POSTED: 1:30 a.m. HST, Jan 6, 2014
AWERIAL, South Sudan » As a young boy, Jacob Atem, whose parents were killed during the long war for independence from Sudan, found himself among the legions of orphaned children known as the Lost Boys wandering hundreds of miles across this part of Africa.
Resettled and educated in the United States, he returned to the newly independent nation of South Sudan two years ago to open a clinic in the village where he was born. But the promise of this young country gave way to a new conflict in recent weeks, and Atem, now 28, found himself once more in the midst of deadly clashes, hiding in the bush from rebels, watching as the U.S. aircraft sent to rescue him and others were strafed with a fusillade of bullets, and sheltering at a U.N. compound.
"I got lucky," said Atem, a Michigan State University graduate, after finally making it onto a humanitarian flight and escaping the heavy fighting in Bor across the river here.
The return of South Sudan's Lost Boys for the birth of this new nation was perhaps the perfect symbol of its hope for a new beginning. Many are U.S. citizens who came back to vote in the 2011 referendum that split off this country from Sudan, with which it fought for decades. Others returned to try to provide the next generation of South Sudanese children with a better country than the one they were born into.
Now, many of these Lost Boys, who had already escaped the violence in their homeland but found themselves inexorably drawn back, are trying to survive the crisis that is threatening to tear their new country apart. Lost, found and lost again, Atem says that many of his comrades are now trapped in a dangerous and shaky South Sudan.
Some have not made it out alive. Andrew Bith Abui, 32, had just graduated with honors from community college and was living in Nebraska. Friends and relatives said he was a U.S. citizen and planned to become a police officer. A former teacher described him as an "intellectual" and recalled how Abui could not wait to participate in building the new South Sudan. He recently returned there to visit his home in Pariang county in Unity state to reconnect with his family and make arrangements for his marriage.
After the fighting began last month, a relative, Simon Nygok Deng, 32, was waiting in Juba, refusing to evacuate without Abui, when he received a call from a satellite phone. A local official in Pariang informed him that Abui had been killed.
"They attacked the village and overran the police," Deng said. "They killed anybody just because they belonged to another tribe."
The conflict that broke out in South Sudan on Dec. 15 has killed more than 1,000 people, displaced nearly 200,000 and brought this young country to the brink of all-out civil war. A political dispute between President Salva Kiir and his former deputy, Riek Machar, has spiraled into widespread violence and fear between the two leaders' ethnic groups, the Dinka and the Nuer, turning civilians into targets of the fighting.
Phillip Madol, 33, lived in Grand Rapids, Mich., for 13 years, but when he heard that his mother was sick, he decided to return to South Sudan six months ago. They barely escaped from a village near Bor as anti-government forces swept through, burning huts and shooting his mother in the leg. They joined the tens of thousands fleeing across the White Nile, waiting for assistance here among tens of thousands of other desperate people.
"Nobody thought that this would happen," Madol said, beads of sweat on his forehead from the hot sun. "Everybody was happy that they got the freedom and they hope to continue to live in peace." Now, he said he was just hoping for "another chance to get back" to the United States.
Joan Hecht, founder of the Alliance for the Lost Boys of Sudan in Jacksonville, Fla., who has worked with Lost Boys for more than a decade and knows both Atem and the late Abui, said that so many of them had "an inner strength and inner faith and inner drive to succeed," motivated "to bring pride and dignity to their family's name."
That same impulse, she said, pushed many of them to leave the safety and comfort of the United States and return to their homeland and try to help.
Abraham Awolich, 34, graduated from the University of Vermont and Syracuse University's school of public administration. Now he is one of the founders of the Sudan Development Foundation, which runs a walk-in medical clinic and a facility for mothers and small children here in Awerial. In recent weeks, he managed to flee South Sudan again and meet his wife and infant daughter in Uganda after the violence started here. But he has returned to the South Sudanese capital, Juba, in spite of the risks to his safety, hoping to get badly needed medical supplies to the clinic, which is now overwhelmed by the needs of displaced people.
"I don't want to see another generation of children go through what I've gone through and what other children of my generation went through," Awolich said. "We felt fortunate that we were able to go to the U.S. and get an education," he said, adding that, "Since there was independence it was necessary for us to come back and help with rebuilding and the development of the country."
The Lost Boys have, by dint of experience, a much higher threshold for danger and discomfort than many people around the world. Though he was just a small child at the time, Atem was separated from his sister and captured by troops loyal to the former vice president, Machar, during the infamous massacre in Bor in 1991, an event that many fear is repeating itself to some degree in the current conflict.
As South Sudanese children were scattered during the war with Sudan, many made their way to Ethiopia, suffering not only from hunger and exposure to the elements but from attacks by soldiers and wild animals, including lions. Many were killed. They eventually found their way to camps in Kenya. There, humanitarian workers nicknamed them the Lost Boys after Peter Pan's companions in Neverland.
Atem was 15 when he joined thousands of other Lost Boys who were resettled in the United States. As an unaccompanied minor, he was placed in a foster home in Webberville, Mich. He eventually earned a master's degree in public health from Michigan State University.
He became a co-founder of Southern Sudan Health Care Organization, which built a health clinic that treats more than 100 patients a day in Maar, where he was born. He even learned in 2013 that his sister was still alive. They spoke by telephone and planned to reunite when he visited this past December. The reunion never happened. Instead the violence erupted.
Rescue seemed to be at hand as he saw U.S. aircraft approaching Bor two weeks ago.
"They were very low, we could see, and about to land," Atem said, until a deafening roar of gunfire filled the air. "It was really loud. Every single gun they were pointing at our American planes," wounding four service members and forcing the aircraft to turn back.
Twice, he took a U.N. convoy to the airport to try to catch other planes out of Bor, and twice anti-government forces refused to allow him passage onto evacuation flights because he was Dinka, he said.
"The rebels literally said, 'If you are Dinka you are not leaving to go anywhere,'" said Atem. "We had to go one by one to have our passports checked," he added.
The third time, he got through.
"I'm not a typical Dinka," Atem said. "My skin is light. I'm not tall; I'm short. I'm not really, really thin." He made it through, but two people he knows were pulled out, he said. One of them remains missing.
Atem made it back to Juba, then to Rwanda, where he reunited with his pregnant wife, and finally back to the United States. But he and other Lost Boys say they are concerned about those who remain in South Sudan. One of them, Simon Arop, a close friend of Abui's, said that he know of at least eight more U.S. citizens trapped in Unity state.
"Many, many people are stranded, scattered all over the place," Atem said. "This is really devastating because we tried to go back and help this country. It's really a sad situation."
Nicholas Kulish and Isma'il Kushkush, New York Times