I was very close to the age where I would have been sent to train, but was saved from that fate when we were forced out of Pinyudo, all forty thousand of us, by the Ethiopian forces that overthrew President Mengistu.
The area near the river was marshy and the group was soaked, wading through the heavy water. The river, when we arrived, was high and moving quickly. Trees and debris flew with the current. The first shots seemed small and distant. I turned to follow the sound. I saw nothing, but the gunfire continued and grew louder. The attackers were nearby. The sounds multiplied, and I heard the first screams. A woman up the river spat a stream of blood from her mouth before falling, lifeless, into the water. She had been shot by an unseen assailant, and the current soon took “her toward my group. Now the panic began. Tens of thousands of us splashed through the shallows of the river, too many unable to swim. To stay on the bank meant certain death, but to jump into that river, swollen and rushing, was madness.
“The Ethiopians were attacking, their Eritrean cohorts with them, the Anyuak doing their part. They wanted us out of their country, they were avenging a thousand crimes and slights.
I paddled and kicked. I looked again for the spot on the riverbank where I had last seen the crocodiles. They were gone.
—Yes. We must swim fast. Come. There are so many of us. We’re at a mathematical advantage. Swim, Achak, just keep paddling. A scream came from very close. I turned to see a boy in the jaws of a crocodile. The river bloomed red and the boy’s face disappeared.
—Keep going. Now he’s too busy to eat you.
We were halfway across the river now, and my ears heard the hiss under the water and the bullets and mortars cracking the air. Each time my ears fell below the surface, a hiss overtook my head, and it felt like the sound of the crocodiles coming for me. I tried to keep my ears above the surface, but when my head was too high, I pictured a bullet entering the back of my skull.
I pushed my face into the dirt, but secretly I watched the slaughter below. Thousands of boys and men and women and babies were crossing the river, and soldiers were killing them randomly and sometimes with great care. There were a few SPLA troops fighting from our side of the river, but for the most part they had already escaped, leaving the Sudanese civilians alone and unprotected. The Ethiopians, then, had their choice of targets, most of them unarmed.
“they chased the Sudanese from their land with machetes and the few rifles they possessed. They hacked and shot those running to the river, and they shot those flailing across the water. Shells exploded, sending plumes of white twenty feet into the air. Women dropped babies in the river. Boys who could not swim simply drowned... Some of the dead were then eaten by crocodiles. The river ran in many colors that day, green and white, black and brown and red.
“—Come here!" a woman said. I looked to find the source of the voice, and turned to see an Ethiopian woman in a soldier’s uniform.
—Come here and I will help you find Pochalla! she said. The other boys began walking toward her.
—No! I said.
—See how she’s dressed!
—Don’t fear me, she said. I am just a woman! I am a mother trying to help you boys. Come to me, children! I am your mother! Come to me! The unknown boys ran toward her. Achor stayed with me. When they were twenty feet from her, the woman turned, lifted a gun from the grass, and with her eyes full of white, she shot the taller boy through the heart. I could see the bullet leaving his back. His body kneeled and then fell on its side, his head landing before his shoulder.
“Run! he said, grabbing my shirt from behind. We ran from her, diving into the grass and then crawling and hurtling away fom the woman, who was still shouting at us.
"Come back!" she said. "I am your mother, come back, my children!