Paperback: 288pp

Published: Eye Books (October 2023)

ISBN: 9781785633713

The End of Where We Begin

Rosalind Russell

£9.99

Winner: Moore Prize 2021

‘A beautiful, moving and important book’

Simon Reeve

Veronica is a teenager when civil war erupts in South Sudan, the world’s youngest country. Lonely and friendless after the death of her father, she finds solace in her first boyfriend, and together they flee across the city when fighting breaks out. On the same night Daniel, the son of a colonel, also makes his escape, but finds himself stranded beside the River Nile, alone and vulnerable. Lilian is a young mother who runs for her life holding the hand of her little boy, Harmony – until a bomb attack wrenches them apart and she is forced to trek on alone.

After epic journeys of endurance, these three young people’s lives cross in Bidi Bidi in Uganda – the world’s largest refugee camp. There they meet James, a counsellor who helps them find light and hope in the darkest of places.

In a gripping true-life narrative, Rosalind Russell tells their stories with uplifting empathy and tenderness.

OUT OCTOBER 2023. AVAILABLE FOR PRE-ORDER NOW

Extracts

With the first hint of dawn the camp begins to stir. The darkness fades and the small, twittering birds that share this desolate, unsatisfactory home with a quarter of a million refugees launch into their feeble chorus. A pale, violet light seeps through the cracks around the door to Lilian’s one- roomed home and slowly her eyelids open. Another day. She sits up on the narrow iron bedstead, plants her feet on the dirt floor and steps straight outside in her nightdress. The jumbled remnants of a dream slip away as her muscle memory walks her, barefoot, to the water tap.

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Extracts

With the first hint of dawn the camp begins to stir. The darkness fades and the small, twittering birds that share this desolate, unsatisfactory home with a quarter of a million refugees launch into their feeble chorus. A pale, violet light seeps through the cracks around the door to Lilian’s one- roomed home and slowly her eyelids open. Another day. She sits up on the narrow iron bedstead, plants her feet on the dirt floor and steps straight outside in her nightdress. The jumbled remnants of a dream slip away as her muscle memory walks her, barefoot, to the water tap.

Things move slowly in the camp. Time and money, the twin engines of life elsewhere, aren’t so important here. There are hardly any jobs and very little cash. It is always hot, so no one rushes, but there are still certain chores that need to be done. At the water pump, neat lines of yellow plastic jerrycans radiate from the single tap like sun rays in a child’s drawing. Lilian sets down her container at the end of a row.

Dozens of women have got there before her. The tap won’t be switched on until seven and they have scratched their initials onto the containers so they can come back to claim their places once they’ve got the cooking fires going.

Lilian lives by herself in the camp, but she hasn’t always been alone. She was married at nineteen and she and her husband had a beautiful baby boy. In South Sudan she had a job she loved and a vegetable garden where she grew cassava, maize, groundnuts and beans. Now, six years on, she has lost her husband, her son, her house and her land. She could blame the war for that, but actually she blames herself. This is an issue she needs to work on, her counsellor has told her.

She walks back home with her friend Asha. The two young women, tall and lean, stroll towards the rising sun, responding to its nurturing warmth like flowers, standing straighter, tilting up their chins. Lilian feels wonder that she can do this, live another day, go on. She doesn’t understand why she is still alive, why she fetches water, sweeps, cooks and talks to her neighbours. But something is driving her forward.

“So, are you serving today?” Lilian asks her friend.

Asha is a quiet, industrious woman. She has started her own business in the camp selling her home-brewed maize liquor; she half-starved herself to get the seed money but now it’s paying modest dividends, for which she thanks God because she has just found out she has a baby on the way.

“Yes, but I only have two bottles left. I’m closing before counselling starts,” Asha says.

“Those men will be disappointed!” says Lilian, talking about the drinkers who assemble under the tree as the sun starts to get hot. Asha serves them her powerful, fermented brew in plastic mugs and they talk and laugh and fight and usually fall asleep, half propped up on the knots of the tree roots. Asha wakes them when it’s dark and sends them home. “How about,” suggests Lilian, “after we’ve finished today, I’ll help you with the next batch.”

Asha smiles at her friend. It’s rare to see Lilian in such good spirits. They set down the water drums next to the beaten metal doors of their adjacent mud-brick homes and Asha hears Lilian softly humming as she starts to prepare the porridge that must sustain her until tomorrow.

Today is counselling day and, although they would never say so, they are both looking forward to it.

Daniel is sitting on the bench he has made, leaning back against the warm clay of the shady side of the house. He is idly strumming his guitar, more from habit than enjoyment; he knows that no one really wants to hear him play. He watches his mother and sister. They are squatting next to two basins of water. His mother is washing their clothes with a bar of laundry soap, handing the items to Tabitha, his sister, who rinses and wrings and hangs each piece up on the line. Daniel watches the woodsmoke drift up and cling to the wet clothes; everything will smell worse than when they started, he thinks, but says nothing. He admires them, he really does.

He can’t believe he’s here, back in a refugee camp. He feels safe again, but that is the only positive. He and his sister grew up in another camp, in Kenya – that was when they thought their father was dead. It was only when he reappeared and they started a new life in South Sudan did Daniel realise what life in a refugee camp had meant: rules, restriction and, worst of all, stagnation. Some people like it, the boundaries and the certainty, but Daniel isn’t one of them.

He has an appointment today, such a rare occurrence he must be careful not to forget to go. There is so little to punctuate their lives, it’s easy to lose track of the days. He’d love to have a calendar, like the one they used to have with pictures of a happy family drinking Ovaltine. The father in a work suit, a smiling mother and two healthy children, a boy and a girl, both smart in their school uniforms. They looked so clean and happy. Daniel’s family had kept it for years afterwards, turning it back to January at the start of each year and going through the months again just to see the pictures, the days were all wrong. But anyway, his appointment, his next session of counselling, is definitely today, Tuesday, two days after Sunday which is the only day that’s different in the camp.That’s the day they go to the open-air church with the tree log pews and his mother tries to get her hands on some cabbage or onions to distract from the monotony of their food rations.

A couple of months ago Daniel was given a questionnaire from one of the aid organisations. They were worried about the refugees, because of all that they’d been through. They wanted to help everyone, especially the ones who had seen the worst of it, to stop them from going mad. Daniel filled in the questionnaire and he really enjoyed it; no one had ever made such enquiries about his well-being, his sleep patterns, his health and his feelings before. Some of the things they asked he had never even considered. He’d never been encouraged to dwell on his emotions, or even acknowledge them, so holding that biro and going through the whole survey was a real novelty, and in some ways, a relief.

It was tempting to skew the answers. He thought he knew what they were looking for, what would get him onto the treatment programme, but he tried to be completely honest. Some of the questions made him think about things he had never thought of before, or made him feel upset.

Did he sleep badly, were his nights full of terrors? Yes. If it wasn’t the fighting in Bor it was often the bus crash and the faces of his school friends. Did he isolate himself from others? He hadn’t thought about it like that, but on consideration, yes. Was he emotionally short-tempered? His mother would say so. Was he depressed? He didn’t know what that meant. Did he suffer from headaches? Body aches? Yes, but that was from the accident. Did he ever feel suicidal? That question just made him feel guilty, unworthy. Only people who had really suffered badly could think of something like that. What he’d been through was just the same as everyone else.

Veronica is wearing her stripy top. It has wide brown, orange and white stripes. It’s actually a child’s top, but it’s made of stretchy material. The sleeves reach just past her elbows and the curve of her belly shows above the waistband of her skirt but it still looks good. Veronica looks good in anything. She is long-limbed and graceful, her skin luminous, her head shaved, her face perfection. Veronica is the seventeen-year- old mother of two-year-old Sunday, who has come with her to the group counselling session. The little girl wears a grubby ivory-coloured nylon party dress – a cast-off from another child in another world. She loves the dress, but the material makes her skin itchy when it’s hot.

The sun is burning through the white canopy of the tent’s roof – sheets of white UNHCR tarpaulin stitched together. Veronica, the youngest in the counselling group, is sitting on a plastic mat and the other women are clucking around her. They are kind, she thinks, she doesn’t feel judged, like she usually does.

“Sunday! Sunday!” they call, delighted by the round- cheeked toddler who runs around the circle of women sitting on the floor. There are two men in the group too; they are standing, waiting for the session to start. The little girl stumbles and falls, carefully picks herself up from the bare floor, checks her dirty palms and sets off again.

“So, when are you expecting the next one?” asks the woman sitting next to Veronica. Although Veronica hasn’t told anyone about her pregnancy, her slender frame means it’s impossible to hide. What she really wants is to go back to school, but she’s not sure how that will work, with Sunday and the new baby. She fiddles with the silver crucifix that her father gave her at her Confirmation when she was eleven years old. That seems a long time ago now.

“In May,” Veronica, almost whispers in her soft, dreamy voice. “It will be raining by then.”

To her relief, further enquiries are curtailed by James the counsellor who claps his hands to get the session underway. They all look up. Each one of them, for their own reasons, is keen for this to work. He claps out a rhythm, which Veronica and the others duly repeat. It’s to wake them up, help them concentrate, he says, pacing around their circle, exuding his usual enthusiasm. This is session eight of the programme and today, he tells them, they will continue to share their most difficult experiences with each other – but only if they want to, of course.

A faint line forms between Veronica’s eyebrows. She’s not sure if she has the confidence to speak today. She struggles in this kind of environment. Sensing the change in atmosphere, Sunday toddles back to her mother and plants herself on her lap. Veronica puts her arms around her daughter and dips her head so the little girl’s soft cheek rests against hers.

Lilian, the woman who always wears a yellow dress, passes around sheets of paper. They are handouts from James, to help them understand their feelings. Lilian likes to look for these jobs to do, Veronica has noticed. Last week, Lilian told the group how she lost her little boy when she ran from South Sudan. They had been caught in a battle, and everyone had been separated. She has no idea if he is dead or alive. Although Veronica has her own problems, she felt the aching emptiness of this woman’s grief. She cried when she heard that story.

“Can you two share one?” asks Lilian, licking the end of her finger and separating a white A4 sheet from the pile. She smiles at Sunday, who is now sitting quietly in her mother’s lap, examining her fingers. Veronica thanks her and accepts the piece of paper, watching Lilian’s smile drop as she moves on round the circle.

quotes

‘Engages our hearts with vivid and moving stories…written with extraordinary clarity, compassion and impact’

Moore Prize 2021 Jury

‘A beautiful, moving and important book about survival and the power of the human spirit’

Simon Reeve

‘Insightful and deeply humane’

Michela Wrong, author of Do Not Disturb and It’s Our Turn to Eat

‘A powerful and authentic account’

Luka Biong Deng Kuol, author of The Struggle for South Sudan

reviews

‘A captivating…compelling chronicle of the refugee experience of displacement, loss and hope’

Ka’edi Africa

‘Powerful and moving…stays in your memory long after you have put it back on your bookshelf’

Publishing Post

‘A harrowing, intimate examination of civil war’s toll’

Kirkus Reviews

extras

ABOUT

Rosalind Russell

Rosalind Russell is a journalist and editor with two decades of international experience.

She has worked as a foreign correspondent for Reuters and The Independent in East Africa, the Middle East and Asia, reporting on the fall of the Taliban in Afghanistan, the war in Iraq and Myanmar’s Saffron Revolution.

Her first book, Burma’s Spring, was described by Asian Affairs as ‘reportage at its best’ and reached number one in the UK Kindle non-fiction bestseller list.

She lives in London with her husband and two daughters and currently works for the Evening Standard.

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