Video: Lost Boy embraces new nation

By Senior writer/editor
msnbc.com
updated 7/8/2011 5:11:09 PM ET 2011-07-08T21:11:09

As one of the thousands of "lost boys of Sudan," Mawut Mayen remembers eating mud, hiding from death squads and watching a friend die under an acacia tree after civil war invaded his life, destroyed his village and sent him on an extraordinary exodus from his war-torn homeland.

On Saturday, more than two decades later and half the world away, he will watch with equal measures of hope and trepidation as his homeland formally declared its independence from the north, becoming the Republic of South Sudan.

"There's so much uncertainty and insecurity," said Mayen, now 26, living in the United States and working as an industrial engineer for Boeing. "My people have lived with war all their lives. Let South Sudan be free. It's time to end the suffering."

Image: Map of Sudan
Msnbc.com

Despite the pride and hopefulness that Sudanese refugees like Mayen feel as South Sudan becomes the world's newest country, they also recognize the tremendous challenges that lie ahead.

Lise Grande, who leads the U.N.'s humanitarian operations in South Sudan, told the Associated Press this week that the region is "one of the most underdeveloped on the planet." Only 15 percent of the population can read. Most live on a $1 a day. Education and health facilities are sorely inadequate.

PhotoBlog: Last few licks of paint for world's newest country

Of more immediate concern is fighting that has escalated ahead of Saturday's independence along the ill-defined northern border with Sudan. Observers fear it could reignite the 1983-2005 civil war between the mostly Arab north and the south, where traditional African religions and Christianity are practiced. Despite international calls for a withdrawal, northern troops remain in the disputed border region, dueling with rebels and tribes over control of oil-producing land. Susan Rice, U.S. Ambassador to the U.N., on Thursday called the situation a "fragile and fraught moment."

'I want to live in dignity'
For Mayen, the troubles conjure up memories of the perilous journey that he and some 20,000 other Sudanese children — mostly boys — made through Sudan's unforgiving terrain to refugee camps in Ethiopia and later Kenya in the mid-1980s.

Video: Lost Boy embraces new nation (on this page)

Labeled by experts as some of the most traumatized orphans in history, these boys eventually dispersed as refugees worldwide, including some 3,800 to the United States. They became known as the "lost boys of Sudan" when U.N. workers at the Kakuma Refugee Camp in Kenya named them after the rag-tag orphans from "Peter Pan."

Despite the hardships they endured, the Sudanese who resettled in the U.S. have adjusted to American life better than members of many other refugee groups, according to the Office of Refugee Resettlement at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. They have learned English, and have done well in school and at work, in many cases sending money back to relatives in Sudan.

South Sudan

But these successes came at a steep cost, Mayen said.

"People in America ask me, 'What are your goals?'" he said. "If you've ever lived in a refugee camp, your goal is to make it to the next day. Nobody should ever have to go through the pain and suffering that the lost boys did. Children should be able to dream."

Santino M. Akot, 36, of Las Vegas, fled his homeland when he was 14 and has no plans to return.

"There were difficulties coming to America," he said. "You needed resources, like clothes and money. You needed to be able to read and write in English. You had few friends. Everything was new. Everyone wanted your money, money you didn't have."

Video: Life in America (on this page)

Now, Akot is trying to provide a better life for his wife and two children. He earns just enough as a casino worker to "make sure my wife doesn't have to work," he said.

He hopes that his people have similar opportunities in their new country.

"I want to live in dignity," he said. "Now, we look to July 9, a day of great world importance. We have to stay strong here in America and in South Sudan. People of South Sudan deserve to live with their dignity. It is time."

Story: He went from an African refugee camp to the Ivy League

Independence  Day celebrations
Many "lost boys" have returned to South Sudan ahead of the formal independence ceremony, to join the thousands in the streets of the new capital, Juba, where a digital clock counts down the minutes to independence day. Celebrations are planned in all of the South's 10 states.

Some plan to do more than rejoice at the nation's birth. Aruna Kenyi, a 21-year-old college student from Portland, Maine, left for southern Sudan in late May to see his family for the first time since 1994.

Kenyi was five when a militia torched his village of Kansuk. Now, the senior from the University of Maine in Farmington plans to spend the summer there and help to set up a nutrition program in the schools.

Another "lost boy," Angelo Maker of Newport News, Va., won't be attending the independence celebration in South Sudan. Since the 2005 peace accord with the north, he has traveled back to his homeland several times to help build schools — some of the basic infrastructure the new nation will need if it is to escape the cycle of violence.

Image: "Lost boy" Angelo Maker and Salva Kiir
Photo courtesy of Julie Hill
"Lost boy" Angelo Maker, left, and Salva Kiir who will be sworn in as South Sudan's president. The picture was taken in the president's office in Juba in July 2010.

"It is time to put down the guns," said Maker, who fled the country when he was seven after fighters from north swarmed his village and killed his family.

"I ran for days, crying with no food or water," said Maker, 31. "I walked toward the sunrises with other war orphans, walking for a thousand miles."

Maker described the changes he saw during his last trip in May. "They're building roads and schools," he said. "Children are gathering under the tree and learning to read and write. I see changes and I see hope."

He also has sought to raise awareness about the situation in South Sudan in the U.S., meeting with celebrities and members of Congress.

Many Sudanese refugees in the U.S. plan to celebrate on Saturday with songs and fellowship. In Richmond, Va., the Sudanese community has rented a hall to accommodate 500 people for dinner. Similar gatherings are planned in Las Vegas, Phoenix, Omaha and Salt Lake City.

"It is day when all south Sudanese will proudly raise their hands high," Mayen said.

'A better future'
Mayen's days are now spent juggling work, school and volunteering. He's enrolled in online classes at the University of Washington, where he hopes to earn a master's degree in engineering and technology management. He runs the Southern Sudanese Community of Washington, a resource and educational center in the Seattle area. When he has time, he likes to play basketball.

What's at stake?

But Mayen, who bears the tribal scar of the Dinka people on his forehead, still thinks occasionally about the peaceful life in the Nile village where he once lived. And he misses his parents and sisters, who he only discovered were alive after he relocated to the U.S.

They have been rebuilding their lives, but fighting recently claimed the life of his brother-in-law, he said.

"There is so much bloodshed and pain," Mayen said.

Video: Living with a troubled history (on this page)

Sometimes he also thinks about the young boy who died from an illness underneath that acacia, and he hopes that Sudanese children will never again endure such trauma.

"I remember dragging him on a blanket," said Mayen. "We had to get him to clinic. We kept dragging the blanket until we reached the tree" where he died.

Mayen said he would like to return one day to his village and help his tribe. Until then, he'll aid other refugees in the Seattle area.

"I'm not one of the people heading back home to help build my country, its roads and its schools," said Mayen. "But, if I sent money to my family or my village to help someone from starving to death, then I'm helping them get the strength they need to be part of a better future."

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Explainer: Independence of South Sudan

  • Image: A supporter of independence for southern Sudan
    Goran Tomasevic  /  Reuters
    A supporter of the referendum on southern Sudan's independence adjusts a banner on top of a car during a rally in Juba on Jan. 5. The referendum, guaranteed by a 2005 peace deal between north and south resulted in secession.

    The Republic of South Sudan will be founded on Saturday, July 9, the climax of an internationally brokered peace process that ended decades of civil war between north and south Sudan.

    The republic will become the 196th country in the world, the 193rd member of the United Nations, and the 55th country in Africa, according to the southern government.

    It will open 34 embassies and consulates worldwide and may establish more than 50 over time, officials say.

    Here are some facts about South Sudan and its steps to statehood:

    (Source: Msnbc.com research, The Associated Press and Reuters)

  • Peace deal

    Image: Southern Sudanese citizens
    Str  /  Reuters
    Southern Sudanese citizens chant slogans and hold placards as they march in the streets in support of the independence referendum in Juba.

    Northern and southern Sudan have fought for all but a few years from 1955 to 2005, over ethnicity, religion, ideology and oil. The war claimed 2 million lives and destabilized much of the region.

    A 2005 peace deal guaranteed a referendum six years later, when southerners would choose whether to stay part of Sudan or break off and form their own nation. In January, more than 98 percent of southerners voted to secede.

    The peace agreement expires July 9, the day the new nation will declare its independence.

    Sudan's government has warned 10,000 UN peacekeepers deployed to the region to leave on that day.

  • Independence Day

    Image: South Sudan's President Salva Kiir and Sudan
    GORAN TOMASEVIC  /  Reuters
    South Sudan's President Salva Kiir and Sudan's President Omar Hassan al-Bashir review an honor guard at the airport in Juba in January.

    An independence ceremony will be held at the Garang Memorial site in the capital Juba, where former southern leader and rebel hero John Garang, who signed the peace deal with northern President Omar Hassan al-Bashir, is interred.

    • The Independence Day celebrations will include raising the new South Sudan flag and singing the new national anthem, which is being taught to southerners in Juba.
    • The southern government says more than 30 heads of state from Africa and around the world will attend. Bashir has been invited, according to southern officials. A confirmed list of attendees is not yet available.
    • Thousands are expected to take to the streets of the new capital, and similar celebrations will be held in all the south's 10 states.
    • Southern President Salva Kiir will be sworn in during celebrations for a four-year term. The Southern Sudan Legislative Assembly will be reconstituted by the president as the National Legislative Assembly.
    • A new "transitional constitution" will come into effect July 9, subject to final approval by the parliament. A number of cosmetic changes have been made to the current charter, such as removing references to a unity government. A series a new powers have also been granted to the president.
  • Sudan

    Image: Burning homes in Abyei, central Sudan
    Stuart Price  /  UNMIS via EPA
    A photograph released by the United Nations shows home burning in Abyei, central Sudan, after a May 21-22 attack by northern Sudanese forces.

    Facts include:

    People: Sudan has a population of about 44 million. The north is mostly Muslim, while the south is populated by black Africans who are mostly Christian and animist. Dozens of languages and dialects are spoken. Northerners mostly speak Arabic, but the official language of South Sudan will be English.

    Land: Sudan is Africa's largest country geographically, about one-quarter the size of the United States. South Sudan alone is roughly the size of Texas. Many of Sudan's neighbors are volatile countries; along its borders are Libya, Eritrea, Chad, Central African Republic, Congo, Egypt, Ethiopia, Kenya and Uganda. Sudan's long, porous borders are easily crossed by rebel groups.

    Economy: Sudan is one of Africa's largest oil exporters, and the sale of crude is its chief foreign exchange earner. The oil fields are mostly in the south but the pipelines to take them to the Red Sea run through northern territory. Agriculture employs 80 percent of the work force; Sudan exports products like cotton, grains, livestock and fruit.

    History:  A rebellion first began in the south in 1955, the year before Sudan gained independence after joint British-Egyptian control. Fighting lasted until a 1972 peace agreement, which failed to resolve the fundamental issues.

    Fighting resumed in the early 1980s, and about 2 million people died over the next two decades. The 2005 peace agreement granted the south autonomy for six years, at the end of which a referendum on independence was held.

    Rebels in the western region of Darfur province and in the northeast also have rebelled against Sudan's Khartoum-based government, accusing it of concentrating wealth in the hands of a politically privileged Islamist elite and ignoring development in outlying regions. U.N. officials say up to 300,000 people have died in Darfur since 2003 and 2.7 million have been forced from their homes because of the conflict

  • South Sudan

    Capital: Juba

    Head of state: Salva Kiir

    Population: 8.26 million

    Religion: Mostly Christian and traditional beliefs

    Economy: Oil accounted for about 98 percent of the south's total revenue in 2010. About three-quarters of Sudan's roughly 500,000 barrels per day of oil output comes from the south, but the pipelines all pass through the north, which has the country's only refineries and sea port.

    Oil is the lifeblood of both northern and southern economies. The current arrangement, which splits revenues from southern oil about 50-50, expires when the south declares independence.

    Poverty, people
    Despite being endowed with oil, up to 90 percent of the southern population lives below the poverty line, surviving on just a half a dollar a day.

    Southern Sudan has the highest infant-mortality rates and the lowest education indicators in the world. One child in 10 dies before its first birthday and fewer than 1 percent of girls complete primary education.

    World assistance
    In May, the European Union allocated 200 million euros for southern Sudan to support the government's forthcoming 2011-13 development plan. Since 2005, the EU has committed development assistance of over 665 million euros to Sudan, with more than 45 percent dedicated to the south.

    In 2009, Sudan received $2.4 billion in official development assistance from donors.

  • Sudan (north)

    Capital: Khartoum

    Head of State: Omar Hassan al-Bashir

    Population: 31 million (without the south)

    Religion: Mostly Muslim

    Economy: Oil revenues for the united country accounted for more than 50 percent of domestic revenue and more than 90 percent of exports in 2009.

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