A new life in Wollongong after the horror of war

Juliet Biayanka managed to escape her war-torn homeland with her life and begin again in the Illawarra. Pictures: CHRISTOPHER CHAN

Juliet Biayanka managed to escape her war-torn homeland with her life and begin again in the Illawarra. Pictures: CHRISTOPHER CHAN

She lay near corpses pretending to be dead to escape the conflict in her homeland. Now Juliet Biayanka is using her second chance to save others. She speaks to GEMMA KHAICY. 

For much of her life, Juliet Biayanka had to keep moving from town to town to dodge the violence wrought by rebels on her country.

Last week she moved again, but this time it was into her own house in Dapto, one she bought with a friend.

For someone who spent most of her life running away, either from violence in Sierra Leone or haunting memories as a refugee, it was a marker of how far she's come.

She will never escape the memories, but at least now she can live with them.

'At first I would never speak about it, because it would make be cry and cry. I think I've recovered from the shock.'

It was an ordinary day in 1991 when her town Segbwema came under attack.

Children were kidnapped, conscripted as soldiers, drugged with cocaine then armed with weapons and sent to mutilate and kill.

They had already been rendered hopeless as they watched their parents shot dead.

"Because they're young and their parents have been killed, they didn't have anything to live for," Juliet says.

Sierra Leone had become embroiled in a civil war born in Liberia, fuelled by dissatisfaction over the diamond-filled country's distribution of wealth.

Juliet looks through a family photo album as she settles into a new home in Dapto.

Juliet looks through a family photo album as she settles into a new home in Dapto.

The rebel Revolutionary United Front started an uprising which led to more than 75,000 deaths.

Their tactics were to target civilians and their aim was to overthrow the government.

Juliet was caught in the crossfire of one of these attacks.

"Whole streets were full of dead people that day," she remembers. "You have to pretend to be dead to stay alive. So you lie there beside the corpse, close your eyes and stay still."

Once the rebels left the town, some of the survivors fled.

With her four-year-old daughter on her back, Juliet walked three days to the next town, Kenema.

"You just have to keep going, because if you stop you die," she says.

Those who stayed behind were killed in another rebel attack.

After three days, Juliet left her daughter Yetta Beah with her parents and moved to the city Freetown to become a teacher.

Eventually though, the rebels closed in, and on January 6, 2000, they attacked the city.

"They actually marched into the heart of the city killing people," she recalls.

"They were using human shields to get into Freetown; there was a lot of chaos.

"They killed, burnt and maimed people.

"It's a day most Sierra Leoneans won't forget."

Juliet could not take any more; she escaped to Ghana later that year by boat, sending 12-year-old Yetta to London to live with her father.

In Ghana, her teaching qualifications enabled her to live away from the refugee camp and teach English and religious education to children.

After watching the angry and anguished child-soldiers destroy her town, she was compelled to instil her Christian morality in her students.

"You have to let them know what is right and wrong," she says.

She spent nearly five years in Ghana teaching, then in May 2005 the Australian government handed her a permanent refugee visa and with that, hope.

But upon arriving in Australia, a feeling of loneliness washed over her.

Wollongong was a strange place with different rules for transport, foreign food, a place where it was acceptable for people to hold hands and kiss in the street.

Unlike her African diet of rice, sauce and sweet potato leaves, the fridge at her new home was filled with food she had never seen before, like lasagne.

"I thought, 'What? What sort of food is this?' To this day I can't eat lasagne, I just don't like it. I'll have a slice of pizza occasionally, but I don't like it that much."

Travelling by train was also a new experience. Unlike the buses in Sierra Leone, tickets had to be paid for before boarding.

"I explained to them how it works where I came from and said I am new to the country, so they didn't fine me."

Even a simple trip out to the shops presented challenges.

"It was funny when I first went to the shopping mall, because I had never used escalators I put my foot in between the steps and I nearly fell," she laughed.

When Juliet first heard fireworks as a refugee in Ghana, all she could picture were the bullets that sprayed her town.

Now, when New Year's Eve and Australia roll around, she can sit back and enjoy the display, mindful of her past but determined to keep moving forward in her life.

"You can't keep looking back, because you will stop moving on," she says.

"I can actually sit back and think about the whole thing.

"At first I would never speak about it, because it would make be cry and cry.

"I think I've recovered from the shock.

"I had to move on."

Prayer and faith in God were her salvation when she was caged within the war, and later, when she felt lonely and lost.

"When I look back, I thank God we were able to get people to help us," she says, referring to support from Kerrie Bevile and husband Lawrence Smith from the Strategic Community Assistance to Refugee Families (SCARF).

The Illawarra Multicultural Services also provided invaluable help, she says.

Through the IMS, Juliet trained for three months and became an aged-care worker.

It was confronting at first, because in Sierra Leone, the elderly are kept at home.

"We have such respect for the elderly," she says.

"You start thinking, 'this could be my grandmother or grandad'."

The next step was to become a nurse.

With the support of the IMS and SCARF, Juliet then completed her Bachelor of Nursing at the University of Wollongong in 2010 and four years later, a Masters in Public Health.

"I want to get to the problems behind health issues like smoking and drinking," she says.

"You can't just tell people to stop; you have to ask why they are doing it in the first place."

With her mind fixed firmly on health promotion, settling into her new home and contributing to Australian society, Juliet feels the beginning of another journey.

This time though, her nerves are one of hopeful anticipation, not fear.