for three months and attended J.R. Tucker High School. The charities put his brother, 18, in an apartment and supported him for six months until he found a job to support himself. While his brother searched for a job, Bul struggled through high school.
“I couldn’t really speak any English,” Bul said. “The ﬁrst test I did, I didn’t do well.” Though his limited English made classes difﬁcult, he was determined to ﬁnish high school. He worked for hours every day on math, English, history and science until he graduated in 2004 at the age of 21.
Then, with the help of volunteering churches and his friends, Bul applied and was accepted into VCU’s School of the Arts as a painting and printmaking major.
Five years have passed since Bul lived in the camp. In the summer, he returned to Sudan to meet his father, whom he could hardly remember after 12 years. He no longer has contact with his father, but hopes one day his father will travel to Kenya where he can access a phone.
After arriving in the United States, Bul learned that his mother was alive, but other family members had been killed in the ﬁghting, he said.
His mother came to America in July with his two younger brothers and sister. Another sister lives in Australia. Bul and his family are saving money to bring her here.
The Rev. Dr. Fred Skaggs, a minister at County Line Baptist Church in Ruther Glen who Bul considers a hero, said Americans know little about the problems facing Sudan.
“So much of what’s gone on in Sudan, we have not known about,” he said. “We knew about Afghanistan. We knew about Iraq and Somalia, but we’ve not really known a lot about what’s gone on in southern Sudan.”
Skaggs’ church and others helped raise funds for Bul to attend summer school and for his recent travels to his Kenyan camp to hold an art workshop.
Bul used money from selling his paintings to purchase art tools for people in the camp. His goal was to teach the people still suffering how to express their feelings and communicate, he said. He wishes for them to see what they have never seen before.
“These people are blind,” he said. “They have never had a chance to do what they want to do.”
Bul continues to paint his feelings and observations to complete his studies at VCU. “Everything you see around you is all art,” he said.
I met Awer Bul while I was in college. My grandfather had been helping him raise money for his efforts, while helping him with miscellaneous expenses throughout college. I was instantly inspired by his spirit and his drive. Today, Awer Bul is a husband and father. He travels back and forth from Richmond to Sudan in order to create opportunities for those suffering.
You do have the power to change the world. Start by touching someone’s life in a positive way. And then keep going.