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South Sudan: Tragedy and Tentative Hope: Learning from the Story of One of the ‘Lost Boys’ of Sudan

Dr. Samuel Mahaffy, Senior Advisor to Salaam Urban Village interviews Madut–one of the ‘Lost Boys of Sudan’.  Madut’s journey and story teach us much about the conflict in Sudan and South Sudan.  It is a story of great tragedy and also of tentative hope.  Madut’s account of his journey and his perspective on his homeland of South Sudan and what is needed to bring peace are woven into this story.

In the story of the journey to adulthood of one of the 'lost boys of Sudan is both the tragedy of regional conflict  and tentative hope.
In the story of the journey to adulthood of one of the ‘lost boys of Sudan’ is both the tragedy of regional conflict and tentative hope.

Madut is a lanky handsome man with a warm and gentle presence.  Unless one is en-culturated to fear a tall black man, there is nothing to fear about him.  His warm smile and engaging presence says “let’s be friends.”

Madut’s account of his journey from Sudan as one of the ‘Lost Boys of Sudan’ to his current life in Seattle, informs our understanding of the conflict between the countries of Sudan and South Sudan devastating families and communities and costing thousands of lives.  It is a tale of both great tragedy and redemptive outcomes.

It has been nearly three decades since the beginning of the saga of the Lost Boys of Sudan that swept Madut from his village of what was then the country of Sudan.  This is a story that has captured the imagination and in some cases the compassionate heart of the world.  This is the story of more than 20,000 boys, mostly between the ages of 7 and 17 fleeing from a regional conflict that has taken more than 500,000 lives since 1983 (http://www.unicef.org/sowc96/closboys.htm).

The names of most of the lost boys–those who died and those who never found a home–our lost to a world that has become numbed to accounts of women, children and women fleeing their homelands.  The redemptive outcome is that Madut was not one of them.

Madut found his way into the hearts and lives of a couple in Iowa who embraced this young man as their own.  Cindy and Ron have names that are as ordinary in Iowa as its cornfields.  But they are two extraordinary people with hearts as  as huge as the continent of Africa.

They supported and nurtured Madut through his transition to a new culture.  They witnessed him marrying, adopting as his own son a young boy from Sudan who had no father in his life.  They were there when we went to school, took up a responsible position as a hospital technician and became loved by both his work community and an Iowa town that had seen few black men and knew almost nothing about Africa.  There were there for Madut when he moved across the United States continent to take care of and support his children in the new metropolitan environment of Seattle.

Once a refugee, Madut has taken up residence in the heart of nearly everyone who has taken the time to get to know him.

Madut shares a detailed account of his journey that informs our understanding of the conflict that still engulfs the countries of Sudan and South Sudan.  From the rich fabric of Madut’s story we can learn much about the regional conflict of Horn of Africa. Madut’s story mirrors an intergenerational tragedy.  It also holds threads of tentative hope that we can take steps to end this deadly conflict.

Madut’s story is South Sudan’s story.  From his experiences and insights we find ten observations to help us understand and respond to the deadly conflict in the Horn of Africa.

1)      Peace cannot be won by fighting. Madut was conscripted to be a warrior at the age of thirteen.  He had to fight to survive.  He has witnessed waves of new conflicts both before and after the separation of South Sudan into a separate country.  If there is one thing that is certain to him, is that the peace in Sudan and South Sudan cannot be won by fighting.

2)      The single greatest contribution we can make to bringing peace to this region is to stop the flow of outside weapons to the warring parties. It is deeply engrained today in the cultures of Sudan and South Sudan that everyone must have a gun to protect themselves.  Parties that have a stake in perpetrating the conflict including the weapons merchants of the world both perpetuate and benefit from this belief.

3)      Peace agreements fail when they engage only war lords and not local communities. It matters little what peace agreements are signed in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia between leaders of the conflict between Sudan and South Sudan.  Until agreements are made at the local level, there will be no peace.

4)      Innocent parties are human shields.  It is dangerous to believe in peace in Sudan and South Sudan.  There is no way to be neutral to the conflict.  Those who refuse to participate are likely to lose their life.

5)      Natural resources define this regional conflict like many others. The politics of oil and natural resources, as it does in many regions of the world, deeply shapes the conflict between the countries of Sudan and South Sudan.  It is the spigot that feeds the economic machine of the conflict and it is the trigger for the alignment of outside 1st world parties.

6)      The conscription of children into conflicts is creating intergenerational conflict.  Children are forced to become warriors as soon as they have the physical ability to carry a weapon and the training to know how to use one.  They grow up knowing no other way than to fight to survive.

7)      A generation that has never known a normal life does not know how to return to one. There is no normal in the countries of Sudan and South Sudan.  It is not a matter of returning to a known peaceful life.  A life of peace is a lost legend to more than one generation in the countries of Sudan and South Sudan.

8)      The international community must hold accountable those who are the lead perpetrators of the conflict. Until the leaders who are perpetuating conflict for their own corrupt gains are brought to justice by the international community, there will be no peace.  The countries of Sudan and South Sudan need peace–they also need justice.

9)      It is hoes not guns that must become the hand held devices of South Sudan and Sudan. Madut tells the compelling story that when he was very little, everyone felt that they had to have a hoe as a tool to till the soil and provide for their family. Today, in South Sudan and Sudan, the hand-held device that individuals feel they must have is a gun to protect their family rather than a hoe to feed their family.

10)  Among the refugees of this conflict are people of enormous gifts and talents who must be engaged in the rebuilding of their country. Madut is a man who has made an enormous contribution to every community he has lived in since coming to the United States.  He is a hard worker who is trusted by his work colleagues.  He is a faithful father.  He is a good friend willing to lend a helping hand to anyone in need.  Madut defies every negative stereotype of the migrant refugee in the United States.  He supports the truth that this country has become great because of the amazing contributions of refugees and immigrants from every part of the world.

We came to know Madut in the Seattle community through his volunteer work with Salaam Urban Village Association.  He has become a valuable contact for linking our organization–which serves immigrant and refugee families from across the Horn of Africa with the Seattle community.

In his most recent home in Seattle, Madut faces new challenges.  The challenges of the desert are replaced with the challenges of keeping family relationships intact, helping his kids adjust to a new life where they face new sets of prejudices and navigating the forces that conspire to pull families apart in this culture.  Surely, for conflict transformation to happen in the Horn of Africa, we must pull on the great resource of those like Madut who have fled the conflict but never lost the wisdom of the richness of their journey to a new homeland.

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