Gatluk Digiew

Brian Green

Gatluk Digiew signs copies of his book, “God Threw Me Back: A Child Survives War in Sudan,” during an April 18 visit to Keene State College.

Gatluk Digiew was not your typical Keene State student.

As he walked down Appian Way as an alumnus recently, it was clear to those who saw him that he had a story to tell. Some noticed the thin scars that line his forehead. Others took note of his unusual gait.

Digiew’s return to campus April 18 happened after he contacted Keene State College sociology Prof. Brian Green, who had taught him.

“... African stories and African voices are not often heard on campus at KSC, for various reasons,” Green wrote in an email. “So I thought the opportunity to have Gatluk, a Keene State alum, come back and tell the story of how he survived ethnic violence, lived as a refugee, came to America as a political asylum seeker, and completed his high school and college education would be very worthwhile.”

After leaving South Sudan for the United States in 1999 as a 17-year-old with no formal education, Digiew got his GED in Manchester before earning bachelor’s degrees in sociology and safety and occupational health applied sciences from Keene State with a minor in international studies.

Digiew began his talk at the college by describing his upbringing as a member of the Nuer tribe in the grassland of South Sudan.

His early life revolved around his large family, tribal traditions and, perhaps most importantly, the cattle he looked after, on which his family sustained themselves. Digiew was raised a Christian, and his religion continues to be an important part of his life.

The scars on his forehead came from a tribal initiation into manhood called gaar.

“They did that with machetes,” he told last week’s roomful of students when describing the ritual, before flashing a big smile at their silence. “I’m only joking,” he said, prompting small laughs of relief.

His life in the village was cut short by the Second Sudanese Civil War, and he was conscripted as a child soldier into the Sudan People’s Liberation Army Movement (SPLA/M), after having already lost a brother to the war.

Fought between the Sudanese government and the SPLA/M of South Sudan, the war lasted from 1983 until 2005, making it the longest modern war on record. An estimated 2.5 million people died in Sudan’s two civil wars, including as a result of displacement, famine and disease, according to a 2014 article written for National Geographic.

Sudanese President Jaafar Nimeiri sparked the conflict when he violated the terms of the settlement that had ended the first Sudanese Civil War in 1972 — which had allowed the South some autonomy — and began the process of abolishing the Southern Sudan Autonomous Region and imposing sharia law by force on the entire nation.

As the people of South Sudan endured raids by the Sudanese government, the SPLA/M formed to fight back and protect the Southern Sudanese, according to a study by The World Peace Foundation at Tufts University.

After returning from his training with the SPLA, Digiew said, his village was attacked by an Arab militia. At just 13, he was shot in his left hip, and the bullet lodged in his leg.

Despite suffering a bayonet wound when the militia began checking for survivors, Digiew kept silent.

Once he was sure the militia was gone, he crawled to the top of a termite hill where he spent a night fending off hyenas that began scavenging the dead. Word of the attack on his village spread, and Digiew was found and rescued the next day.

After embarking on an odyssey through several hospitals and refugee camps throughout Africa, Digiew arrived in the U.S. as a refugee with two of his surviving brothers. He completed his education in New Hampshire and, after receiving his two degrees from Keene State in 2009 and 2013, moved to the Midwest, where he worked in the oil fields. He now works as a translator in Minnesota, translating his native Nuer language to English in local hospitals, schools and courts.

Last year, he published his memoir, “God Threw Me Back: A Child Survives War in Sudan.”

{span}”One student who came to (Digiew’s) talk told me that while he heard about people who are ‘refugees,’ he had never met one in person, so hearing Gatluk really opened his eyes up to what it would be like to be in a situation where you have to run for your life,” Green wrote, adding that he knew students would find inspiration in Digiew’s journey.

“... {span}I think that many American young people take it for granted that they live in a safe place with high quality schools, and they think it’s basically no big deal to get a college degree,” Green continued. “But for some people like Gatluk, to have the safety of a secure and welcoming community, along with a chance to learn and have a successful career, is the dream of a lifetime.”

When Digiew reached the end of his presentation, his cadence began to slow, and he looked up into the audience.

Blaming the government of Sudan and Islamic fundamentalists for the narrative of the conflict as having been a “civil war,” he said that to him and the members of his tribe who were killed, it was genocide.

“Who defines war?” he asked in a strong voice of a silent audience.

The answer, he said, is the victors.

“God Threw Me Back: A Child Survives War in Sudan” by Gatluk Digiew is available on Amazon.com.