'Lost Boy' Who Survived Civil War Avoids More Bloodshed
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Next, we'll hear from a man who was driven from his country, and who returned only to be driven away again. The country is South Sudan, formerly a part of Sudan. It became independent in 2011, part of the resolution to a decades-old conflict.
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
South Sudan's new status encouraged one refugee from that conflict to come home. He was helping his country, until a conflict broke out within South Sudan between tribal factions led by the president and his former vice president. Our colleague David Greene spoke with a man who was forced to relive horrors of the past.
DAVID GREENE, BYLINE: His name is Daniel Majok Gai. He's one of the Lost Boys. Those were children separated from their families during Sudan's civil war. Daniel still has nightmares of the day in 1987 when a militia from the north attacked his village.
DANIEL MAJOK GAI: My father, who was out there in the field, tried to look for our cattle. They came and attacked the home. I ran in a different direction that I was not even know. So, from them, I never return home.
GREENE: He ran alone. And like so many of the Lost Boys, he kept running. It was a nomadic existence for more than a decade. Daniel moved on foot for hundreds of miles, spending time in refugee camps in Ethiopia and Kenya. Fourteen years after first fleeing, Daniel was at a camp in Kenya with nearly 60,000 other refugees. He kept paying attention to this bulletin board. If his name showed up, it would mean he was leaving to be resettled.
GAI: There was a bulletin board that take only 90 name. And when you see your name, you're knowing that you are flying to Nairobi, and Nairobi to wherever you are taken. A friend a mine came and said, hey, Daniel, you are leaving on the second of September. I said, you're kidding. Say, for sure. I came, and it was Daniel Majok Gai there on the board. I look at it closely, and it says you are going to Denver, Colorado.
GREENE: And Denver became Daniel's new home. He became an American citizen, and he went to college. Eventually, he was reunited with most of his family, who it turned out had also survived. In 2011, Daniel decided to move back to his homeland, and he's been working for a nonprofit there, helping to build schools. He got married, and was living in the South Sudanese city of Bor with his wife, their infant son, and also Daniel's elderly father. Then, last month, violence caught up with Daniel again. Shooting erupted in Bor. Daniel rounded up his family, and they headed for the swampy forest.
GAI: The moment we find ourselves in the forest, there was nothing for us to eat. The children were crying. The mothers were speechless, and there was nowhere that these people can survive. So, I told a cousin of mine - two of them - I said, we have to get back to town.
GREENE: You left your father, your mother and your son, and you went back to town to try and get some food and other things.
GAI: Yes. I came back to town. And thank God, we made it to my home compound. And we entered in, took out five bags of wheat flour, one sack of beans and sugar, and we ran again to the forest.
GREENE: And tell me what the next days were like as you're with your family and all these other people on the run.
GAI: Most of jungle area, there were, like, a flooding. And that area we went to was also under flooding. So, we had to cross water to where there's small hills, where we can sleep there. No mosquito nets, no blankets, nothing like that, you know. And so it was terrible. Most of people and children became sick. But after nine days, that's when the government came and took control of the city. I came back to see myself, and it was just unbelievable. You see dead bodies on the roads, and dogs are eating on the carcasses.
GREENE: Well, Daniel, your son was one of the people who got sick. How ill did he get?
GAI: That last day, he could not close his eye, and he could not - when he closed them, he cannot open. He was having diarrhea, vomiting and coughing. And so I told my wife and my father, even though the dead bodies are lying on the streets, we have to go back to town, and this is where we'll get help. And we came back to town, and there was not any medical facility available. There were all broken in, and they were looted. So, I call my brother and say: What should I do? My son is dying in my hand. Said, OK, what you should do, come to the airport. Maybe you might be lucky.
GREENE: And the family did get lucky. After a few days, they were able to get on a flight to Kenya, and Daniel's sick baby made it to a hospital in Nairobi. That's where we caught up with Daniel. He spoke about how his son's health has finally been improving.
GAI: I could see life on him, you know, open his eye, and try to smile, because he's outgoing boy. So, finally, after five days, he was released from hospital. So he's now doing well.
GREENE: That's just - that great news, that he's doing well.
INSKEEP: Can I ask you, Daniel, I mean, watching your young son go through this and escape violence and, you know, you escaping violence yourself, I just - I imagine this brings back the nightmares of your own boyhood.
GAI: Tremendously, yeah, it does. And when I saw myself and a son and a wife running, again, to the bushes that I ran to when I was only nine years old, it break my heart. I was helpless. I ask myself: Where can I find these two leaders and just look at them in their eyes and ask them, what are you doing? Because I know there are people who are still hiding under the bushes now. And by this time, the food that they were able to carry with them, it's out. So, they are likely dying. If you are killing innocents, you are displacing them, and you claim that you want to be a leader, who do you want to be a leader? Who do you want to lead?
GREENE: Are you still optimistic for the future of South Sudan, despite everything you've been through?
GAI: I will say I'm 90 percent optimistic about the future of South Sudan. I hope that someone or somewhere from the peace-loving countries, leaders will jump in and call these two leaders to the table and bring peace in.
GREENE: Well, Daniel, we are thinking about you and your son and your whole family. We just really appreciate you taking the time to speak with us.
GAI: Well, thank you very much for thinking of me. And also, you need think also for the South Sudanese children, innocent, that don't know what is going on, why are they being hunted, why are they being killed. The reason that I'm doing this radio now, it's for people to listen to my voice and know exactly this is my personal experience, a second war experience in my own life. And I don't want my son to be in this crisis again.
GREENE: That's Daniel Majok Gai, speaking to us from Nairobi. He tells us he plans to return to South Sudan and resume his work building and managing schools as soon as he can. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.