The other day I was with my cousin, a lawyer and PhD holder with a special interest in children’s rights. She was preparing a paper about the impact of armed conflict on children, to be presented in a conference, and wanted to include an interview with a street child coming from the war zone. We met in Bahri near the roundabout that leads to Shambat Bridge, and saw a number of those kids that wipe cars standing at the traffic light. My cousin got out and walked over to them and explained her purpose. One of them, named Alsheikh, had come from Talodi in South Kordofan with his family fleeing the war, and now they lived with an uncle who already had his own family to feed. It took some coaxing because he was so shy, but eventually we got our cameras rolling and conducted our interview. He had been here for almost 5 months, during which he didn’t have a job other than wiping cars and such. Obviously, he didn’t go to school. He hadn’t even been going to school back home because his parents had only let his sister go, and now that they were here even his sister couldn’t go to school. The interview was only a couple of minutes long and he didn’t say much, but at the end when asked what he wished for, he said he wanted to go back home. I can’t imagine how it must be for all of them, to leave everything they know behind them and come to a town where they have no home, no friends and no memories. Where people shove them out of the way, don’t want them playing with their children and treat them like a disease. What does his mother say every time her children ask when they’re going back? What does she promise them to keep them satisfied, and convince them that this is all temporary and that things will get better? How does it feel, to walk and walk and keep looking back at all that is familiar and loved, as it gets further and further away, not knowing when you’ll ever see your home again? Even an adult can’t handle such trauma, so I can’t imagine what it must be for a child, let alone the horror of living in a state of war with bombs dropping around you and people dying.
During the interview we noticed a man who had appeared out of nowhere standing next to us. He was looking towards the street, fumbling with his wallet, fixing his clothes but was so obviously eavesdropping, and even turned and looked straight at us. At first we were confused, but then I started looking him in the eye (he was standing next to my car). He completely ignored me and even looked right back. Eventually I was standing right in front of him and staring him in the face, my hands on my hips, with him looking back at me, until he couldn’t pretend anymore and turned and walked away. After the interview was over and a collection of other kids had gathered around, I noticed one particularly small boy was wearing his sandals over his elbows. I asked him jokingly if sandals are worn on arms or feet, and they told me that he had spotted a policeman a short while ago and wanted to be ready to run. A short while later, a pickup stopped right in front of us, filled to the brim with men and boys, and 2 uniformed policemen. It took all of us a few seconds to register what we were looking at, and the boys froze in their place. Then I heard myself telling them RUN RUN RUN!, and they fled in all directions. Alsheikh, the kid we had interviewed, shot right across the street without looking, and narrowly missed getting run over by another pickup. They ran towards the mosque and farms overlooking the Nile and disappeared from the sight. We watched their small figures receding, then turned to look at the policemen and wait to be interrogated. It was like we were invisible. They didn’t even look at us, they just stood quietly in place looking after the boys, talking among themselves about where they might be heading and how to catch them. Then, they got into their car, made a U turn and drove in the same direction, stopping momentarily at the traffic light and then heading in the direction of the mosque. I can’t remember the last time I had been shaking so badly. Seeing that truck with the plain clothed policemen reminded me of those days during the riots where the NISS were everywhere and I thought I was being followed. Anyway, we sat in our cars lamenting about how we had put those poor boys in trouble because they were talking to us. But then it didn’t make sense, because the police hadn’t bothered with us at all. They just wanted the boys, and they even had a few of them already in the back. We must have sat there for almost 20 minutes, and suddenly one them showed up, all out of breath from the running. He said he had ran towards the farms while the other boys had gone in a different direction, and the police hadn’t been able to find him. A short while later another boy showed up, but that was all. Later, the same pickup truck came cruising past us, and we craned our necks to try and see who they had caught, but couldn’t. My cousin went back the next day and found Alsheikh’s house and met his family. He had been caught with some other boys that day and been taken to the police station. They made them wash all the cars in the pound, and then let them go. It was a relief to hear that they hadn’t been beaten or worse, but it was still traumatic. The thing that troubled me the most was that the boys had dealt with the whole chase as a normal and expected issue, as if it was a daily routine they go through. What more could a child go through?
It makes my head hurt to think what kind of childhood these children are living. There are so many things we take for granted in this life, while others just wish for a safe place to call home.
Something by Amer Zahir about home.