Lost Boys Hopeful to Rebuild South Sudan

[Montréal, Québec, Canada -2°C] I can imagine the emotional depth and confused sense of belonging/alienation that must come from a return visit to one’s homeland ofter a very long and forced exile. At least I think I can. The documentary film by Jen Marlowe, Rebuilding Hope, offers a glimpse of estrangement as it collides with the nostalgia from a childhood torn appart by a 21-year civil war. Chris Koor Garang, Gabriel Bol Deng and Garang Mayuol, the film’s three characters, return home to Southern Sudan to find themselves, to look for their families and to help rebuild their communities now that the war is over. Their expectations clash with the realities on the ground. The following quote introduces their story of return.

We left Sudan because of war and now we are going back for the first time in twenty years.

(source: Map No. 3707 Rev. 10, UNITED NATIONS, Department of Peacekeeping Operations Cartographic Section, April 2007; demarcation line source is US Department of State)

The Sudan has been at war with itself in two successive civil wars since its independence in 1956 from British rule in the southern region and British-administered Egyptian rule in the rest (Anyanya 1: 1956-1972 & Anyanya 2: 1983-2005). Colonial powers may have decided to create Africa’s largest country by maintaining the two administrative regions together but they may just as easily have divided the country along the Jan 1, 1956 Line of Demarcation. Power in a post-colonial Sudan was handed over to the political elite in Khartoum to the detriment of Southern Sudan, Darfur, and other peripheral regions far from the capital. Power, wealth, resources and development have always been tightly controlled by a small click of autocrats based at the confluence of the White Nile and the Blue Nile rivers. This Line of Demarcation is the divide that is now a defining line needing negotiations should Southerners vote for independence in a 2011 self-determination referendum, scheduled in the Comprehensive Peace Agreement that ended the second civil war in January 2005.

In the late 1980s, the war’s front line moved agressively through the border areas now dividing Southern Sudan from the rest of the country. When the war reached Koor’s, Gabriel Bol’s and Garang’s villages near Akon—where Northern Bahr el Ghazal meets Warrap state—everyone ran for survival. Those not fast enough were killed. Some managed to hide. Others, mostly children, were taken by northern government-backed militia and enslaved, like Koor’s younger brother Chol who we meet in the film after he is released from bondage and brought to Nairobi begin school.

Families were scattered as militia burned villages, killed their inhabitants and stole cattle. They ran in all directions to escape. Boys, often quick and nimble, ran the fastest and furthest away from the killing. As the youth continued to evade the war, they found themselves merging into growing bands of lost youth heading east toward safety. More than fifty thousand Sudanese eventually settled into one of five refugee camps in Ethiopia. In 1991, Ethiopia’s Mengistu government, allies to the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A), fell. The new government chased the refugees out of Ethiopia, leaving the film’s three protagonists to roam for another year toward Kakuma II Refugee Camp in northern Kenya where they met.

In 2001, the United States established the Refugee Resettlement Program for 4000 southern Sudanese refugees from Kakuma. Koor Garang was resettled in Tuscon, Arizona. Garang Mayuol went to Chicago, Illinois. Gabriel Bol Deng went to Syracuse, New York. A great book that should be read before viewing the film is David Eggers (2006) What is the What: the autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng. It provides the Lost Boys context in more detail than the film, which will help the viewer better understand where Koor, Garang and Gabriel are coming from.

WHat is the What by David EggersEach of the three boys’ (now men’s) stories are similar. They are representative of many “lost boys” who immigrated from refugee camps for distant countries, recieved an education and are beginning to return to Southern Sudan. Some are returning permanently to work in the government, to teach, to start businesses, etc. Others are going back as philanthropic visitors to build schools, supply clinics, etc.

The three grown men share the common goal of locating their families that they haven’t seen since the war sent them fleeing their respective village so long ago. Some members of their families now live in the same villages from which they ran. Others now live in larger state capitals. Some have fallen victim to the war and were killed like two million other Sudanese.

Chris Koor Garang is studying to become a registered nurse and works as a Licensed Practical Nurse. He has set up a Non-governmental Organization (NGO) (The Ubuntu) to provide medical supplies to the modest Brown Back Medical Centre in Akon, to distribute mosquito nets to local people and share his skills with care givers there.

Gabriel Bol Deng finished his undergraduate degree in mathematics education and is a strong believer that education is the answer to relieve poverty for his people. He started his own NGO (Hope For Ariang) to build a school in his home town of Ariang. When he arrives in Akon, Gabriel Bol meets an uncle at the market and asks the whereabouts of his parents. He is told to go to his home village to find out because he is not the one to say. Upon arrival in the village, an aunt walks up to him, revealing that his mother lives on in Gabriel’s eyes that resembled hers. He later shares an intimate moment under a large and healthy tree and tells us:

Our ancestors, when they die, they know what those people who are alive are doing. And I believe my mom really, and my dad… they know what I’m doing. The tree grew out of where my placenta was buried and it’s where my mom was buried… My mom is giving something back in the form of a tree. This tree is the greatest blessing ever and the greatest connection between me and my mom… There is no better way to honor them than really, to help people and contributing to making life better in Ariang village.

Garang Mayuol’s main goal during his first visit home is to seek out and locate his mother who he hasn’t seen in twenty years. He would also help his two friends with their NGOs. All three of them realized, as they distribute mosquito nets and sewing kits to villagers, that the need quickly surpassed their supplies. The anguish from not being able to provide for everyone is self-evident on each of their faces, particularly when one man repeats to Koor over and over after being told that there are no mosquito nets, “Just one will be enough for me and my kids.” While buyig supplies in Kenya, they decided to purchase less mosquito nets than expected due to weight restrictions on the charter flight to South Sudan. A decision that weighed heavy on their shoulders.

The historical background provided in the film is minimal but it still provides context to the war that displaced four million people, sent one million into refugee camps outside of the country and killed two million. Post-colonial power, typical for the British in retreat, was distributed to a select few to British best interest rather than the best interests of the population as a whole.

Gabriel Bol describes the source of conflict in Sudan when he states that the main source of the problem lies in the hunger for leadership. He says that clicks and specific groups are dominating politics and using religion to divide the people of Sudan.

The film portrays divisions between Arabs and non-Arabs in Sudan within its historical narrative. When referring to the divide-and-conquer strategies of Sudan’s central government in the civil war (Muslim north vs Christian South) and in Darfur (Arab vs black non-Arabs), Marlowe suggests that non-Arab black Darfuris are natural allies of Southerners. The divisions exploited by the Khartoum government are much more complexe and are not necessarily divided along religious, linguistic or ethnic lines. They were exploited along political lines to control power and share wealth to suit their political ends. It is dangerous to hint about such cultural/ethnic divisions prior to a self-determination referendum, because the minorities on both sides of the North/South border will suffer if political powers continue to exploit these divisions to prevent or promote separation of the Sudan.

Despite this, Rebuilding Hope gave me a glimpse at something new in Southern Sudan. The diaspora who left their homeland because of war are returning with hope for the future and a with strong connection to the land and its people they were froced abandoned so long ago.

Jen Marlowe recently wrote an update about South Sudan and updates us in her article: S. Sudan makes some progress amid possibility of war.

More from Jen Marlowe on Untold Stories: Pulitzer Centre on Crisis Reporting, including a video about education and health care in South Sudan.

Have you seen another film about South Sudan, Lost Boys or about changes taking place in Sudan that we should now about? If you are South Sudanese and have regturned to your homeland to rebuild after being in exile, what is your experience? Please share in the comments below.


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