Izaac's brave journey to safety

AFTER watching his family butchered and coming close to his own death, Izaac Darbous managed to escape captors in his war-ravaged country Sudan. After a tortuous journey, a sniffer dog found him hanging on to the undercarriage of a lorry at Felixstowe.

AFTER watching his family butchered and coming close to his own death, Izaac Darbous managed to escape captors in his war-ravaged country Sudan. After a tortuous journey, a sniffer dog found him hanging on to the undercarriage of a lorry at Felixstowe. During national Refugee Week, REBECCA LEFORT tells of his incredible journey.

GENOCIDE and horrific civil war in Africa may seem a long way from Ipswich, but for Izaac Darbous the conflict is still too close to home.

Izaac, now of Woodbridge Road East, Ipswich, grew up in the village of Kerkeka, in the Darfur region of Sudan.

He worked on the family farm, looking after 250 cows, and had never even seen the sea. He married a girl from his home village and they had two children.

But in April 2004 his traditional world was turned upside down as the Jangaweed, a government-backed militia, ransacked his village, killing his sister and many others.

Today, during national Refugee Week, Izaac can describe in a quiet calm voice, what has happened to him since that fateful day.

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The 32-year-old said: "One morning the Jangaweed came to our village while we were sleeping. They set fire to every house in the village. Everyone ran for their lives. About 50 people were shot including my sister.”

After burying the dead and sending his wife Hwaia, and children Adam and Zinab to another town, Izaac escaped to the mountains where he slept rough and met rebel troops who were fighting against the Jangaweed.

But after two weeks, he and 100 other men, were captured and taken to a prison with just one small room.

He said: "Every day the government troops would call out the names of the men they wanted 'for government work'. They never returned. We were regularly beaten by the troops and asked to give details of where the rebel troops were hiding. I didn't tell them.

"One morning, after ten days in the prison, the troops called my name and two others. They took us to another building which was surrounded by a wall. I knew this was very bad for me. I knew that we would be killed if we didn't give information concerning the whereabouts of the rebels. I knew also that we would be killed if we did.

"We did not have much time to act. There was a small window in the room. We decided to try to escape. Even if we died trying to escape, it was better than dying anyway.

"I climbed over on the shoulders of one of the others. We tied together torn strips of his long garment and I pulled the second man over the wall. As we tried to pull the third man over, we heard the troops coming around the corner, shouting 'What's going on?' We couldn't get the third man over the wall as he was very weak and tired. We had to leave him and run. This man was killed.”

Izaac, a practising Muslim, hid in the mountains while troops searched for him. Then he and other men jumped in to a lorry to travel for seven days across Sudan to Port Sudan, where they hoped to find a ship to help us leave the country.

He said: “It was very dangerous in this area of Sudan, as it is Arab-dominated and would not be safe for black Africans to walk freely in the streets.

"After a few more days, a contact offered me passage on a ship to Europe. I wasn't sure where exactly it was going but I accepted. It cost me a lot of money to get this ship.

"On the ship, I hid for 17 days in a small room. One of the ship's crew fed me, but I couldn't leave the room. After 17 days at sea, we docked somewhere in Italy. A man came to take me from the ship. He said that Italy was not safe as the rumours were that Eritreans arriving there had been sent straight back to Eritrea. I was scared and thought I should go to Holland, France, England or Spain instead.

"The man took me to a lorry yard where he made me get underneath a lorry in a tiny space by the axle.

"I didn't think I could stay there long as it was extremely uncomfortable. The lorry drove on to another ship with me holding on underneath it. The driver didn't know I was there."

Eventually Izaac's torturous journey came to an end, in Felixstowe on April 21, 2004.

He was discovered under the lorry by a sniffer dog. Tired and aching after an unimaginably horrendous ordeal, by a sniffer-dog and was taken to a hostel in Ipswich where he asked for asylum in Britain.

The first time he applied for asylum it was refused, like the majority of first-time applicants. But in October 2004 he was Refugee Status and granted indefinite leave to remain.

Since then Izaac has studied English, taken a job in a warehouse, and has been reunited with his wife and children.

He is finally happy again, and manages to speak openly and without bitterness about all he has been through. He hopes that one day his homeland will be safe again, but in the meantime still worries for his relatives who remain there.

He added: "Some days I can't believe I am still alive, after all that happened.

“I miss Sudan, my family, my village and my cattle. I hope one day there will be peace again."

For more information about Refugee Week, which runs until June 24, visit www.refugeeweek.org.uk.

What do you think about Izaac's story? Write to Your Letters, Evening Star, 30 Lower Brook Street, Ipswich IP4 1AN or e-mail: eveningstarletters@eveningstar.co.uk

After arriving in England, Izaac set about trying to trace his family.

He spent months contacting other Sudanese people in the UK, who had contacts back home and was overjoyed to hear news.

He said: “I received a phone call from my wife. It had been more than one year!

"She and my children had gone to a refugee camp in Sudan, near the Chad border. They had stayed there before going to another town in Sudan. It was very dangerous there, but they stayed there.”

In April this year the family were finally reunited thanks to the Red Cross and the United Nation's refugee agency UNHCR, which helped to locate Izaac's wife Hwaia and children and bring them to Ipswich.

Izaac interpreted the words of 30-year-old Hwaia who is currently learning English, and said: “She says 'it was a very horrible time when he was gone. I thought he was dead. I was very very happy to see him again and I like being here now - but it is too cold!'”

The family live in one bedroom at a hostel in Norwich Road, and the children Adam, eight and Zinab, six, attend Hillside Primary School.

WHEN Izaac arrived in Felixstowe he had no idea where he was, or what would happen to him.

But after being granted asylum in the UK he managed to carve a life for himself in Ipswich, thanks to help from the Suffolk Refugee Support Forum (SFRF).

Izaac said: “I am grateful to the UK for helping to save my life. I feel safe here.

“I am training to learn English and get some work experience, so that I can work and provide for myself.

“I have received a lot of support from agencies in Ipswich. Suffolk Refugee Support Forum and Refugee Council have helped me with forms and complicated applications. They have greeted me as a friend and made me feel welcome.

“It means a lot to me as a newcomer to this country, where everything is so different from life in my village.”

Rebecca Crerar of the SFRF said Izaac's story was particularly remarkable. She said: “What strikes me is his resilience, his strength of character, to have come though everything.

“A lot of people we talk to here have lost family members - but you wouldn't know it to talk to them because, like Izaac, they get on with things.”

SFRF's future is currently uncertain because funding runs out at the end of July.

If it closes, refugees will lose this vital service that helps them to integrate with society, by learning English and gaining employment.

Anyone who would like to help the SFRF, or is interested in volunteering should contact Rebecca Crerar on 01473 400786.

Sudan's name comes from the Arabic "bilad al-sudan", which means land of the blacks. In an Arab-dominated country, Darfur's population is mostly black African.

Civil war in Darfur (a region the size of France) is seen as "one of the worst nightmares in recent history".

Sudan has emerged from a 21-year civil war between the mainly Muslim north and the Animist and Christian south which is said to have cost the lives of 1.5 million people. Southern rebels say they are battling oppression and marginalisation.

For years, there have been tensions between the mostly African farmers and the mostly Arab herders, who have competed for land. Opposition groups in Darfur say the government neglects their province, and discriminates against black Africans.

Britain and the US have been pushing for the United Nations to take over the peacekeeping mission but Sudan will not allow a UN force on its territory.