Sudan's lost boys find their way home

A generation of children driven out by war has come back as adults – for reunions with families and to vote in a democratic election. Daniel Howden reports from Jonglei state
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The Independent Online

For Peter Aluong it was a dream homecoming. The whole village turned out. There were hundreds of excited faces. Everyone from toddlers to elders milled around. The only problem was to find someone he recognised. Standing in the blinding morning sunshine, Peter, 27, finally found his father. "He didn't recognise me," said Peter. "Even me, I was not able to recognise him."

Nor was there anything much to trigger Peter's memories in Kapat-Koch, a settlement of thatched huts scattered across the dry plains of southern Sudan. The last time that he saw home he was nine. Nearly 19 years later, he could remember the day he left. "We were playing in the field," he said, gesturing towards the empty stubble beyond the huts. "Then there was fighting everywhere. We ran. Afterwards I went back to see what happened but I couldn't find anyone. There was no one."

Peter is part of a generation that came to be known as the "Lost Boys", thousands of Sudanese children caught up in a civil war that emptied much of the south of Africa's biggest country and killed two million people. Many villages such as Kapat-Koch near the town of Bor, in Jonglei State, were destroyed during government offensives.

Peter walked for 15 days through the bush to reach the refugee camps in Ethiopia where he began a life in exile and ultimately studied medicine. The first open election since the end of the Sudanese civil war – the first results of which are expected tomorrow – has brought many of Sudan's Lost Boys home for the first time. His father, a cattle-herder, was overwhelmed to discover that his missing boy was now a medical doctor, qualified in Nairobi, capital of Kenya, who would soon be working to rid the country of infectious diseases at a new research centre.

Nobody knows how many times Peter's homecoming was repeated in other villages across the war-haunted South last week but anecdotal evidence was striking. Some estimates reckon as many as 27,000 Dinka children were orphaned or displaced during Sudan's second civil war from 1983 to 2005, some falling victim to government-backed Arab militias, others to the army and others recruited by the guerilla movement, the SPLA. They were scattered all over the region, and with thousands of them reported as far afield as the US and Canada.

"There are thousands who have gone home since the fighting stopped," said Valentino Achak Deng, the most famous of the Lost Boys after the success of his 2006 autobiography What is the What, co-written with American author Dave Eggers. The election, he said, may have prompted many more to follow in their footsteps. For Peter, the return was about far more than voting. He also came seeking a reunion with his family. With the help of a cousin, he finally found his father and the pair began to catch up on the missing chapters of their lives. The intervening years had been kinder to the younger man who has the tall, powerful build of the Dinka, southern Sudan's largest ethnic group. His father, Manyok, grizzled and stooped after years of scratching a living, looked much older than his 54 years.

Clothed in army surplus fatigues with a green cap pulled down over rheumy eyes, his heavily calloused hands gripped a walking-stick. "I feel proud," he said through his son's faltering translation. "It's a pleasure to see him. It's good for him to come home."

Peter added: "It is the first time in our family that someone has been educated." Then, surrounded by smiling faces including one of his two sisters, the young doctor got confirmation that his mother was still alive.

After so many years away, Peter admitted that he and his father were having trouble understanding each other in their native Dinka. Beyond his prosperous clothes and rusty language skills there were other tell-tale signs of how far his life had diverged from that of his family.

Most Dinka men and women in their late 20s bear the marks of ceremonial scarring – deep cuts leaving complex patterns of lines and dots – but Peter's complexion is clear. He also has a shining full set of teeth; some of the local men have followed the custom of removing their bottom teeth between the two incisors.

But these superficial differences will be easier to overcome than some of the deeper challenges faced in resuming a lost life, says the author, Achak Deng. "You can only imagine how it feels having been separated for over 20 years," he said by telephone from Nairobi. "The first re-encounter can be a shock. You come back and you see that your family is going through a lot. You hear fresh news of those who went missing."

Achak Deng had fled his village of Marial Bai further north in Sudan's Bahr el Ghazal state after it was attacked by Arab militia, and walked into Ethiopia. Eventually, he found his way to the US and became an unofficial spokesman for the Sudanese community. He has been back to his former home, and has used the proceeds from his book to set up a charitable foundation to fund an educational centre there. He said the homecoming could be stressful for the boys who became men elsewhere.

"Time is required to get reacquainted. It is challenging. For many they are the first ones [in their families] to be educated. If the person is able, they will be expected to look after many family members who will rely on them."

The greatest difficulties can come from pressure on Lost Boys to marry back into the village. Parental authority remains paramount among the herding communities in rural south Sudan and neither party is given much choice. Things can be even harder for couples who marry in Sudan but live in the West. Getting a wife and taking her to the US or Canada means taking her from her family and everyone she knows. The "cultural divide" can be almost impossible to bridge.

Not everyone coming home to southern Sudan is a celebrated writer or a doctor. Majok Mabior also returned for the first time during last week's election. He was only four when he left his village, another Dinka settlement an hour's drive from Kapat-Koch. He sat out the war and his childhood in neighbouring Uganda. Life there was "very, very hard", and the 22-year-old said he had come back to Sudan in search of education and opportunities.

Cutting an awkward figure in an ill-fitting suit and tie despite the stifling heat, he appeared not to know anyone in the village although he had been to see his father. The only thing he had been able to recognise from his former home was a concrete building erected by an NGO. "We used to go there and beg for porridge," he said. Majok had come home primarily to vote. "I decided to come and see. It is my right to vote and choose a leader in a free and fair election."

By the time voting ended on Friday, most international observers agreed that the poll fell far short of that standard but did not blame any one group for the irregularities. Privately some in the ruling party in the north, the NCP, admit that a "underground deal" was made with the south's dominant party the SPLM, leaving President Omar al-Bashir unchallenged in return for assurances on the date of a referendum that could break Sudan in two.

For his part, Majok feels the election has offered him hope. "I will go to the winner and ask them for a job," he said optimistically. His vote was "secret" he said but the winner would know he had voted for them because they had got enough votes to win, he added. This level of optimism is essential in confronting what is expected, after a referendum next year, to become Africa's first new country in 20 years.

For Peter and Majok, and hundreds of thousands of others, the vote was a landmark along the road to independence. There is overwhelming support for secession from the North despite the total absence of infrastructure in southern Sudan, which has about 40 miles of road in an area the size of Texas. "Ask 10 people and nine will tell you they want to separate," said Achak Deng.

Some development experts and NGOs in the nascent capital of Juba are already calling South Sudan a "pre-failed state". Others expect a possible divorce to lead to renewed hostilities with the North. "But we need a peaceful separation because South Sudan has already gone through a lot," the author added. "You can't judge the future by the past. We have to make sure there are no more lost boys in Sudan."