I am as far north in Southern Sudan as I've yet been. The place is called Aweil, the capital of Northern Bahr el Ghazal. The edge of Southern Darfur is not too far away, a little more to the north and west. Abyei, a disputed border town where army trucks were ambushed yesterday, is about seven hours up the road. I have been bumping around in a Land Cruiser meeting with harvesters and traders of gum acacia, also called gum arabic.
My organization is helping subsistence-level rural harvesters form collectives to pool their product and negotiate better prices with traders. Gum acacia is valuable and useful. It's an edible binder. You can find it in stamps, envelopes, Coca-Cola, M&Ms, gummy bears, edible cake sparkles, makeup, medicine, inks and paints, for starters. Sudan exports more gum acacia than any other country in the world. You can throw a rock in almost any direction here and hit an acacia tree.
It is the end of the day when I return to one of the office units in the compound to boot up my laptop, check email and write up notes. The only other occupant in the air-conditioned room is a quiet young Sudanese man named Santino Madut Akot, also working on a laptop. I met him earlier but didn't have a chance to speak with him. As the windows darkened we put work aside and he sketched a piece of the story of his life, speaking in impeccable English. He does not seem surprised that I am interested in interviewing him. By rights, he should be dead. Santino is one of the Lost Boys of Sudan, and he has returned.
The Lost Boys are famous in movies, books and magazines as the most severely war-traumatized children of our generation. Thousands of South Sudanese children were stolen, sold, enslaved, starved, shot, burned, tortured and raped during the atrocities that accompanied the Second Sudanese Civil War that broke out in the early 1980s. Those who escaped, like Santino, left their families and villages behind on foot, hiding in the bushes, driven out by Arab militias on horseback. Santino's village is about 75 km from our office. Arabs came to Marial Bai on horses in the dry seasons in 1985 and 1986, burning houses and crops, and taking cattle and children. In those two years, Santino and his family fled, returning in the rainy seasons when flooding prevented the militias from raiding. 1987 was worse, though. The Misseriya showed up in greater numbers, shooting, burning and destroying everything in their path.
"They took the boys as slaves to tend the cattle, and the girls were taken as concubines," Santino says. Remarkably (to me) there is no anger or emotion in his voice. It happened, there is no questioning or changing it. Still I ask him if, when he was a young child, he wondered why people from the north were killing people from the south. He does not remember thinking about it.
"They wanted to take over the land."
He ran into the bush in 1987, learning later that one of his half-sisters was put inside a tukol and burned to death. Another sister and an older brother were taken north as slaves. Santino joined a large group of children and a handful of adults walking away from the conflict areas. He walked east for three months, drinking water from muddy puddles, eating anything he could find. Sick, starving, around nine years old, he walked all the way to Ethiopia, where after a time, the U.N. helped establish a camp and brought food.
I've always wondered about the Lost Girls. The scanty references I've found online indicate that girls who were not stolen, enslaved or killed during the conflict were assimilated into other families in South Sudan and Ethiopia, whereas the boys were generally expected to fend for themselves or were forcibly conscripted.
Santino spent a couple of years in rough conditions at the refugee camp in Ethiopia until civil war broke out there, too. He walked back west to the border with Sudan, where Sudanese troops refused passage and shot at them. So they walked south to Kenya. Another refugee camp, Kakuma. Nearly 60,000 refugees lived there, including Ethiopians and Somalis. Not much to eat except what the UN handed out. He received a ration of flour to mix with water, some beans, oil and salt, and lived mostly on that for more than a decade, until he heard about the Lost Boys program, organized by the U.S. and the U.N., with help from big NGOs, and applied for it. It was his shot to get out of the camps and start a new life. The best thing about the camp at Kakuma was that the children were required to go to school, where he learned English. His application was selected and he was one of approximately 4,000 Lost Boys eventually airlifted to host communities in the U.S. By then he was in his 20s. He was given a new name, Santino, which he uses now.
Catholic Charities paid four months of rent for him at an apartment in Lincoln, Nebraska, and helped him get Food Stamps. He quickly found a factory job packaging chicken parts for Cook's Chickens in a refrigerated warehouse and began supporting himself. He applied to a community college and was accepted. He worked the graveyard shift wrapping chickens and got home at 4 a.m. to do homework. He heard about a good four-year college called Doane, applied and got in, quit the chicken job and worked part-time as a Dinka-language translator for the courts and social services department while earning a degree in public administration. (There is a large Sudanese diaspora community in Nebraska.) He applied for a job working in South Sudan for the World Food Programme in 2010 and then accepted a position at my company as a projects officer specializing in human resource development. Now he is helping the new Government of South Sudan establish protocols to build a foundation of professional government administrators. He conducts Power Point presentations, works with international consultants to convey best practices in human resources development and capacity building. He deals with computers, the internet and email, spreadsheets, pdf files, flip charts.
Santino says it feels good to be back, working to help his soon-to-be-independent country get a fresh start. "When I left, I left with nothing. And when I came back, I had something." He is married now, supporting a wife in Uganda. He is paying the school fees of the children of several family members whose parents don't have enough money. He is living in a tukol again, with friends.
His stolen sister and brother were recovered with help from a group called Christian Solidarity International, who tracked them down four years after they were taken, and paid ransoms for them. His mother is still alive, living in his home village. Of his six primary siblings, only one died - of an unknown disease, untreatable due to lack of medicine during the war.
His dream now is to start an orphanage. In Aweil, there are many street children - the sons and daughters of the thousands of returnees who have come back to South Sudan from Khartoum and other places in advance of the country's official independence. They get off buses with bundled foam bedding and sheets, furniture and bags of clothes, and park their belongings next to the train tracks waiting for opportunity to arrive.
Santino's voice gets even softer when he talks about the returnee kids he sees running around the dusty town.
"I want them to have a chance, as I had a chance," he said. "It would be a place to live. Attend school. Eat."
He is working on his plan.