Sent on an Odyssey as Boys, Sudanese Come Home to Serve their Country

JUBA, Sudan: Nov. 26, 2006 (AP) _ In the midst of a revolution, Sudanese rebel chiefs chose two boys _ a soldier and a goat herder _ to join a group of several hundred who were being sent abroad to become part of their nation’s next generation of leaders.

The boys were taken from a rebel base and a refugee camp in 1986 and sent on an odyssey where their fates were tied to both their civil war and the Cold War. They expected their education to last two or three years, but the civil war dragged on and on. Only now, 20 years later, have they finally come home.

Trained as physicians, they have chosen to leave Canada and the only life they have known as grown‐ups to return to their homeland, which has only 50 doctors for 10 million people.

“My body was in the west, but always, my mind and my heart were here,” Daniel Madit Duop said as he looked out over the White Nile on his first full day back home since he was 13. “It is time for us to complete our mission.”

Duop remembers watching helplessly as his mother died during childbirth in 1983. It was then, at the age of 11, that he decided he wanted to be a doctor.

Soon after, Sudan’s leaders declared that the country would be ruled by Islamic law. Southern Sudanese, who are mostly Christians, took up arms as the Sudan People’s Liberation Army. More than 2.5 million people would die, mostly from war‐induced famine and disease, before the two sides made peace in 2004.

Duop’s father was among the first to join the rebellion. He entrusted his only son to SPLA leader John Garang and soon Duop was guarding Garang’s headquarters in a village just over the Ethiopian border.

“I was in charge of 50 kids,” he said. “We saw our friends and others going to the front line, sometimes 200 going and sometimes only 10 coming back, bloody and wounded.”
He spoke with a soft voice and a fixed stare, but then tears welled up.

“We forgot about toys, we forgot about everything,” he said. “Our only toy was a Chinese (‐made) Kalashnikov rifle.”

His partner in the odyssey was Michael Tut Pur. Before the war he had spent his days happily herding goats. He loved the responsibility, keeping the goats away from the crops and caring for their young. Then government soldiers attacked his village and killed three of his aunts. He and a fourth aunt fled in the night.

“We had to go along the banks of the Nile River … some people were killed by crocodiles,” said Pur, a slight and erudite man who was then just 10 years old.

After walking for a week, they found safety in a crowded camp filled with people who had lost everything but what they could carry. Later his father and mother would join him. Aid workers brought
the refugees maize and set up schools for the children, but the water was foul and sanitation nonexistent.

“It was not a suitable place to live,” Pur said, with a grim smile.

Sudanese women run for shelter as a Sudanese government plane begins a bombing run on charity hospital in South Sudan. AP Photo By Chris Tomlinson

Sudanese women run for shelter as a Sudanese government plane begins a bombing run on charity hospital in South Sudan. AP Photo By Chris Tomlinson

In 1985, Cuban military advisers arrived to help the rebels, and the SPLA embraced Marxism. Cuban troops were already in Angola, Ethiopia and Mozambique, all battlegrounds in the Cold War struggle for Africa.

Duop vividly remembers the day Garang told him he was going to Cuba to be groomed for leadership. He gave the boy a pencil and told him to put down his rifle.

“He said, `This pencil is your gun right now. If you do something with this pencil, you have won your battle,'” Duop said.

Pur was given just one night to prepare for the journey. He spent it with his father, Peter.

“He gave me a Bible and said, `This Bible is going to be your mother and your father, read it every day,'” Pur said. Peter then read from Matthew: “Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God. Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness’ sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

The rebels recruited about 1,000 children for the program. Cuban teachers at a rebel camp taught them Spanish. Then Salva Kiir, second‐in‐command of the SPLA, gave the top 600 students tickets on a Soviet ship bound for Cuba.

When they arrived, they relished the joys of running water and electricity. But they missed their families and Sudanese food. They never forgot why they had left.

“I would always think, I must study hard, I must work hard, I must complete the mission,” Pur said. He made friends with teens from other communist countries and spent weekends at the beach.

Duop, meanwhile, became a student leader. He played on a Sudanese team that won an international basketball championship. Remembering his mother’s death, he vowed to become a doctor and graduated at the top of his high school class in 1991.

But the Soviet Union had collapsed and so had its subsidies for Cuba, causing widespread food shortages and unemployment.

“It was a big blow,” said Pur.

But the Cubans allowed the Sudanese to finish their education. The first group of graduates went back home in 1993.

“When they arrived back in Uganda and Kenya, nobody received them, nobody looked after them,” Duop said, still bitter at the betrayal. “Some went to the SPLA and a lot of them were killed (in battle).

When the Cuban government learned of what was happening, they stopped sending people back. They said it was a waste of resources.”

In 1995, Cuba asked the United Nations to grant all of the Sudanese students refugee status. Canada agreed to resettle them and most became citizens there. Duop and Pur arrived in 2001. But their Cuban medical degrees did not qualify them to practice medicine in Canada. Duop ended up working at a meatpacking plant and Pur as an assistant physical therapist.

The Canadian winters were hard, and not practicing medicine was harder. They wanted to complete their mission. In late 2004, Sudan’s civil war ended and Duop and Pur saw their chance.

An SPLA leader in Kenya told Duop by telephone about Samaritan’s Purse, a Christian relief organization that was one of the largest medical providers in southern Sudan.

Duop contacted John Clayton, projects director at Samaritan’s Purse Canada, who contacted the University of Calgary medical school. They agreed to create a one‐year refresher course to prepare Duop, Pur and 13 other Cuban‐educated Sudanese doctors to return home.

Samaritan’s Purse also arranged for a one‐year residency at hospitals in Kenya where the doctors could specialize in tropical medicine. Duop, Pur and the others finished their course in Canada and flew to Nairobi, Kenya on Oct. 5.

They were back in Africa for the first time in 20 years.

Standing at the arrivals gate in Nairobi, Peter Tut Pur, now a preacher in Kenya, waited anxiously for the son he had expected to be away no longer than two or three years.

“I gave him the Bible and the hymn book in his mother tongue. I didn’t want him to forget his mother tongue.”

They had lost touch for much of the last 20 years but had recently communicated by telephone and e‐mail. When Michael emerged, his father raced to him and they embraced for the first time since the night in the refugee camp.

“This is the greatest moment,” the father said. “I have waited too long.”

The next morning, the doctors boarded planes for Juba. Dressed in their finest suits, they stirred nervously and cheered when they crossed into Sudanese airspace.

When Pur stepped off the plane in Juba, he dropped to his knees and kissed the ground. Duop stepped off the stairs weeping as SPLA members cheered, waved the South Sudan flag and sang SPLA songs.
Leaders in South Sudan’s autonomous government welcomed the young doctors as long lost children.

“Fifteen medical doctors all at once is something fantastic,” said Dr. Theophilus Chang Lotti, the south’s minister of health.

The doctors went from the airport to honor Garang, who died in a helicopter crash last year.

“We are coming home today to pay our respects to the people who gave their lives in our struggle. While we were studying, they were suffering,” Duop said at Garang’s tomb. “Who will take care of those children who lost their fathers in the war, who will take care of those women who lost their husbands in the war? If not us, who?”

As Duop signed the condolence book, a group of children stopped to watch. Duop asked a shoeless 12‐year‐old Emmanuel Bidal about school, and Bidal showed him his tattered notebook. Duop remembered himself at that age.

“Children have to be children,” he said. “They have to carry pencils and toys, not guns.”

But Duop also said he missed Garang.

“I expected to come back and say, `Hey commander, I’m here to complete my mission,'” Duop said. But instead, Duop met the man who had handed him his ticket so many years ago, Salva Kiir, now president of South Sudan.

Kiir recalled accusations in 1986 that he and Garang were selling the children for guns.

We were “creating the leadership of the future,” Kiir told the doctors. “South Sudan has to be built from zero and this is the mission that we left with you … development is much more difficult than war.”

Duop and Pur said they are up to the challenge.

“I know there is nothing in southern Sudan, but my personal difficulties are less than the difficulties our people are facing,” Duop said. “I would be happy if I saved one woman from dying during childbirth.”

The doctors will take up posts scattered across southern Sudan. Their first job will be restoring dilapidated clinics or building new ones. They will practice medicine in places without electricity or clean water, where there are no blood banks and drug deliveries are unpredictable.

Pur said he could no longer watch images of suffering in Africa and do nothing.

“I didn’t pay for this education,” he said. “It was free, so I must pay back freely.”


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"(Garang) said, `This pencil is your gun right now. If you do something with this pencil, you have won your battle,'" Duop said.
November 26, 2006
Associated Press