“A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” (Confucius).
Posted: April 12, 2008
Abraham Deng Ater, a 29-year-old Sudanese refugee, took his single step in 1987 when he had to leave his home village of Duk Padiet in Southern Sudan to flee from war, terror, and bloodshed during the 1983-2005 Civil War. When he was 9, Abraham’s parents sent him away to save him from captivity and slavery by Arab militia groups. He joined a group of young boys from black African tribes in Sudan who fled to Ethiopia and Kenya to seek refuge from ethnic cleansing. About 20,000 started the journey. Only half of them reached final destination, Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya.
It was only in May 2007, 20 years after setting out, that Abraham was able to return to see his mother and sister. By then, he had found his way to Tucson, Arizona, helped by the International Rescue Committee and the U.S. government. And a year later, he founded the non-profit Deng Ater Foundation to build hospitals, medical training centers, and schools for his people.
“I don’t know how many thousand miles we walked,” Abraham, said in Tucson, recalling his experience in fleeing Sudan’s second civil war. “They said it was a thousand miles, nobody knows.” After he vowed to turn his desperate journey to escape death into a symbol of hope for his people, he said, Confucius’ famous words were used as his organization’s theme.
After he vowed to turn his desperate journey to escape death into a symbol of hope for his people, he said, Confucius’ famous words were used as his organization’s theme.
Abraham is one of the “Lost Boys of Sudan”. The term refers to the displaced and orphaned boys and a few girls who made their way to the Kakuma camp. From there, about 4,000 boys were given the chance to resettle in America. Abraham came to Tucson in 2001. He earned a degree in physiology at the University of Arizona in 2006 and is now doing graduate work in public health.
He is a very tall young man, a bit reserved, but very friendly and polite. When I met him at the Arizona campus, he drove one of those big American cars and seemed no different from other students. Only when he started to tell his story could I could sense how much he has been through and how much pain he must have suffered.
Led by a group of elders, boys between the ages of 8 and 18 crossed rainforest’s, swamps, deserts, and mountains, most of them barefoot and naked for months. They were attacked by wild animals and rebel groups. More suffered from dehydration and starvation.
First they reached a U.N. refugee camp in Ethiopia near the border. It was not until then that Abraham got his name. “The elders told me to get baptized,” he said. “The pastor asked me for a name. I said I didn’t know one, so he gave me three names from the bible . . . and I chose Abraham.”
The boys tried to establish a normal life, but Ethiopia was fighting its own civil war. When the situation worsened in 1991, the U.N. left the country. On their own once again, the boys decided to go back to southern Sudan. But as soon as they crossed the border, they were attacked by militia. Some boys were shot or caught.
“They told us to run, so we ran,” Abraham recalled, averting his eyes and speaking in a low voice. “We ran all the way. There was no time to cross the river. The last people, there was no time for them. They jumped into the river – a lot didn’t make it. If you are lucky and you are not eaten by a crocodile, the river will blow you away, and you will drown. If you (get) up, the bullet from above will get you.”
He paused, and neither of us knew what to say. Words could not describe what he and his friends went through. Abraham does not know how many boys died in the river or later succumbed to hunger, thirst or slaughter.
Survivors kept walking along the border between Sudan and Ethiopia, terrified of being captured by rebels. Near the town Kapoeta, there were attacked again by pro-government troops.
“We ran for 24 hours,” he said. I didn’t eat. If you sat down, you didn’t get up again. I fell because I passed out. I was really thirsty [and] I couldn’t talk, because my mouth was all dry. A man came, looked me in the eye and said, ‘This boy is dying.’” The man gave him water, saving his life.
The ordeal finally ended at Kakuma refugee camp, one of the largest in the world. It was there the group got their name: The Lost Boys of Sudan. Life was hard, but the young refugees went to school. When the U.S. government came to select some of the lost boys and girls resettle in America with a chance at higher education, they were reluctant to go.
“We were afraid, Abraham said. “We did not want to be a slave.” But in 2001, he and about 4,000 others went to America.
Abraham Deng Ater is a Dinka. His family farmed and raised livestock along the White Nile. When the brutal raids increased, his parents, together with thousands of other desperate families, decided to send their boys on what is now known as one of the world’s longest and most tragic flights to safety.
Sudan’s history has been brutally tragic since independence in 1956 as Muslim Arabs who dominate in most of the country repress black tribes in the south, who are mostly Christian or animist. The conflict is religious, politics, ethnic, economic, and social.
Tribal warfare over land and resources go back even before Britain colonization and Egyptian control. Since 1960, the south has seen two civil wars, countless tribal conflicts, and two waves of genocide against African tribes. International groups estimate 4.5 million people have been killed (DOES THIS INCLUDE PEOPLE WHO DIED OF STARVATION AND DISEASE BECAUSE OF WAR?) By 2004, Human Right Watch said four to six million people had fled their homes, the world’s largest internally displaced population.
About 600,000 have fled Sudan as refugees, mainly to the neighboring countries of Uganda, Kenya, and Chad, as well as to the United States, Canada and Australia.
Tensions rose in 1983 with a campaign by the Arab government in Khartoum to enforce Islamic law in the whole of Sudan. For the following 21 years, war continued between northerners and the southern Sudanese People’s Liberation Movement.
Government-backed militias invaded villages, killed families, and captured young boys and girls as slaves. In the early 1990s, President Bashir applied a strategy of divide and conquer. Nuer tribesmen received weapons and were encouraged to attack the Dinka, stealing cattle, burning homes, and decimating the tribe.
In 2002, a second wave of civil war – termed genocide by Western governments – raged on until a peace agreement in January 2005 pressed by the U.S. government between Khartoum and the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army (SPLA).
Both parties agreed to create a new regional government and share oil royalties. The South was granted a greater autonomy until a vote for either unification or independence in 2011.
Abraham arrived in Tucson with nine other Lost Boys. With the help from the International Rescue Committee, they found jobs and a place to stay. “It wasn’t easy to adjust”, he said, describing the cultural differences in a strange place. “When we came, we would hold hands. People looked at us. ‘Are you gay?’ Now we have stopped doing that.”
Abraham sees himself still as a Sudanese. “I want to live there when there is peace so that I can help,” he said, adding that peace was not likely until the country was divided. His friend, Donny Dains, added: “It’s a mess as far at what it looks like. The North doesn’t stick to the peace agreement. They are taking all the revenue.”
Donny, 41, with a degree in film and television production, is a writer and vice president of the Deng Ater Foundation.
When the situation became more stable in 2007, Abraham and Donny decided to go back home for one month to find their families. “My reasoning for being there were not necessarily humanitarian aid but to help out a friend,” Donny said.
They flew in via Nairobi and stayed at Kakuma Refugee camp for a week. Then they took a 5 day truck to Juba and Duk County before crossing the rainforest on foot to find Abraham’s family. Using satellite and cell phones, they negotiated with Kenyan and Sudanese border patrols and Ugandan rebels for passage across disputed land littered with mines.
There found remnants of war everywhere. Bridges were blown. Abraham’s village was a burned ghost town. The region had no infrastructure, schools, or sanitation. The two friends spent whole days looking for clean water. “They are taking water from the ground and that gives them cholera, but they don’t know,” Abraham said.
Although the South has enough water and fertile land to farm crops, people depend heavily on sorghum and maize from the World Food Program (WFP). Insects eat seed, and birds take much of what grows. People need training in agriculture control.”
A few other organizations provide humanitarian aid. Norwegian People’s Aid (NPA) provides seeds and tools. German Technical Cooperation (GTZ) constructs roads, and UNICEF builds clinics.
“They help where they can but it is still not enough,” Abraham said, speaking with emotional about his struggling village. “The kids are there, but no education. Their classroom was under the tree. They wanted to learn, but there is no qualified teacher, no books. People are getting sick and there is no clinic. They have to be carried up to 50 kilometers, even 100 kilometers.”
Donny added, “They are dying by the hundreds daily.” In the month they were there, 300 kids died just from measles. Poor hygiene and malnutrition preventable diseases like cholera, malaria and tuberculosis. Doctors and medicine are not enough.
Maury Clark, a retired investment banker in Seattle, is among the few outsiders who have decided to help. A Sudanese rights activist, he stayed in Southern Sudan in 2007 and has adopted a former lost boy.
“There is one doctor for 250,000 people,” he said, describing a hospital in Juba where 823 cholera victims lay on the ground.
Clark decided to work for peace and justice in Africa 25 years ago. Since 2001, he has helped Sudanese refugees, who call him, “Papa Maury”.
Although the peace accord was signed in January 2005, little progress has been made in the past three years. Constant gunfire and attacks by northern militias raise tensions, especially along the border and in the oil fields. “The South is getting prepared for a war again,” Abraham said.
Maury Clark sees a high probability for renewed fighting in September or October this year, “ten days to 10 weeks after the Olympic games.” He attributed war in Southern Sudan, as in Darfur, to competition for oilfields which he believes stretch across central Africa. Because of oil, he said, the cause of war has shifted from ethnic and religion differences to hard economics.
Clark, who worked as an adviser to southern Sudanese President Salva Kiir’Maya, said that in May 2007 the south received less than $2 million from oil revenues even though they should have gotten $35 million a day.” He said the excess of money “funds the Janjaweed in Darfur [and] the Lord’s Resistance Army (in northern Uganda and southern Sudan.”
He calls Bashir one of the biggest threats to world peace, not only because of southern Sudan but also Darfur. The world is far more aware of crisis in Darfur. Since 2003, about 400,000 people were killed by militia in what the U.S. Congress called genocide in 2004. But the south is largely forgotten.
When Abraham came back, he didn’t want to leave his family behind in such desperate straits. “I had to do something,” he said. “That time I couldn’t bring anything, but the next time I don’t want to go back with empty hands.”
“For Abraham, education became his savior,” Donny said. “That is why we had the idea to build schools.” Together, they founded the “Deng Ater Foundation.” Both want to go back as soon as possible to build relations with humanitarian aid organizations and the southern government for sustainable development. Their aim is to create a model to be duplicated.
“We are both committed to build three schools,” Donny said. “What we need is to purchase a brick making machine.” The trip home was his single step on a long, hard journey to raise awareness and bring change. “I sold my TV and my furniture to make some money. For the first time in my life I feel I can make a difference.”
Currently, Abraham and Donny are still waiting for their permission to raise money as a non-profit organization.
Maury Clark is also full of hope. He keeps fighting for the lost boys and girls in America, and he wants to go back to Sudan to build a school for girls. “Less than two per cent of the women under the age of 35 are educated,” he said.
After Abraham’s journey brought him home to his family and village, he knows he wants to return more often, maybe forever. “I was happy to be with my mother and my sisters,” he said. “I didn’t want to leave. But I know how important it is to finish my masters [in Public Health]. Maybe I want to work for the U.N. to give the community training on clean water and sanitation.”
In 1987, thousands of families sent their children on a journey of hope for Sudan. They were seen as the wealth of their tribes and their country who might carry on their heritage and their culture and bring back the money, education and training needed to build a peaceful civil society.
Abraham Ater and Donny Dains, with help from people like Maury Clark, are proving that their desperate
gamble has a chance at succeeding before another war breaks out.