GOROM SETTLEMENT, South Sudan, January 27 (UNHCR) – Punctuality is usually praised as a virtue, but how often is tardiness fatal? For Ochalla Omot, an Ethiopian refugee, a misunderstanding over an hour and a half nearly cost his life.
“I just could not believe I was going to die like that,” the 27-year-old says while receiving treatment for a bullet wound incurred after he got the hours of a government-imposed curfew wrong. He’s receiving treatment in a UN-run clinic in Gorom Settlement, some 25 kilometres west of Juba, the South Sudanese capital. The settlement is home to 2,400 Ethiopian refugees who live in their own small houses and compounds.
After fighting broke out in Juba last month and quickly spread to seven of the country’s 10 states, the government imposed a curfew requiring all civilians to stay off the streets during specified hours. It was relaxed slightly last week, but for more than a month, civilian movement was banned in the capital from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m.
However, Ochalla was firmly convinced he could stay out two hours later. He set out for Juba one morning earlier this month to look for work as a casual laborer and got caught up in the crisis, which is taking a heavy toll on South Sudanese. UN reports show the month-old conflict has claimed more than 1,000 lives and displaced more than 500,000 people, including more than 120,000 who fled to neighbouring countries as refugees.
“I spent the day looking for work and it was about 7:30 pm when I finally set out to go to the area of Juba where I sleep with friends,” he says, still visibly shaken, despite receiving medical care.
He was stopped by armed men who ordered him to sit by the side of the road – still unaware he had violated the curfew. “I sat down, but when I saw one of them preparing his gun to shoot, I started running without even knowing it, with bullets being shot at me.”
One of the bullets hit his left arm. But he kept running, ignoring the blood gushing from his arm. When he finally reached his destination, the only thing his hosts could do was tie a cloth around his arm to staunch the bleeding. “They could not take me to a health centre because of the curfew.” He only got medical care the next day when he returned to this settlement.
Since he fled ethnic tensions in Ethiopia’s Gambella region in 2008, Ochalla has occasionally worked in Juba to earn money to supplement his monthly food rations. It’s also an escape from the boredom of the camp.
He had been an 11th Grade student when he had to flee Ethiopia, but for one reason or another, has never been able to complete his education in South Sudan.
Now, he says, his close brush with death has rekindled an old dream – to become a doctor. “The fact that I survived all the shooting in Juba means that I will live long enough to achieve my dream,” he says, as a medic – a fellow refugee – tends to his bullet wound.
By Kisut Gebre Egziabher in Gorom Settlement, South Sudan