How a Sudanese boy came to be named '1 o'clock'

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

The swollen-faced infant lay quietly in the dirt. Nura Sawah, a Sudanese woman traveling to her hometown after being driven away 18 years earlier by civil war, picked the boy up and started breastfeeding him. He began to revive.

She passed him to other women, who also let him nurse. It was about 1 p.m. They started calling him by the time of day: "1 o'clock."

The name stuck.

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"He's a gift from God," says Ms. Sawah of the boy, who often nuzzles into the cotton folds of her dress.

The story of this shy toddler with the strange name begins many months ago when Arab militia ambushed his family as they journeyed home across this hot, desolate land.

And it's just one thread of a larger story of hundreds of thousands of Africans on the move. In fact, 2005 is fast becoming a year of homecomings for the people of Africa.

A half-dozen of this continent's wars - from Sudan to Somalia to Liberia - are waning or have ended. So hundreds of thousands of Africans are reuniting with relatives and rebuilding interrupted lives - sometimes after decades.

In Sudan alone, up to 1.4 million people - out of 4 million displaced during the country's 22-year civil war - may go home this year after a Jan. 9 peace deal ended the war, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. But, like 1 o'clock and his new mom, they face risky trips, crowded arrivals, and fresh disputes over old land.

For Sawah, the story that ultimately led her to become 1 o'clock's mom began in 1986, when she and her husband fled their hometown in southern Sudan during fighting between the government and rebels over resources and political power. Sawah and her husband scrambled 550 miles north to Sudan's capital, Khartoum, joining hundreds of thousands of other southern blacks.

In 1993, she says, her husband died. So she worked as a "slave," cleaning homes of Arabs, the dominant group in Sudan's north. In late 2003, with peace seeming imminent, Sawah headed home with a group of about 20 women and children. She had enough money to bring only four of her nine children. The other five stayed behind.

First the group rode southbound buses. Then they walked.

One day, after crossing into southern Sudan, they heard distant gunfire. Eventually they came upon a place where it appeared Arab militia had attacked black southerners also heading home. Several were dead. The rest had fled.

That's where she found 1 o'clock. At every village they came to, Sawah asked if anyone was missing a child. No one claimed him. She figures the boy's parents were killed - or were running too fast to hold on.

For Sawah, caring for the boy is connected to a desire to change, in one small instance, the cycle of violence and loss that's swirled in her country for decades. "To get a new country," she says, "we must be kind to human beings."

Bribes and gunfire

Many of Sudan's returnees face risks similar to Sawah and her family. One survey by southern officials in November found returnees had been away from home between one and 18 years. To return, they'd travel between three and 17 days. They ate grass from riverbanks. Several had been wounded by gunshots.

One day during Sawah's trip, she encountered some Arab militia men demanding taxes. Her group pooled jewelry and cash to pay off the men, who then let them go. Several miles later, though, the travelers were suddenly getting shot at. Sawah ran. But this time, 1 o'clock's new mom held tight to him. She sprinted for cover and escaped. Sawah says she recognized some of the shooters. They were the men who'd stopped them for taxes earlier.

After nine months on the road - a trip that included stopovers to earn money - she arrived home. At first her relatives greeted her warmly and housed her brood. But they couldn't help indefinitely. And authorities had given the land Sawah and her husband once owned to a new cellphone company. She doesn't expect to get it back.

Soon she and her kids moved into their current camp - a collection of about 50 eight-foot-square structures made from palm fronds. It's home to about 350 people. One o'clock can stand inside his home and peer through the leaves at the other kids. They all sleep on the dirt floor. A net keeps the bugs away. Sawah's biggest need, she says, is childcare. She's too busy caring for her kids to go cut down wood for a proper tukle, or hut.

Hundreds of thousands head home

Around Africa, there are the UN plans to help 150,000 people return to Liberia this year, building on the first 7,000 who went back last year. Some 150,000 are expected to return to Burundi, up from 90,000 last year. Also, 53,000 Angolans, 10,000 Rwandans, and an unknown number of Somalis may return. These are just the people the UN expects to help during their journeys. Tens of thousands will go on their own.

And if Uganda can finally end its 18-year war with northern rebels, many of the 1.6 million displaced people could go home, too.

To be sure, many other Africans are also fleeing their homes. In eastern Congo, more than 150,000 people have been driven away in the past month, according to reports.

And in the past two months, the UN says, some 25,000 people in Sudan's other conflict - in Darfur - fled increased fighting between the government and rebels, many because their villages were attacked.

There's a debate about how to deal with returnees like Sawah. International aid groups don't want more camps built, and are encouraging returnees to get help from relatives.

"There were so many camps during the war," says one UN staffer in southern Sudan, who requested anonymity. "Peace shouldn't mean a whole new set of camps." But local officials worry the returnee wave will swamp local communities, causing new tensions.

"What am I supposed to do, put all of them in my private house?" complains Muorwel Majok, a county official in Rumbek. An imperfect compromise may involve "welcome centers" where returnees can stay only a few days.

Meanwhile, Sawah waits. She hopes officials will give her a new plot. And she expects her other children will come soon - and meet their new brother. In all, her journey was worth it. "I ran from danger in Khartoum and found this child," she says. "He is my reward."

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