New beginning for a troubled land

Let’s rewind the clock to 1962, at the peak of Cold War tension.

The U.S. had just announced its embargo against Cuba. In October, American and Soviet discord reached a crescendo, as anxious eyes around the world watched the Cuban Missile Crisis unfold. Just a month before, President John F. Kennedy reaffirmed his promise to the American people that NASA would put a man on the moon by the end of the decade.

And that same year, nearly halfway around the globe, another conflict began.

Thumb through an American history textbook, and you’ll be hard-pressed to find any mention of the civil war that started that year in southern Sudan.

Glancing over a timeline of the nearly five decades in Sudanese history since, particularly in the predominately Christian south, one finds lengthy periods of conflict, punctuated by reports of ethnic cleansing and war crimes, mass exoduses and short-lived peace.

To many Americans, the past accounts of genocide in Darfur and more recent reports of atrocities in the Nuba Mountains along the border between north and south Sudan exist only in the occasional evening news broadcast. Our TV screens bring stories of conflict in faraway lands right into our living rooms, but with a press of the thumb, we can keep those reports just that — far away.

But for others, like Ngor Kur Mayol, this is not the case. Mayol now lives in Atlanta, drives a car, and has a job at the Publix in the Toco Hill shopping center. But like many other “Lost Boys” of Sudan living in the metro area, he has not forgotten his home and his people.

The truth is, he can’t.

Both of his parents were killed in the second civil war that ravaged south Sudan from 1983 to 2005. It wasn’t until nearly six years later, however, that Mayol learned of their fate, as he searched for family members who may have survived in a Kenyan refugee camp.

Ask Mayol how old he is, and you won’t get a definitive answer: 27, maybe 28. Neither is he certain of how old he was when the fighting reached his home, a small village in southern Sudan called Aliap.

When your only goal is survival, hours, days and even years seem insignificant.

“I’ve spent most of my life in exile,” says Mayol. “I lived in two refugee camps, one in Ethiopia and one in Kenya. I’m not really sure how old I was when I left [Aliap] because neither of my parents knew how to read, but I think I was about 10 or 11.”

The incredible journey Mayol and thousands of other displaced Sudanese boys were forced to undertake in search of refuge has been well-documented.

Less well-known, however, are the stories of the child soldiers, like Mayol, who enlisted at about 15 to fight against the Sudanese government in the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA).

“I was very young. My gun was too tall for me and my uniform was too big so they had to tie it to me to make it fit,” says Mayol, who served six years.

Though his fighting days are long gone, Mayol and his fellow southern Sudanese have continued their push towards the ultimate goal: the creation of an independent state, a new democracy in south Sudan.

Many have paid the ultimate price along the way, an estimated 2 million in the second civil war alone.

But at last, a new beginning: on Saturday, South Sudan officially declared its independence from the north, and the world’s newest country was born.

Earlier last week, we too gathered as a nation to celebrate our Independence Day, some rising in the early morning to race down Peachtree Street, others looking skyward at the fireworks displays later that lit up the night sky. For Americans, our fight for independence is a distant memory, living on only in History Channel specials and textbooks.

But for the southern Sudanese, Saturday will mark the end of a decades-long struggle, as well as the start of a promising new beginning.

“This is something that I have offered up my life for, that my friends have died for, and that my family lost their lives for,” says Mayol. “Now there is no turning back. We will face some challenges but this will not stop us from showing the world that this was the freedom that we were fighting for.”

Drew Kann is a paralegal and sports writer in Atlanta.

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