Hands moving nervously, her gaze staring at a nearby table, Sarah Clero Rial still remembers vividly the memories of her troubled past. Rial is Southern Sudanese, now a single mom with three kids and a job in both the United States and her home country; in 1991, she was just a young African girl living in the Sudanese capital of Khartoum, after having barely escaped the civil war that was raging in the south of the country at that time. “Living in the South was really tough. There were continued shortages and a lot of tension, stabbings and shootings. Many people were killed or simply vanished,” she recounts. “When my family decided to move to the North, we took the last train from Wau to Khartoum before the railway was closed.”
But even if moving to the capital saved her life, being a Christian and southerner was never going to be easy in the Islamic and Arab-dominated North. The rebels of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) were fighting against a government whose policies were perceived as pro-Arab and oblivious to the lack of development in the South, and coming from that region meant arousing the suspicion of the Sudanese authorities. One day, Rial’s life changed abruptly and forever: arrested for wearing a traditional African skirt—unacceptable in a city governed by strict sharia-based rules—she was tied up and put on the back of an open police truck. Then she was driven around Khartoum for the whole afternoon, as a warning for whomever might have thoughts of doing the same.
“People were throwing dirt at me, launching all sort of insults. It was really humiliating,” she says. She was eventually released, but deep in her heart, her decision had already been made. “My personal revolution started that very moment,” she says. “I realized that I would have never changed my habits and accept to be a second-class citizen in my own country.”