“We don’t want to bear any more children because our kids don’t survive.”
The two women leaned against a large, gnarled tree outside the almost-completed clinic in Akon, South Sudan, repeating the statement several times in different ways to ensure there could be no misunderstanding.
“We’d rather die alone, childless, than bury our children.”
I was in South Sudan with three young men–Koor Garang, Garang Mayuol and Gabriel Bol Deng–Sudanese by birth, now US citizens. They had fled their villages in the heart of the Dinka tribal land twenty years ago during the civil war between the Sudanese government and the rebel Sudan People’s Liberation Army, finding safety in refugee camps in Ethiopia and Kenya. They came to the US in 2001 with a group of 3,800 other Southern Sudanese minors who were offered resettlement through multiple agencies, such as the International Rescue Committee and Catholic Charities. As they joined communities across America, they came to be known as “the lost boys of Sudan.”
The three young men, accompanied by four “khawajas” (white people), including journalist David Morse and myself, a documentary filmmaker, were returning to their villages for the first time. They hoped to discover the fate of their families, investigate the situation in South Sudan nearly three years after the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) that ended the war, and explore how they could meaningfully contribute to their villages and communities. Gabriel Bol, having completed a bachelor’s degree in education at Syracuse University, had been raising money to build a primary school. Koor, undergoing nursing training in Tucson, had collected funds to bring medical supplies to the clinic, as well as hundreds of treated mosquito nets, still the most cost-effective malaria prevention. Garang, who had just received his associate’s degree in Wheaton, Illinois, wanted to build water pumps.
David and I had just packed up our recording equipment after a morning interview when Gabriel Bol rushed over to us. Two women had arrived in Akon, accompanying a mother with a week-old newborn and a three-year-old daughter who had been bitten on her foot by a snake. Koor was trying to get access to the boxes of medical supplies he had brought. In the meantime, the women described what had happened. “Seven days ago, when she was outside playing, she went under the tree and put her leg in a hole in the roots. A snake was hiding there–that’s how she got bitten. We didn’t know what exactly bit her, what kind of snake. At first, her mother thought she had been stabbed by a thorn. But later that night, she began throwing up. The same night, her mother gave birth to a new baby. We left the house last night, as soon as the mother was able and walked all night long to get to Akon. The child’s leg is getting worse. It’s rotten; there is no flesh–you can only see bone. If there was a closer clinic, she might have been OK. I don’t know whether she will live or die. I’m losing hope.”