H&H interview: Refugee Abdul Musa Adam on turning to horses *H&H Plus*

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  • The Sudanese refugee has survived war, extermination of his village and torture, and is rebuilding his life as a stable lad at one of the top Flat racing yards in England. Eleanor Jones tracks his journey from Darfur to Berkshire

    For years, Abdul Musa Adam was afraid to sleep.

    In his dreams, he would see, over and over again, the burning of his home. The bodies of his family, strangers’ bodies black with flies on city streets. His torturers in a Libyan prison. Then the dreams came during his waking hours.

    “When I work with horses, it gets better,” says Abdul, who now works for trainer Andrew Balding. “Horses give me a connection to my family, and a way back to the person I was.”

    Abdul was born nearly 3,000 miles away from Kingsclere’s green hills near Newbury, in a tent in Darfur, a region of western Sudan. His parents were nomads, of the Zaghawa tribe, moving their herds according to the grazing and the water.

    His early memories are of beautiful bright dresses, fresh mangoes and guava after the rains, skies full of countless stars, grass so green “it hurt your eyes”. Abdul’s grandfather, a sheikh, told the children of men and women with white skin, but they were not sure whether they believed him.

    Abdul’s father taught him to ride; the camels as well as horses – “Camels are easier,” Abdul says. “Horses buck and kick, but camels don’t” – and on celebration days there would be racing. Abdul’s people are known as horsemen, and the animals who race are often descended from colonial racehorses, or those who had escaped from Khartoum’s elite stables.

    Until Abdul was six, his childhood was idyllic. By the time he was seven, war had come into his life.

    He already knew to be wary of the Janjaweed, a paramilitary force used by the government, but the knowledge was not enough to save him.

    “If I don’t tell you what happened to my village, who will?” Abdul writes in his new autobiography. “Of those who escaped, I am the only one I know of who is left alive.”

    Surviving the extermination

    Abdul’s grandfather sent the boy and his three-year-old brother Yusuf out of the village when the Janjaweed came, which meant they survived the extermination. When Abdul returned to the camp, only charred remains were left of their family. Aboud Abdulrahman, his father’s friend, and his mother’s friend Zeinab had somehow survived, so the four of them made the three-day walk to Chad.

    They spent three years in a refugee camp, hungry and thirsty, in the “living hell” of the barren, burning desert, until Aboud decided to take Abdul to Libya to try to find a better life. Yusuf, aged six, was too ill to travel, so Aboud planned to send for him and Zeinab as soon as possible.

    Abdul has not seen his brother since, only his face in his dreams.

    In Libya, Aboud and Abdul found work and a place to live. But, aged 12, Abdul was picked up by soldiers, who wanted him to fight, or said they would send him back to his home “to rot”. Kept in a squalid camp, Abdul was beaten with iron bars, coshes and bats when he told them he’d not fight after what had happened to his family.

    He still carries the scars from the beatings, as well as the burn marks from the electric shocks. A doctor helped him escape the camp and he returned to Aboud, but after the Libyan uprising Aboud gave himself up to rebel soldiers to protect Abdul.

    Having lost his last link to home, Abdul learnt to scavenge for food in bins, slept in bombed buildings and tried to bury the bodies left lying in the streets. He managed to get on to a boat heading for France, where there were no bombs, no soldiers.

    But after the heat of Africa, the nights were cold, and Abdul found a bin to sleep in. The warmth of the vile bin, and the tuna sandwiches made by kindly Tunisian man Wahil, kept him alive.

    But after one morning, when the dustbin lorry arrived to crush the rubbish and only Abdul’s hammering on the sides alerted authority to his presence, Wahil helped him stow away on a lorry bound for Britain.

    For 15 hours, Abdul clung to the underside of the lorry as it made its way from southern France to Britain. Had the truck stopped anywhere else, Abdul’s story might have taken an entirely different direction. But its destination was Wiltshire, which shaped his future.

    Post-traumatic stress disorder

    In July 2012, as the Olympic torch made its way towards London for the Games, 15-year-old Abdul, weighing seven stone, found himself in a strange country, unable to speak the language, suffering from headaches from the beatings he had suffered in Libya. He was granted refugee status and leave to remain, but now he was safe, the nightmares came.

    Although he found Ira, the foster carer he soon called Mum, and solace in running and with animals, he was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, and tormented by not knowing what had become of Yusuf. Aged 18, he had to leave foster care, and when a trip to Calais – to the Jungle refugee camp, in search of his brother – proved unsuccessful, Abdul felt he had nothing left to live for.

    “I didn’t want to be alone in a strange land any more, thinking about everyone I had lost, and all the things that had been done to me,” Abdul writes. “My parents had died in a fire, and I decided that was how I would die.”

    But the cashier at the nearby petrol station would not sell him a can of fuel without ID. The next day, Ira came for him, to say she had found him a place at Greatwood, a charity that takes in former racehorses and provides equine therapy to those who need it most.

    “I really enjoyed it there,” Abdul says; the scent of the horses took him back to Darfur, as if his family were just out of sight. They gave him a way back to the person he was, and showed him it was possible to find a home somewhere.

    “Horses never judge who you are or what you’ve done,” he says. “They don’t care where you’re from.”

    Abdul learnt to muck out and care for the horses. He rode a racing simulator and eventually understood the meaning of the sign in the classroom: “Learn from yesterday, live for today, hope for tomorrow.”

    He went on to the Northern Racing College and started riding racehorses, enjoying every moment of the course, during which time he won the Pride of Sport young achiever award. After the course, Abdul was offered a job with Andrew Balding at Park House Stables, where he still is to this day, loving his work with the horses and nurturing a dream, which may become reality next year, of riding in races.

    Under the watchful eyes of the statue of the legendary Mill Reef, Abdul works long days, building relationships with his horses, starting to heal. “Horses make me happy,” he says.

    Abdul, who was granted British citizenship last year, tells his story in a book co-written by Ros Wynne-Jones, and dedicated to his brother. It is called The Journey, although of course Abdul’s journey is far from over.

    He says he wanted to write it because of Yusuf, in the hope someone may know where he is and that he might find him again. Happy though Abdul is in his new life, it means less while Yusuf cannot share it with him.

    And what would it mean if he could find Yusuf again? “Everything,” Abdul says.

    Ref Horse & Hound; 10 September 2020