A generation of Lost Boys returned home to build a new nation in South Sudan. Now war has found them again.
- By Timothy D. May<p> Timothy D. May is a former journalist who has worked for the Associated Press and the Los Angeles Times. Until December 2013, he was the South Sudan field researcher for the Enough Project, an anti-genocide organization. Follow him on Twitter @Timmaysudan. </p>
It was 3 a.m. on Monday, Dec. 16, and the rebel army was coming. Panther Alier’s iPhone was still lit up from the call that awakened him at the South Sudan Hotel in Bor, the capital of Jonglei state. In the phone’s glow, he looked at his wife and baby, asleep under a mosquito net. The rebels were 20 kilometers south, the caller said.
Alier looked outside and saw people filing into the parking lot on the banks of the Nile River, he later recalled by email. Had it come to this, again? The moment at which he must decide to run from his homeland, or stay and face men with guns? In the end, the choice was clear. Thirty years after first fleeing from war in Sudan as a barefoot child, Alier, now a U.S. citizen working for Deloitte Consulting, prepared to make a second escape from Jonglei, this time with his wife and infant son on a United Nations helicopter.
Alier is a member of South Sudan’s generation of Lost Boys, former child refugees who walked hundreds of kilometers across sub-Saharan terrain to crowded refugee camps in neighboring Ethiopia and Kenya in the 1980s to escape from Sudan’s second bloody civil war. Thousands died along the way. But Alier, who was only 10 when he fled in 1987, did better than just survive. He excelled in the camps’ schools, learned English, and became one of about 3,600 children accepted into the Lost Boys child resettlement program. Placed with a host family in Massachusetts in 2001, Alier continued to work hard in school, eventually graduating magna cum laude from the University of Massachusetts in Boston. He shook the hand of then-U.S. Sen. Barack Obama, who delivered the UMass commencement speech that year.
Stories of the Lost Boys’ suffering, survival, and adaptation to Western cultures have been well-documented in newspapers, books, and films over the years. Less attention has been paid, however, to the postscripts of those who returned to South Sudan to help build the world’s newest nation from scratch. "Because so many of them grew up without sectarian prejudices, and have spent so much time in mature and functioning democracies, they have a particular mix of optimism and hope and pragmatism, divorced from historical biases," author Dave Eggers wrote in an email. (Eggers’s award-winning 2006 novel, What is the What, was based on the life of former Lost Boy Valentino Achak Deng.)
Since the signing of the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement that ended one of Africa’s longest civil conflicts and paved the way for southern independence in 2011, many former Lost Boys have joined development organizations, academia, and government, or launched their own grassroots projects that have brought clean water to rural villages, built health clinics, and enabled thousands of children to attend new schools. According to the former coordinator of The Hope of Sudan Alliance, a Chicago-based group that tracks nearly two dozen non-profit organizations founded by Lost Boys working in South Sudan, an estimated 700 former Lost Boys — about 20 percent of those originally accepted into the resettlement program — have returned over the past decade to pick up the pieces of broken lives, find families last seen decades ago, and help lay the foundation for the country’s future. Indeed, many of them hope to become South Sudan’s next generation of leaders, and today they constitute a small, well-educated, and networked group of activists and advocates for peace.
In December, however, a political struggle between the new nation’s rulers devolved into open fighting, exacerbated by deep divisions within the country’s army, and engulfed the two-year-old nation in new conflict. The International Crisis Group estimates that as many as 10,000 people have been killed in violence that initially spread along ethnic fault lines. According to U.N. statistics, nearly 700,000 people have been displaced internally and an additional 167,000 fled to neighboring countries as sporadic fighting continued into late February.
Former Lost Boys who returned from exile to help their struggling homeland are deeply upset by the fighting, though they say they are determined not to allow the current political upheaval and violence to derail their work. "The government says disarmament will stop the war. But if you have two people beating each other with sticks, and you just take away the sticks, won’t they still fight?" said John Dau, founder of the Lost Boys of Central New York and the John Dau Foundation, a non-profit based in Syracuse, New York, that opened the Duk Lost Boys Clinic in Jonglei state in 2007. "They’ll box, they’ll kick, they’ll use nails," Dau added. "Just taking the arms away doesn’t help. You have to disarm their hearts. You have to bring surgery, clinics, roads, schools. Help them, sit down with them, and let them understand that if you stop fighting, the government can do this, the international community will help. We can bring peace to South Sudan."
The magnitude of this task is daunting, however, and while the prospect that a few hundred activists could change the fortunes of a war-torn country of nearly 11 million isn’t impossible, it certainly seems far-fetched. And the recent conflict has thrown the progress made by the Lost Boys into sudden jeopardy.
Dau’s foundation brought health care to a previously un-served rural area and coordinates annual trips by U.S.-based doctors to South Sudan to perform eye surgeries, which have restored the sight of more than 600 blind people. The project is also a platform for a peace initiative called the Ambassador Group, which arranges discussions with patients from different ethnic groups and led by former Lost Boys — 26 from six different tribes — to improve historically tense relations. Their latest trip to Jonglei, scheduled for December, was to dovetail with a planned surgery mission by U.S. ophthalmologists, but it was put on hold after the fighting started. Now it’s tentatively rescheduled for the end of the year; whether it occurs depends on the trajectory of violence in South Sudan.
Abraham Awolich, founder of the Sudan Development Foundation (SUDEF), which operates two clinics in the center of South Sudan, similarly found his painfully crafted gains suddenly under siege. The clinics — the only functioning health care facilities in the area where they’re located — were overwhelmed by people fleeing fighting in nearby states. Awolich found himself coordinating with the International Medical Corps, which set up emergency surgery and intensive care operations at the SUDEF clinics. The World Health Organization stepped in, too, providing solar power and refrigeration units. In January, as he worked feverishly from Juba to keep the clinics open, Awolich wrote in an email that the conflict is "eroding social capital and a sense of nationality really fast… It will take decades to rebuild communal relations. We are hopeful that our leaders here can regain their sanity and bring this senseless destruction to a halt.”
When the fighting began in December, Panther Alier saw years of work endangered. He’d spent the past four years with international development organizations contracted by the U.S. Agency for International Development — first Winrock International, then Deloitte Consulting — to help the government of South Sudan deliver critical public services like water, sanitation, and education, most recently in Jonglei. The time he had leftover was poured into side-projects with similar aims. The fresh conflict threatened both. The new private school in Bor that he and two other former Lost Boys had raised funds to start had 150 students when the recent civil conflict broke out, but has been forced to close its doors until the fighting quiets.
In mid-December, as they fled Jonglei, Alier and his family took shelter at an overcrowded U.N. compound in Bor that provided temporary refuge to an estimated 17,000 people, spending five days with his wife and baby sleeping on a single blanket on the muddy ground. When they finally tried to board a helicopter evacuating U.S. citizens, rebel soldiers stopped him. Because of Alier’s ethnic background, the rebels who had taken the city refused to let him leave, despite his U.S. passport. His family went on, but he was stuck. Only after a U.N. official intervened was Alier allowed to depart the next day and join his wife and baby. "What started stupidly as a political wrangle among the elites in Juba became clearly a fight along ethnic lines," he later wrote in a Jan. 18 op-ed for Al Jazeera. The entire family is now in Nairobi.
Despite their dismay about the crisis, many Lost Boys still think their experience could be a key to breaking the cycle of inter-tribal conflicts in South Sudan. Awolich, since returning to the country in January, consulted with colleagues at the Sudd Institute, a Juba-based think tank, brainstorming strategies to bolster a shaky ceasefire before traveling to New York in March to attend meetings at the U.N. "We are a little different among the diaspora, in that we have been able to hold together as a group," said Peter Magai Bul, a former Lost Boy from Chicago who coordinated the Hope of Sudan Alliance. "The fact that we lived together in Ethiopia, in Kenya, the fact that we have memories of how we survived and traveled together, those years of living as nomads brought a bond that lasts."
Alier, who is working remotely right now, assembling and reviewing training materials for high-level members of Jonglei’s state government, echoed Bul’s sentiments. "I am sure a political solution will be found," he wrote in an email in March. "I think our Lost Boys’ work has laid some foundation from which the country will need to grow. We all know the benefits of economic growth, health facilities and quality education. These are services that we all [should] enjoy regardless of our ethnicity. I am ready to go back anytime now."