Commentary: An Airman’s 381-mile walk for refuge

NESHA HUMES/U.S. Air Force photo illustration
Staff Sgt. Martha Otto, 86th Logistics Readiness Squadron training manager, fled her South-Sudanese home at the age of seven in search of safety from Joseph Kony’s Lord Resistance Army and spent most of her childhood in a refugee camp. Today, she is passionate about sharing her distinctive journey to help others.
Stock photo
Kakuma refugee camp, situated in North West Kenya, was home for Staff Sgt. Martha Otto before immigrating to the U.S in 2000, later going on to serve in the U.S. Air Force. Otto fled her South-Sudanese home at the age of seven in search of safety from Joseph Kony’s Lord Resistance Army and spent the majority of her childhood in refugee camps.
By STAFF SGT. NESHA HUMES
86th Airlift Wing Public Affairs
May 11, 2017

RAMSTEIN AIR BASE, Germany — As a child, worrying about where or when you’re going to eat your next meal shouldn’t be a thought, yet for one Ramstein Airman, it was only one of her countless fears.

Staff Sgt. Martha Otto is one of millions of Sudanese refugees who fled their homes due to unrest caused by Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA). The LRA made news for and still targets civilians to draft child soldiers while raping, killing, and looting villages.

From her life before knowing about LRA, Otto has faint memories of playing with her friends and having dinner with her family. Then the war hit in 1994.

Since sitting for this interview, Otto, then training manager for the 86th Logistics Readiness Squadron, has moved for her next assignment at Hill Air Force Base, Utah. Her overall recollection of dangerous events she encountered and their accurate timeline are sometimes hazy, as might be expected when, as a child, war erases all sense of time.

Nevertheless, she shared her journey.

“I’m about 33 years old now,” Otto said. “The reason I say ‘I’m about’ is because growing up in the war zone, anything about my birth is not available.”

Around the age of 7, Otto left her hometown village of Opari, in what is now considered South Sudan, with her mother and two older brothers to begin a rigorous 381-mile journey. To where, she said, they weren’t exactly sure.

“The whole neighborhood started leaving,” she said, “So my mother told me we’re leaving too. We packed up everything we could carry, which wasn’t much.”

They walked for nights on end on a path worn by those who walked before them.

“The main objective was to stay out of harm’s way,” Otto said. “We stayed off the main road and on the beaten path. We walked during the night, we slept during the day; It wasn’t safe to walk during the day.”

She said, that’s how people were captured and killed.

The Otto family lost their father the year before and most men were drafted to combat the LRA. Therefore, it was mothers and their children left to defend themselves.

She recalls the boys in the group running ahead and climbing trees to survey the woodlands for any forward threats. Everyone had a role in the fifteen-person group, as did little Otto.

Barefoot and frail, Otto carried a sack of salt to serve as currency for her family to trade for vegetables and beans.

“It might have been maybe three pounds of salt I carried barefoot,” said Otto.

Occasionally, Otto said, they’d stumble on a recently pillaged and displaced village with a farmland of vegetables and leftover rations.

When they did find food to eat, they ate quickly since campfire smoke alerted the enemy of their position. Thankfully, thick brush provided sufficient coverage during their quick daytime naps.

After nearly a month of walking, Otto and her group reached a safe zone.

Exhausted and frightened, Otto said she was finally able to rest her sore, blistered feet.

“The United Nations had set up a section where the rebels from Sudan could not cross the border of South Sudan and Uganda,” Otto said. “It was safer for people. Once we got there, I remember the UN workers brought us food and shelter.”

The Otto family set up their provided hut house and supplies in Achol-Pii refugee camp while attending a volunteer based school and trying to reset their lives back to normal.

It didn’t last long.

“One day, we woke up to the sound of gun shots and smoke and people screaming,” Otto recalls. “I came out of the tent and there was fire. We heard more screaming as they were kidnapping children to take with them to join their military. They grabbed people, shot them and took the children. I remember running into the woods and staying there all night. The next morning, I came back to the house and found my mom and brother. They had been looking for me.”

“The LRA came to the camp, took as much food from the UN storage as they could, and set the rest on fire.”

Otto’s mother decided they couldn’t stay any longer being so close to the war. Not knowing what their future held, she took the salt, some belongings, and some food to sell for bus tickets to Kenya.

Three weeks after determining it was safe to travel, they headed to Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya where their livelihood became solely reliant on the UN.

“It was really hot, the refugee camp was in the desert so there wasn’t anywhere to farm,” Otto said. “Every 15 days we would go to the distribution center for corn flour, beans, and cooking oil. Some days you have to sell a little bit of the oil to get vegetables.”

As they waited for hope day by day, Otto went to school and participated in the UN activity programs for girls.

“I stayed busy to try and learn something. UN child protective officers worked with the girls to stay involved with sewing or teaching us multiple skills to build our confidence.”

In January 2000, Otto’s mother became ill. With little medical care in the camps, she passed within a month. At this point, it was only Otto and her one older brother.

“I was in a cloud of depression. I couldn’t go anywhere, I stayed at home. Then one day, I heard a child protection officer lady was looking for me.”

In the midst of her mother’s health decreasing, Otto forgot about the resettlement forms she had submitted for the family.

Otto was notified that the U.S. had accepted her and her brother to immigrate. Suddenly, life became a little bit brighter.

“I was happy and sad at the same time,” she said, with her mother still on her mind. “I remember the stories I heard about the U.S., that if you go, you wouldn’t believe your eyes. If you’re hungry, all you have to do is push a button in the wall and a plate of food will come out. I was like, Wow! When you’re in a situation like mine, we were always thinking ‘I wonder what I’m going to eat today Lord,’ to there are literally countries where all you have to do is push a button and food pops out the wall. That’s where I want to go!”

The siblings were subjected to multiple medical exams and interviews in preparation for their new home.

Six months later, wearing her best flip-flops and a smile that stretched from the Nile to the Mississippi, Otto said she awaited the bus yielding her hopes of a better, safer life.

Unprepared for the challenges, experiences and lessons her new life would bring, a helicopter landed in place of a bus.

The Ottos were told to get in.

This ends Part I of a three part series. See next week’s Hilltop Times for more.