Lost Boys

This was written from Kenya during the tribal violence  of 2008.

Calgary’s Lost Boys not yet home; Kenyan crisis puts another roadblock in front of two determined refugee doctors

© copyright
The Calgary Herald
Sunday, February 17, 2008

By Robert Remington

In a rural hospital outside Nairobi, not far from a place called Banana Hill, ex-Calgarians Jacob Maker and Moses Gak Rech have encountered yet another obstacle on their long journey home.

It has taken them 24 years to come this far. As two of the so-called “Lost Boys” of Sudan, they have faced starvation, disease and militia death squads on a global odyssey that has seen them go from refugee camps in Ethiopia to a meat-packing plant in Brooks and eventually to Calgary, where they studied medicine in pursuit of their dream of becoming doctors.

Maker and Rech are now attempting to complete their medical internships so they can return home to Sudan. But tribal conflicts in Kenya’s ongoing political crisis have again stalled them in their amazing quest.

The chief medical officer at the Nazareth Hospital here had to flee last month, leaving Maker and Rech uncertain when they will be able to complete their training.

Nazareth is in an area controlled by Kikuyu, the nation’s politically dominant tribal group, who back President Mwai Kibaki. The chief medical officer at the hospital is a member of the Luo tribe and backs opposition leader Raila Odinga.

More than 1,000 people have been killed and 300,000 displaced in fighting between the two groups after Odinga accused Kibaki of stealing the election in a rigged vote Dec. 27.

As mediation efforts continue in Nairobi under former UN secretary general Kofi Annan, Maker and Rech are left with little to do in a hospital that is operating at half capacity because people are afraid to risk travelling through rival tribal areas.

In addition to the chief medical officer, several clinical support staff, also Luo, were forced to leave.

“We hope he can come back, but we’ll just have to wait,” Maker says.

For the two ex-Calgary Lost Boys, the crisis in Kenya is but one more chapter in an extraordinary struggle that is one of the most epic stories of our time.

Separated from their families in the mid-1980s and barely in their teens, Maker and Rech were among thousands of children who marched for months across the bush and deserts of southern Sudan, facing starvation, dehydration, wild animals and cholera to escape a brutal, 22-year civil war between the Muslim north and the Christian and animist south. The war killed two million people.

For the boys to stay alive, they also had to elude militia from the north charged with carrying out a Herod’s-like decree that any south Sudan boys be killed in an effort to deplete the south’s supply of future rebel soldiers.

Eventually Maker and Rech made their way to refugee camps in Ethiopia, only to be trained as child soldiers to fight the enemy they had fled.

In 1985, with Sudan mired in one of the bloodiest wars of the 20th century, south Sudanese rebel leader John Garang ordered 600 child soldiers to put down their guns. Among them were Maker and Rech.

Deemed too young to be sent to the front lines, the boys, all under 15, were ordered by Garang to instead pick up pencils. Packed on a Soviet ship, they were sent to Cuba for an education and told to return one day to rebuild their homeland.

Cast into the unknown, without contact from relatives and a homeland they would come to miss, they became known as the Lost Boys of Sudan.

For more than 20 years, the Lost Boys struggled to get an education, first in Cuba and then in Canada, the United States and Australia. Maker and Rech were among a core group of 15 Cuban-trained medical students who eventually made their way to Calgary, where the Christian aid organization Samaritan’s Purse had arranged for them to further their medical education at the University of Calgary.

Rech also worked for two years packing meat at a slaughterhouse in Brooks, one of hundreds of Sudanese refugees to work in the community east of Calgary.

Samaritan’s Purse then helped place the aspiring doctors in five hospitals in Kenya for internships, where their incredible dream of returning home is finally being realized.

In October, the first three of the Calgary-trained doctors returned to Sudan, including Daniel Madit Duop, who initially approached Samaritan’s Purse on behalf of the group. Maker, 36, and Rech, 39, are among 10 yet to complete their internships.

Sitting in the sparse doctor’s lounge at the Nazareth Hospital, set in rolling hills amid banana and tea plantations, the two interns tell a story similar to the hundreds of other Lost Boys who have now become near legends.

“In 1984, I was in Grade 6,” says Maker. “In the month of October, an insurgency was going on about eight miles away.

I left in a group of seven close friends, all boys. Some were older than me, in secondary school. It took me almost a year to reach Ethiopia. We would journey for 24 hours, maybe stop for one hour to sleep. There were floods in May of 1985. It was very difficult.” Maker and his six friends met up with a group of about 115 other students. About 15 like him were still in primary school. Most had either lost their parents or been sent away to escape the fighting.

Maker remembers saying goodbye to his father.

“He was so scared, but he said to go and find some people who are going to school and finish your studies. When you leave for the bush there are no studies. You don’t know where to stay. Some people were having psychological issues.” Similar small groups of refugees were forming throughout south Sudan, heading for camps in Ethiopia. Eventually, Maker’s group formed up with 300 more, and then more still. He travelled with what would become a diaspora of 1,500 people heading north and east for the Ethiopian border. Other larger refugee groups were also forming throughout the country.

Those who marched across Sudan in the mid-1980s were strafed by government planes, attacked by lions and hyenas and gunned down by militia.

In Maker’s group, half died. Those who were not killed in the fighting succumbed to dehydration.

“They could not find water to drink. There was a lot of thirst.” Maker and his six young friends were initially rejected by one of the larger groups because they were so young.

“The seven of us were very small. The others wanted us to go back. The group was saying it is very far, there were a lot of issues. You will not be able to eat for a couple of days. you won’t be able to find water, so it’s not good to come with us. I said, ‘If you can do it, we can do it.’ ” The larger group turned the seven boys over to the local police, but Maker talked the authorities into letting them go, promising they would return home. Instead, Maker and his six friends continued to follow about a kilometre behind the others.

“It was just living hour by hour,” he recalls. “The road was completely blocked by militia. They had control of all the borders so they knew where people were coming and they could ambush them. Many people died.” A tragedy then struck that would haunt Maker for years. His group of seven had a chance to hitch a ride on a truck, but Maker refused to board it. The truck hit a landmine. All six of his friends were killed. Maker was only 12.

“I didn’t get in. I had fears for some reason. I don’t know why. It hit me hard. I was so depressed because, you know, I had all this guilt. If I had accepted the idea of going home, those in my group might not have died.” According to international aid organizations, the Lost Boys were among the most traumatized children of war they had ever seen.

Rech’s story is nearly identical. His trek across Sudan took two months but was nonetheless harrowing. In May of 1984, at age 15, he fled to Ethiopia, avoiding militia groups that were intercepting and killing people.

By the time Rech and Maker arrived in Ethiopia, they were half starved, but their nightmare was far from over. In camps holding up to 10,000 people, diarrheal diseases claimed more lives.

After a year in the refugee camps, the south Sudanese rebel group, the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), sent Maker and Rech for training as child soldiers.

“It was for self-defence more than anything. In the camps, you never knew where the enemy was going to strike,” said Maker.

They trained as soldiers for six months before Garang intervened.

The Sudan People’s Liberation Movement, the political arm of the SPLA, struck a deal with Cuba to have the boys sent away to the a free education system on the Soviet-backed Caribbean island. Cuban advisers arrived in Ethiopia and, for two months, the boys received elementary Spanish instruction, before leaving for Cuba.

Rech and Maker both went through the Cuban system to earn medical degrees. With the Soviet empire in economic disarray after the end of Cold War, Cuba sent the boys to other countries. Many nations refused to accept the Sudanese refugees, who had no legal documents proving their nationalities. Canada was among the few countries that accepted them.

Rech was sent to Ottawa in 1998. Maker followed in 2000, arriving in Windsor. With virtually no English, they took whatever jobs they could get. Rech worked in a fibre optics assembly plant. Maker ended up in a Leamington, Ont., factory that made packing boxes for tomatoes and later got a job in Windsor making pistons on a General Motors assembly line.

Both were desperate for news of their relatives back home.

Maker, working through the Red Cross, discovered his parents had died. Rech discovered he, too, was an orphan, but both had siblings in Sudan.

The day he landed in Canada, Maker phoned one of his brothers in Khartoum, the northern capital of Sudan. Maker learned his brother had no choice but to join the northern army after being captured.

“He had never been in school. He ran away one year after me. All healthy young men, the government picked them up and sent them to training camp.” Maker’s brother was made to fight against his own people in the south for 10 years.

“To survive, you have to get a job somehow and the only job he could do was join the military. He had no skills,” Maker said.

Rech learned that his brother was also in Khartoum and that his two sisters were living in refugee camps, one in Sudan and the other on the Kenya side of the Sudanese border.

Rather than using the money they earned in Canada to further their education, Rech and Maker sent whatever they could spare to support their siblings back home.

“I told my brother to leave the army, that I had money to support him,” Maker said.

Neither has seen his siblings since the two left home 24 years ago.

Rech, laid off from his job in Ottawa, went to Brooks, where he worked at Lakeside Packers.

“I was so desperate. I needed to do something, so when that opportunity came I had to take it.” In 2005, all the Lost Boys who had studied medicine in Cuba were contacted by Duop, who had arranged for them through Samaritan’s Purse to upgrade their medical degrees in Calgary. After years of menial jobs, they had forgotten much of what they had learned.

Maker arrived in Calgary on Jan. 1, 2006.

“I knew it was very cold, but when I learned of the program I said, no, I can do this,” he said.

Now working as interns in Kenya, Maker and Rech are one step from returning home. Rech travelled with Duop to Juba, Sudan, in October for a homecoming, where the doctors were received by the south Sudanese president. Maker had no visa and had to stay behind.

“It was very emotional,” Rech said. “Daniel, he wept.” Duop, in a message posted on a U of C faculty of medicine weblog in November, told of being reunited with his father.

“It was the most difficult moment for me. I recognized my father, but when I compared this very old man in front of me to the 47-year-old man that I left as a child, it broke my heart. To see my father like that was very difficult. Not because I hadn’t expected him to be old, but because I hadn’t had the chance to see him become old. Dear friends, I’m embarrassed to say that I cried like a little boy.” In an e-mail last month sent from Sudan to John Clayton, the Samaritan’s Purse projects director who organized the Sudanese-Canadian physicians reintegration program, Duop, now 35, wrote of performing his first successful emergency C-section in Sudan.

According to Jeff Adams, the Samaritan’s Purse Calgary communications director, the procedure was an emotional moment for Duop, who had seen his mother die in childbirth while on the trail to Ethiopia.

“My patient was a 13-year-old girl with term pregnancy, more than 24 hours of unsuccessful labour, due to CPD (cephalopelvic disproportion, where the baby is too big for a vaginal delivery). She had a healthy baby girl. They are going home tomorrow,” Duop wrote.

“Today I also successfully resuscitated an infant who was born through C-section and with very minimum cardiac activity. I praised the Lord for these two blessing of the beginning of my medical career in my country. Amen.” Rech recently received word from Scott Shannon, a U.S.

doctor working for Samaritan’s Purse in Kenya to help place the doctors in Sudan, that he may be accepted at a missionary hospital in the town of Duk, in his home state.

On an Internet message board last year, a man in Duk wrote to those on the outside about a memorial to south Sudanese war heroes.

“Hundreds and thousands of mieth ke Hol lost their lives in the battlefield, fighting and dying without any hesitation while the wild beasts fed on the human flesh of the dead. My brothers and sisters, what could we do to commemorate our heroes and heroines who have fallen asleep for the common good of our community?” After 24 years abroad, Rech and Maker admit it will be difficult to return to a broken medical system in an impoverished country with a lack of modern equipment and scarcity of medicine.

But return they must, they say, as their way of saying thanks to Canada.

“When we left we knew our mission, to get an education and come back, says Maker. “We didn’t forget that. We always thought one day we would come back help people of our nation.

“So many people have helped me to get where I am. People all over the world, especially people from Canada who have invested a lot in us not only financially, but psychologically and spiritually. We will pay back by doing good things on the ground in Sudan. It is difficult in a place like Sudan, but these are our people. We will go there and help them.”


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