South Sudan's "Lost Boys" return home

DUK PAYUEL, Southern Sudan — When her labor pains began, Alang Majok, 16, got somebody to drive her for two hours through the African bush to reach the Duk Lost Boys Clinic.

Samuel Juma Malual, the facility’s clinical officer, heard a knock on the door of his mud hut at 1 a.m. and was roused out of bed. Majok was in labor for eight hours before she delivered a 6-pound baby girl on Dec. 1.

“People know where I’m sleeping so I wake up every time,’’ said Malual, 39, a former child soldier, who returned to the village in 2007 to work at the clinic.

The health clinic is one of a dozen initiatives inspired by a group of former “lost boys’’ who returned to southern Sudan to build schools, wells and provide health care in the villages they fled in 1987.

More than 27,000 boys were separated from their parents when soldiers from the Arab north bombed their villages and stole cattle.

The boys lived on the run, fleeing war, famine and living in a refugee camp in Kenya for 10 years. Their plight became a cause celebre in the U.S. in 2001, and nearly 4,000 boys were resettled in communities across the country.

Now some of those young men have returned to southern Sudan to help rebuild their homeland with help from Americans inspired by their story of survival and perseverance. To raise money, American school children sold T-shirts. Congregations organized spaghetti suppers. Doctors and teachers donated money and time.

In southern Sudan, a woman is more likely to die in childbirth than become literate. Only 10 percent of all deliveries in southern Sudan are assisted by skilled health personnel. That is why John Bul Dau decided to open the Duk Lost Boys Clinic to provide a safe place for women to give birth.

Dau, 36, one of three "lost boys" featured in the award-winning film “God Grew Tired of Us,’’ built the clinic in 2007, thanks to help from the Skaneateles Presbyterian Church, the upstate New York congregation that resettled him and four other boys in 2001.

The film and Dau’s autobiography, also titled “God Grew Tired of Us,’’ helped raise about $2 million for the clinic.

In a remote desert area where there are no phone or electrical lines, the clinic thrives on innovative technology. Solar panels allow the clinic to keep vaccines cold in a fridge. A satellite dish provides high-speed internet so the clinic’s nurses and midwife can use Skype to consult two Syracuse area doctors in difficult cases.

The war in southern Sudan ended in 2005, but there has been little development to meet the basic needs of the region's 10 million people. Ongoing inter-ethnic conflicts make it tough for the 130 NGOs in southern Sudan to reach all the remote areas where the young men are rebuilding. Southern Sudan is rich in oil but it is one of the least developed areas in the world.

The former "lost boys’’ are motivated because of the injustices they saw growing up. They learned to read and write in makeshift schools in refugee camps. They saw their friends die from diseases because of the lack of health care.

“They went to Ethiopia, Kenya and the U.S., and their eyes opened wide that something is wrong in southern Sudan,’’ said Franco Majok, 47, a Sudanese refugee who built a school in his village, Wunlang. “They realized there was injustice. When peace was signed, they went back and saw that the government was slow to develop the area. When you see no clean water, no schools, then we think maybe we should do it ourselves.’’

Majok, who helped resettle "lost boys’’ in the Boston area, created Village Help for South Sudan to develop Wunlang. He is also building a clinic and an orphanage.

He recruited Angelo Kiir, a former “lost boy,’’ who resettled in Syracuse, N.Y., to work for him. Last year, Kiir quit his job as a patient transporter at St. Joseph Hospital and Health Center in Syracuse. Kiir decided to return home after he lost two siblings to the lack of health care. His 19-year-old brother died of diarrhea after drinking from a muddy stream. His 18-year-old sister died in childbirth.

“People are dying, people are suffering,’’ said Kiir, 28, field director of Village Help for South Sudan. “It is because of that suffering. That’s why I’m here.’’

Kiir is making bricks for a health clinic. The project has already built classrooms for Wunlang School so that 600 students were able to move from under trees into eight classrooms two years ago.

They sit at desks made from mahogany trees cut from the nearby forest where villagers hid from Arab soldiers during the 21-year-old civil war that killed 2 million people and forced 5 million more to flee to refugee camps.

In April, Sudan will hold its first democratic, multi-party elections in 24 years, but most people in southern Sudan are concerned about the January 2011 vote to become independent.

Dau knew the war would end someday; he wanted to be prepared. His work on the clinic began in 2004.

Since its inception, the free clinic has treated more than 28,000 patients; delivered more than 250 babies; vaccinated more than 3,000 children; and provided prenatal care to more than 450 pregnant women. In January, the Duk Lost Boys Clinic performed its first blood transfusion.
Dau said the opportunities in America motivated him to help his people.

“I was encouraged by the fact that people are so generous and they will support you,’’ he said. “Being motivated means I was ready to go. I took it upon me to be the one that is changing that country.’’

Alang Majok is thankful that she could go to the clinic when she had her first child.

“For me, I was about to die because the labor was really bad,’’ she said, sitting on the concrete floor with her daughter, Akim Mathei. “The clinic is important because I am alive.’’