Lost boys, found men: From civil war in Sudan to the classrooms and convocation stage at Lethbridge College

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Part II: Africa

It was the promise of education that convinced Mathon’s family to let him leave his home in 1988.

Soldiers in the north, supported by the northern government, and in the south, fighting in the newly-formed Sudanese People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), had been dying in the civil war for more than four years, and cities, towns and villages throughout south Sudan had been ravaged by violence.

“Our local leader, he was a very smart guy,” says Mathon. “Our leader says, okay, how are we going to get more soldiers? So he went to the village elders and said they wanted us to be trained and to go to school. That was the trick. There was no school. It was a lie.”

The southern Sudanese rebel leader John Garang did have plans at one point to educate the young people of south Sudan, with the idea that they would be the doctors, lawyers, engineers and economists needed to build a new and independent country. But in the end, only about 600 children travelled to Cuba in 1985 for their education.

The vast majority of the children, including Manyok and Mathon, never saw schoolbooks, and instead many were given weapons. Manyok says it was the promise of army training and a gun – and the hope to come back and protect his village of Ciir from attacks from the Murle tribe – that convinced his family to let him go. “War is war, right?” says Manyok. “People are going to die, right? People aren’t going to come back. We didn’t have a choice.”

After leaving their hometowns in the late 1980s, the boys walked more than 1,000 kilometres to Ethiopia. Manyok went from his home village near Bor to the Pinyudo refugee camp, while Mathon walked from his home village near Wau to the Dima military training camp. There, they lived with thousands of others, mostly boys and young men who were also far away from their families. By 1989, they started receiving military training and then, as Mathon says, “we fought, we fought and we fought.”

The different bands of boys moved throughout the region, propelled by politics and changes in regimes. Manyok occasionally encountered different uncles during his time away from his village, and one of them took him to a different military training facility in Ethiopia. Mathon at one point was taken in “by a girl captain who said I could pretend to be a bodyguard to her, and I left with her to another city. She tried to save my life and take me away from the front line.” In both instances, the boys likely avoided injury or death by making these moves.

“At first it was a like a dream,” says Mathon. “You didn’t know what was happening. You just keep shooting. We were lucky enough.”

There were many hardships along the way: a two-month period with almost no food; battles with automatic weapons where, as Manyok describes, “if you are lucky you were not being shot;” and friends dying of dehydration, starvation, animal attacks, illness, gunshot wounds and more. Both men still suffer at the memories of injured and lost friends.

“For your friend to die and you be the one to do the funeral…” Manyok says.

“To be the one to bury them…” Mathon adds.

“I was 10- or 11-years-old, and it happened to me,” continues Manyok. “We had walked seven days from my hometown. And one of our lost boys was attacked by a lion and killed. We lost a lot of young men in the Pinyudo camp. And we would try to bury them but when we came back the next day to bury another, we would see the body we had buried the day before had been taken by an animal.

“This is not a good memory for me.”

“All in all, this is something that is really painful,” says Mathon. “But we have to remember that we have freedom. We have a nation. And whoever died sacrificed for our nation.”

As time went on, the groups of boys set their sights on walking to the Kakuma Refugee Camp in Kenya. “Anyone who went to Kenya, they went to school,” Manyok says. Manyok came to the Kakuma camp in Kenya in 1992 but returned to Sudan in 1993 because he connected with a cousin, who was a captain of a post, and went to stay with him. “I should have stayed with the other guys [in Kenya.] But my goal the whole time was to come back to my own village and see my mom, and I thought my cousin and I could go home and see her. When we were in Ethiopia, my mom was told I had died. My goal was to go and see her.”

But Manyok and his cousin got drawn back into the fighting and then were slowed down by a flood, and Manyok never made it to see his mother. He arrived back at the Kenyan refugee camp in 1995 and would live and work in different parts of the region for five years. Eventually, he was able to apply to the United Nations in Kenya to come to Canada as a refugee and in 2000, the application was accepted. “I was 21 or 22,” Manyok says. Mathon arrived in the Kenyan refugee camp in 1998.

One of his uncles was also at the camp and would be the first in the family to leave as a refugee to Canada. Once in Calgary, the uncle contacted a local Catholic church, which sponsored the application for Mathon and five relatives to come to Canada.

“It was 2001 when I came here, when I was about 20 or 21 years old,” says Mathon.

The civil war in their homeland would continue for four more years, making it one of the longest civil wars on record. About two million people died during the conflict as a result of war, starvation or disease, and four million people in southern Sudan were displaced at least once, and often several times. The civilian death toll is one of the highest of any war since World War II. In 2011, six years after the signing of the peace treaty that ended the civil war, South Sudan became an independent state. Civil war broke out again in December 2013 and fighting is again underway.

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