A Lost Boy Steps Up

Let’s heal our wounds
Heal our heart
Stop the bloodshed
Bring the peace
To our nation
Stand up for the freedom
Step up
Step up

These are the final lines of a poem by James Diu Belieu Nainai, better known to his friends in South Sudan as “Drama King.” He has a story to tell and has found the courage to tell it.

Drama King stands in front of a large microphone
James Diu Belieu Nainai, better known to his friends in South Sudan as “Drama King.” Credit: David McDonald/Internews

When 38-year-old Drama King maneuvers through the crowded UN-operated camp known as a PoC (Protection of Civilians), he frequently stops to greet people or take a break from the discomfort of his prosthetic leg. Everyone seems to know him in the Bentiu PoC which is located in the northern part of the country. And everyone seems to know from the semi-crazed twinkle in his eye that his story includes the kind of suffering that is, unfortunately, very familiar to many South Sudanese.

“If we don’t stop the killings…[between] clans…if we don’t stop it then, you know, ain’t nothing going to be nice in the country,” says Drama King.

Despite the hope and promise of South Sudan’s jubilant birth six years ago, the country has descended into violence. More than 120,000 internally displaced people are living in the Bentiu PoC. The physical and mental anguish that prevails has pushed many to lose hope in the possibility of peace.

Yet Drama King and an energetic group of youth that he has helped mentor have decided it is time to step up for peace.

A United Generation

It was through strength and resilience despite the bleak outlook for their country that Drama King and his friends decided to get together to form a youth group inside the Bentiu PoC called United Sisters and Brothers, or USB Generation.

The group’s mission is to encourage youth art and sports for peace in South Sudan. With the help of various international aid organizations, USB Generation received a grant to purchase soccer and volleyball equipment and then set up teams and tournaments in the Bentiu PoC.

The next project for USB Generation concentrated on the arts, specifically an ambitious plan to produce their own music videos. With technical support from Internews, five songs and Drama King’s poem were recorded in the USB Generation tent and then video coverage was shot at the locations in the Bentiu PoC selected by the artist.

A woman stands at a mic facing a man who is wearing headphones. A group of 4 children stands nearby.
Nyajima “Angelina” Paul Thong Ruick (left) with backup singers (center) Mary Nyawar Puot Tutdel, Angelina Nyagak Puok Tutdel, Tabitha Nyachieng Liah Bol, and Sarah Nyayiene Gatgong Nyah take a break from recording the song “My Heart Will Be Happy” with technical assistance by Internews Humanitarian Multimedia Trainer David McDonald (right) in the UN-run Protection of Civilian camp in Bentiu, South Sudan on Friday, March 10, 2017. The recording was made into a music video as part of a series of peace videos produced by the youth group USB (United Brothers and Sisters) Generation. Credit: Gatleak Ruei Ruot/Internews

Each original piece was composed by the artist and provides an outlet wherein they candidly recount their traumatic experience of the South Sudan conflict, urge others to stop the cycle of violence, or simply sing about the joy of love.

USB Generation uploaded the first batch of videos on YouTube in March 2017 with the hope that their fellow South Sudanese as well as media outlets around the world would see that despite all the odds, there are people who believe peace is possible in this war-torn country.

A lost boy finds his way home

Drama King’s poem is called Step Up and starts with how he was taken from his family around the age of 10 years old and forced to fight during the Sudanese Civil War:

Yo, back in the day
89 was the year
That our life was in danger
Taken away from our mothers
Us young child soldiers
No churches
No education
No freedom
AK was the only option

“AK” referring to the ubiquitous AK-47 rifle that is all too common.

“Step Up” and other videos from the USB Generation can be found on YouTube.

The piece was Drama King’s first attempt to share his story with a wider audience and it comes from his experiences in the years he spent as a child soldier, living in a refugee camp in Kenya, resettled in the United States for two decades, and then his return to South Sudan just before the violence erupted in December 2013.

His performance is a unique mix of Western rap with South Sudanese English, and while it is clear he is sometimes uncomfortable expressing his traumatic experiences, his resolute optimism shines through.

So why did he leave the United States to come back to South Sudan?

“I was feeling in pain inside, you know, ’cause I’ve been gone [from South Sudan] for 24 years and … I didn’t know where my family at, my mom, I didn’t know [if] my mom was still breathing.”

Drama King returned to South Sudan in September 2013, not knowing what to expect. “I just braced myself and, you know, come and survive for my family. If I die, I die.”

He did reunite with his mother, but their joy was short-lived as the country descended into its own civil war just a few months after his return. He has been displaced, living with his family in the Bentiu PoC, ever since.

Perhaps it is not surprising that the youngest country in the world, borne out of generations of war, should return to violence like a bad habit. Last year, after opposition and government forces began fighting again, the economy spiraled into hyperinflation and the UN declared a famine. The violence and famine have now displaced close to 4 million persons both inside and outside of the country. The UN has warned that the violence in South Sudan has precipitated the “world’s fastest growing” refugee crisis.

Protecting the childhood of future South Sudanese

Drama King, whose own childhood was a nightmare of violence and fear, is determined to find ways to allow South Sudanese children to grow up with some semblance of peace and security.

His dream is “to build a school for the little [children], for [the next] South Sudanese generation.” But in the meantime, he stresses that any type of meaningful activity for youth can make a difference. That is why he is volunteering his time at USB Generation to promote sports and the formation of a media club that will hopefully produce more music videos. He knows these are small steps, but they are in the right direction to break the cycle of violence.

Drama King and the other members of USB Generation are trying to overcome the trauma they have experienced, the depressing boredom of living in the Bentiu PoC, and the overwhelming sense of pessimism that many South Sudanese feel about the future. As he puts it, the time is now to step up.

One person cannot do it at all
Everybody we can all do
This is the time right now
It’s not tomorrow, it’s not the next day

.     .     .

David McDonald is Humanitarian Multimedia Trainer for Internews in South Sudan. Mahrukh Hasan, Knowledge, M&E, and Reporting Manager in South Sudan, contributed to this story.

USB Generation (United Sisters and Brothers Generation) is a South Sudanese youth group based in the UN-operated Protection of Civilians site in Bentiu, South Sudan. The group runs sports activities and produces art projects to promote peace. USB Generation is supported by Internews through the USAID i-STREAM project. For more information about USB Generation, please contact [email protected].