Armed with a torch

Dried gourd bow with beaded cross motif
Dried gourd bowl with beaded cross motif.
Inside of the gourd bowl. Stitches because it was broken in transit.
Inside of the gourd bowl.

During our second interview for the book, Otholi showed me the bowl, cup and jug,  decorated with beadwork by his wife Ariet, that his family had brought from Ethiopia. He explained that most of the motifs are crosses because they are Christians. I asked him about the other pattern, some sort of arrow. He laughed and said with admiration, ‘Women are very creative. If they think of some pattern, they can make it.’

Plastic water jug with cross motif.
Anuak beadword around a plastic cup.

Ariet had packed these items when their family fled the slaying of the Anuak people in Gambella.They stayed away from  paths and roads, hiding as they went, and thought they were alone, but found three to four thousand other Anuak in the bush.

‘Mainly women and children … because men don’t want to be called cowards, they don’t want to run, they just want to go back.’ Some found guns and went back to avenge the deaths of their uncles and brothers but Otholi said to Ariet, ‘There is no point I leave you by yourself to go with the kids. We can go together.’

Their journey seeking safe haven took them through Sudan, Uganda and Kenya. Women and children were very vulnerable in the Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya, just miles from the Somali border, where people smuggled guns into the camp, where Christian women who did not adhere to the dress code of the predominantly Muslim Somali refugees, were looked upon as loose women and treated accordingly.

Otholi was trained by the UNHCR and the Kenyan government as a community peace keeper and given a powerful torch, to shine light in dark places, and a walkie talkie to the Kenyan police for situations beyond what he could deal with himself. By night, he patrolled their quarters. By day he walked with the women to collect firewood and to buy food. He accompanied the children on their 30 minute walk to school and back. ‘We men always had to be with our women to protect them,’ he said of those days.

Otholi with the eating and drinking utensils decorated by his wife, Ariet.
Otholi with the eating and drinking utensils decorated by his wife, Ariet.

Australian women don’t live in refugee camps but the statistics say that on average, one woman a week is murdered by her partner or ex-partner and one in three women experience domestic violence. How we need men with good, strong hearts, men who know that manhood is not in aggression, or revenge, or shouting the loudest, or hitting the hardest, but in protecting the weak and working on behalf of the vulnerable, and even, perhaps, to speak with admiration of the women in their lives, and to cherish them.

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The land was really good

Otholi (far right) and family
Otholi (far right), with his wife Ariet beside him, and his 3 children and one grandchild.

‘The land was really good,’ says Otholi.

He smiles as he says this, enunciating the words slowly, drawing them out, lingering on his memory of the land, the fertile Gambella basin between Ethiopia and South Sudan. On this land Otholi and his people – the indigenous Anuak – cultivated bananas, mangoes, paw paw, maize, and sorghum. If they felt like eating wild meat, they went out to the bush to hunt. The land abounded with antelope, gazelle, buffalo, and giraffe.

When light-skinned highlanders from central Ethiopia saw that this land in the south-west was good, they settled there, and said, ‘Ah, this is Ethiopia land, but the people do not belong to Ethiopia.’ Nonetheless, the Anuak welcomed the highlanders as brothers and lived peacefully with them for many years.

The story of Otholi’s displacement from Gambella starts with the discovery of oil in 2001. Gambella’s regional leaders opposed the national government’s decision to refine the oil in another state. With the benefit of hindsight, Otholi’s people have coined a saying: Finding oil in your land is like finding a cancerous tumour – there will be a lot of problems.

On the 13th of December 2003, a few road workers were found dead. Due to their opposition to aspects of the oil development plan, the Anuak were blamed for the crime even though there were no eye witnesses. In retaliation, Anuak men were hunted down and shot. 425 people were killed that day. Around 4,000 Anuak men, women and children, fled into the bush, where they walked for five days before settling in South Sudan. That was the beginning of Otholi’s journey and search for safety.

At the end of our conversation, I told Otholi that I would like him to describe these places to me so that I can imagine them and he said, ‘I have the memory of my land. I just call it my homeland. I still have the memory of what happened to us and that’s why every year, we sit down on December the 13th to let other people know that it is a very sad and unforgettable day for us. We forgive but we don’t forget. We forgive those that have done it, but we don’t forget.’

His speech slows down and for the first time during our conversation, his eyes redden. Silence. Then in a barely audible voice, he says, ‘It was horrible. We lost very, very important people to our community. So…yeap…thank you.’

And I wonder if it is a thank you for listening, or for asking, or for remembering with him and his people, the Anuak.

The curious scribbler meets the rug-maker

‘Would you like some tea?’ asks Najaf, the rug-maker of Mazar-e-Sharif. I accept his offer gratefully as I step into his  shop – Afghan Traditional Rugs – on High Street in Prahran, Melbourne.

Moments earlier, from the opposite side of the street, I was so disappointed to see the sign ‘Closed’ on the shop door,  but thought I’ll cross the street anyway. Peering in through the glass door, I saw two people in the dim recesses of the shop beckoning me in. Najaf himself opens the door, flipping the sign to ‘Open’. I blurt out, ‘I’m from Adelaide. I read your book.’ and he offered me tea.

Najaf was apprenticed as a rug-maker in his village in northern Afghanistan, near Mazar-e-Sharif, before the Taliban captured him and tortured him, leaving him no option but to flee to Pakistan, aided by, of all people, a Pashtun, one of the traditional enemies of Najaf’s people, the Hazara.

Najaf told his story to award winning biographer, Robert Hillman, who captured Najaf’s voice so well in the book The Rug-maker of Mazar-e-Sharif that I felt quite sure, just by reading  the book, that Najaf was a good and friendly person, the sort of person who won’t mind if I visit him to talk about refugees and about his book, even if I don’t buy a rug, though I hasten to add that there is a 50% sale on right now because Najaf is clearing stock in preparation for an overseas purchasing trip.

Inside the shop, a young lady, wearing a beautifully embroidered hijab, removes a pile of bright cushions from an office chair and offers me the seat. She sits in the other chair in front of the computer and we chat about the Australian tax system before Najaf reappears with a thermos and a cup of steaming green tea on a saucer for me.

I notice a picture of two stylised birds beneath a mosque with the words Masawat Development Fund. I ask Najaf about it. As he leans on a column, carpets hanging on either side, he tells me that funds from his book sales have been used to buy an ambulance for the area around Mazar-e-Sharif to transport pregnant women to the nearest hospital – a three to four hour journey along hilly, rocky, windy road.

He is returning to Afghanistan in October, with his daughter, to give school supplies to the children in his village. ‘Put pens in the hands of children, not guns,’ said Najaf. ‘Don’t blame the refugees, blame the people who drop bombs and put guns in the hands of people, because this is why there are refugees.’

We talk for almost two hours. Najaf offers me advice on agents and publishers before I leave his shop at noon. Only then, as I say goodbye, when lady turns around from her work on the computer, do I realise that she has been waiting all morning for Najaf’s input to finish the accounts. Nothing in her body language or her demeanour had suggested any impatience with my nattering on and on, keeping her from finishing her morning’s work.

Such is the kindness of strangers.

View from the tram as I left Najaf's shop (the yellow one in the middle)
View from the tram as I left Najaf’s shop (the bright yellow one in the middle)