In the world today there are over 50 million refugees – people who have left their homes under catastrophic conditions and are struggling to survive in limbo without place or country. It is difficult for us to get our minds around the magnitude of this many suffering people. So let me tell the story of a single refugee – my friend Hamat.
I first met Hamat when I was doing a linguistic survey in the Boma Hills of southern Sudan. Initially I had a difficult time communicating with the local Murle people since I could not find a common language. While I set up camp crowds of people stood around and watched me. Then I saw a tall man striding up the path wearing a bright white Arab robe. He had a powerful athletic form and was starting to go bald. His white teeth were accentuated by his brilliant smile. He walked up to me and in perfect English said, “I am Hamat. Welcome to Boma.” Within minutes Hamat was organizing my camp.
Hamat was a born leader and I soon discovered that he was a coffee trader. He did not come from Boma, but had been born in the Nuba Hills in northern Sudan. The Nubas were famous for their prowess as wrestlers. Hamat himself had trained as a wrestler and eventually became a champion. He then moved to Khartoum where he learned Arabic. I asked him where he learned his English and he told me he learned English from watching Hollywood movies in Khartoum a la John Wayne. Jobs were hard to find so he became a policeman and was eventually assigned to the tiny police post at Boma. He quickly became disillusioned with police work and saw the opportunity to become a coffee trader. As a trader Hamat brought in outside goods and traded these goods for coffee beans that he then exported to Khartoum.
After several days helping me with my survey, Hamat suggested we go hunting. I had no rifle or hunting license, but Hamat went to the police and returned with an old .303 rifle and permission to hunt. I unloaded one of the Land Rovers and drove it carefully down the steep track to the plains below. Across a shallow draw we saw a herd of cape buffalo standing under a tree. Buffalo are formidable beasts and have a reputation for being aggressive and hard to kill. I stopped the vehicle expecting to get out and stalk the buffalo to within shooting range. The sight of the buffalo herd got Hamat excited. Suddenly he grabbed the .303 and dashed toward the herd yelling loudly. My first impression was that he had gone totally mad and had ruined the hunt. The buffalo took one look at him and panicked; galloping away down the valley. Hamat checked their direction and then adjusted his angle to intercept them. He disappeared into the draw at full run and then reappeared on the other side. He ran directly into the running herd and from the distance of six feet he shot bullets into the chests of the buffalo; shooting from the hip without taking aim. I was convinced he was crazy, but three buffalo went down. By the time I got there with the Land Rover, Hamat was sitting on a dead buffalo all covered with sweat and feeling quite pleased with himself. It was the most unique method of hunting buffalo I had ever experienced.
Hamat knew the plateau region well and became my guide and friend. On a later trip he traveled with Barb and I and our one-year-old daughter Lisa. After a long day of driving through mud we bivouacked under a thorn tree, exhausted from the heat. Lisa was fussy and Hamat stated that she needed a special gift to make her happy. At 10 o’clock at night he disappeared into the dark forest and after an hour returned with a wax comb dripping with golden honey. He ignored the swollen bee stings on his arms and face and was pleased when Lisa ate the honey.
When we lived in Pibor Hamat would make weekly trips to see us. He adored Lisa and after visiting he would hoist Lisa on his broad shoulders and take her on a walk around the local market. They made quite a sight; the dark, well-muscled Nuba carrying the little blond girl. When they returned Lisa’s little cheeks were always crammed with roasted peanuts. Barb would protest, but it did no good.
Several years after we left Murle land, Hamat was arrested for buying and selling coffee without a license. He was held by the police in Boma and eventually put on a truck headed for Pibor to be jailed until his trial. In route the truck got stuck in the soft mud and after several days everyone in the convoy was suffering from lack of food. Hamat was the best hunter in the group so the police handed him a rifle and asked him to go out into the forest and shoot some antelope for meat. Hamat took the rifle and started walking east. Once out of sight he increased his pace and just kept going. Within two days he crossed the border into Ethiopia and started climbing into the rugged mountains. He made friends with villagers and was able to procure food to eat. But eventually he was arrested and taken to the town of Jimma where he was put in prison awaiting trial for entering Ethiopia without a visa.
At the trial Hamat’s winning personality earned him a reprieve and he was released on his own recognizance. He left town and headed south on foot, moving slowly from tribe to tribe and eventually crossed the border into Kenya. In the desert he was picked up by the Kenyan police, given temporary asylum papers and transported to the city of Nairobi. Here he made contact with other Sudanese refugees and found a place to live in the slums.
I was living at Kijabe at the time; a location 40 miles from Nairobi. Somehow Hamat tracked me down and one day he came walking up my driveway. I welcomed him warmly and we had tea together overlooking the Great Rift Valley. He was as upbeat as ever and caught me up on his escape and following adventures. His only frustration was a lack of income. As a temporary refugee in Kenya he did not have permission to work and had to live off the generosity of his friends. As a natural entrepreneur he felt stifled.
Hamat continued to visit me on a regular basis; enjoying good home-cooked meals, but never asking for anything. He was a proud man. Then one day he appeared at my doorstep all excited. He announced that he had found a solution to his financial needs. The Libyan government had recruited him to become a mercenary. If he could raise $200 to buy a Libyan passport, he could go to Libya and be trained to fight for Gadhafi – a holy war, a jihad. Would I give him the $200?
I knew that Hamat had a Moslem background. However, he was anything but a radical. He had no personal reasons for becoming a jihadist. He simply wanted a job and an income. He had never asked me for money before. This was his first request. Since we were long-time friends he was asking for this one big favor – $200.
I was in a quandary, but quickly decided that I had to turn down his request. Not because I could not afford to help him, but because I did not want to sponsor his becoming a terrorist. I gave Hamat my answer. He did not understand my reasoning and he felt rejected. He walked away with his head hanging down. He felt abandoned by me – his friend. I felt bad and had some sleepless nights. Did I do the right thing?
I never saw Hamat again. I heard that he did not go fight for Libya. Instead he moved to Uganda which had a more liberal policy toward Sudanese refugees. There he became a successful merchant. But Hamat had a penchant for loose women and over time he became sick and starting wasting away. He had acquired the “thin disease” – the local name for AIDS. In those days there were no retroviral drugs and after a few months he died – one more refugee losing his life far away from friends and family. Just another refugee.