Lost Boys of the Sudan


posted to www.marxmail.org on March 11, 2004


"Lost Boys of the Sudan" tells the poignant story of Peter Dut and Santino Chuor, two teenaged Christian orphans from Sudan's southern regions. Their family was gunned down by federal troops from the Arab/Islamic north in a brutal civil war that has taken more than 2 million lives over the past 20 years, mostly black Christian tribesmen like these two Dinka boys. The war broke out in the early 1980s when the government in Khartoum declared that 'sharia' or Islamic law codes would be applied throughout the country.


Given shelter by Christian charities in the United States with a long-standing paternalistic interest in such orphans, Peter and Santino make fitful attempts to adjust to a cold and cash-driven society. As typical Sudanese youth, they thought that their homeland was the most beautiful place on earth and enjoyed tending their village's cattle and goats. That pastoral life would be shattered in a civil war whose ultimate cause is the colonial system. Once they become workers in the United States, the land of their ostensible salvation, they begin to experience for themselves what Marx described in the "Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844": "...the worker feels himself only when he is not working; when he is working, he does not feel himself. He is at home when he is not working, and not at home when he is working."


The "Lost Boys of the Sudan" makes no attempt to explain what caused the civil war that turned their lives upside down, despite being alluded to throughout the film. Although this review can obviously not flesh out this troubled history in the kind of detail it deserves, it will provide some background for those who plan to see the film now showing in NYC or for those with interest in the region. But first some words about the film itself.


When we first meet Peter and Santino, they are in a meager refugee camp in Kenya anxiously awaiting word on resettlement. Their time is divided between kicking a soccer ball, playing basketball in the dusty campgrounds, hanging out with friends or eating meals seeming to consist largely of flat bread and water. When Peter, an avid basketball player, finally gets word that he is going to America, he bequeaths his sneakers to a campmate but has to apologize for the fact that the soles are completely worn out. Their only outlet from the monotony of daily life is communal dancing to the beat of a drum. Despite the general poverty, it is clear that solidarity and friendship run deep-- perhaps too deep for the USA. The boys are warned that they should not hold hands in public when they arrive since this is considered homosexual behavior.


Life changes dramatically the minute they get off the plane in the Houston airport. After being dropped off at their new apartment in a typical sterile-looking complex, they are given a short orientation speech by their Christian counselor who seems oblivious to the culture shock that faces her wards. She breezily tells them that they have to start working immediately since rent and food must be paid for.


The jobs turn out to be the typical dead-end jobs that await all immigrants, whether or not they are the beneficiaries of Christian good-will. They assemble electronic goods for $7 per hour or retrieve shopping carts from a Walmart parking lot in the sweltering heat. A manager tells Peter that he should not mind the heat so much since he is from Africa where it is hot all the time. While they hold down full-time jobs, they attend local high schools.


The psychological and cultural disjunction between the two boys and the denizens of the brave new world they have found themselves in makes for gripping if not painful drama. In one scene, Peter's autobiography, which is part of a college application, is being reviewed by his high school guidance counselor. It describes in vivid detail how he walked barefoot for days in the wilderness to escape from northern troops who had already killed his father and other family members. The guidance counselor says something like "Golly, that's some story you have there. I don't know quite what to make of it."


Meanwhile, Santino finds himself at a social sponsored by a local Christian youth group. As the exclusively white and middle-class gathering strums guitars and sings hymns that are a world apart from the uninhibited music and dancing he enjoyed back in Africa, Santino sits by himself adrift in his thoughts. Earlier in the day, he has confessed to a female member of the group that it is difficult to meet women. It is obvious that this environment is not conducive to such meetings.


As their frustrations mount, their thoughts keep returning to their homeland. At one point, they sit on their sofa in Houston and sing what amounts to a Sudanese blues. They declare misery with their current situation, love for their homeland and a desire to return to it at once. It is obvious that the American dream has turned into a nightmare for them.


During a group meeting at a national weekend retreat for lost boys of the Sudan (there were 4,000 at the height), there are references that might be lost on members of the theater audience. People stand and cheer for the SPLA and express a desire to fight the enemy from the north, who has killed their parents and other family members. With little background available in the mainstream media, it is difficult to place all this in context.


The SPLA is the Sudan People's Liberation Army, which actually just signed a peace treaty with the Khartoum government that will at least on paper divide the nation's new-found oil wealth equally between north and south, as well as granting a large degree of autonomy. Considering all that has happened in the past, this would be a tremendous step forward.


As might be expected, the enmity between north and south was a legacy of colonialism. Sudan was cobbled together by Great Britain in the 19th century largely out of geopolitical considerations. There never was a pre-existing country called Sudan. Egypt, Great Britain and the Ottoman Empire shared administrative power over the Islamic north which was compelled to deliver slaves to the cotton plantations in Egypt. The northerners really had no choice in the matter. Since Great Britain demanded tax payments and since chattel slaves were the only cash-producing commodity, the whole relationship was tantamount to extortion.


Eventually the Islamic north rose up in the 1850s led by the Mahdi, a charismatic military and spiritual leader. His revolt was ultimately crushed and Britain regained complete control over the country, the largest in Africa, in the 1880s. From that point on, a dual policy was carried out. In the north, the British cultivated local elites who would feel identity with the mother country. In the south, Christian missionaries transformed the largely animist populations into English-speaking believers of the divinity of Christ and the beneficence of the British Empire. As John W. Burton observed in an article that appeared in the 1991 Journal of Modern African Studies:


"The southern tribes were to be led down a long path of progress, step by step, first learning how to grow crops in straight rows, how to unscrew bottle caps, recite the Lord's Prayer, and cover their bodies in European fashion.


"The British simply reoccupied the small slave-raiding stations that had prospered in the nineteenth century and slowly built these into centres for their particular administrative purposes and, importantly, for their own personal safety. Conscripted labourers then toiled under British behest to build narrow gravel roads that would connect these satellites of foreign domination. In the early days of the present century, the southern Sudan became a model illustration of that infamous phrase, 'the white man's burden'".


By the same token, anything Arabic or Islamic was denigrated. The British not only banned Islam, they expelled Islamic merchants from the region. Of course, the whole purpose was divide-and-conquer as always.


After independence in 1956, Khartoum's government tended to reflect the strong Arab nationalist dynamic that was at work throughout North Africa and the Middle East. When mixed with a "modernizing" sensibility of intellectuals and technocrats of a leftwing or CP background in the government, the net result was a mixture of paternalism and progressive attitudes directed toward the sub-Saharan sections of the country. Instead of sending Christian missionaries into the south as the British had done, they sent in Islamic preachers, opened Koranic schools and made Arabic mandatory. Such national and religious chauvinism led to the first revolt, which was led by the Anyanya, a guerrilla group who took their name from snake venom obtained by grinding up cobra heads.


Like the Kurds of Iraq, whose cause was also just and for many of the same reasons, the Sudanese rebels often chose unsavory allies. A 1964 CIA-backed revolt by Moise Tshombe in the Congo was opposed by leftist governments throughout the region, including Sudan's. After Tshombe defeated his opponents within the country, he decided to aid the enemies of his enemies, in this case the Anyanya. Eventually, another US client--Haile Selassie's Ethiopia--threw its support behind the Sudanese rebels as well. The largely Christian and Francophile government of Chad joined in as well and opened up its borders to the Anyanya.


Not surprisingly, such pressures had the effect of eroding the revolutionary fiber of the Khartoum government. As leftists became less prominent in the government, a solution based on respect for the aspirations of the south faded as well. The next phase of the conflict began in 1983 under the auspices of Jaafar Nimeiri, a military leader who had seized power in 1969. At this point, the Anyanya were superseded by the SPLA, which was under the leadership of John Garang, a southerner who had been an officer in the Sudanese army. During a repressive raid against the south, he switched sides and encouraged other garrisons to revolt against the north. He is every bit as unprincipled and corrupt as the current leadership of the Kurds in Iraq.


Just as was the case in northern Iraq, the rebels have often fought among themselves with devastating results to the population on whose behalf they are fighting. Largely, these divisions are tribal in nature with Garang's Dinkas being opposed by the Nueri faction.


An April 14, 1993 Christian Science Monitor article cites an anonymous Nairobi churchman: "I have found very few SPLA people who really care about their people."  Francis Deng, a Sudanese senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, added that the split "probably begin with ... rivalries in the movement" based not on political differences but on "very personal motives". Amnesty International accused the Nasir faction, one of the SPLA breakaway groups, of killing over 2,000 Dinka civilians in an assault in January 1992 on Bor, the home area of John Garang.


One can understand why there would be animosity toward the rebel leader. When three underlings decided to challenge him in 1987, they were put in holes in the ground and held for several days according to the Monitor. Then, for more than three months, they were held in a container only 5 feet by 7 feet, packed with other prisoners.


The SPLA became the beneficiaries of President Clinton's largesse in 1996, when $20 million in military aid was sent to Ethiopia, Eritrea and Uganda, who were assisting the Sudanese rebels in much the same fashion as what took place in the mid 1960s. This was justified as part of the war on terror and had about as much basis in reality as this year's war on terror. Just to show his dedication to Christian rights, Clinton bombed the al-Shifa pharmaceutical company in the country two years later.


In a reply to a couple of Clinton officials who were defending the bombing in the pages of the neoliberal New York Review of Books, Smith College professor Eric Reeves makes a point that sounds eerily similar to those that are being made continuously over the unilateralism that was on display in Iraq:


More consequentially, Benjamin and Simon give no sign of having considered the real issue in the al-Shifa episode; they never seriously ask what evidentiary standards should have obtained to justify an attack on Khartoum. Instead, they vaguely declare that "the perception of imminent danger was sufficient to overcome these concerns" (i.e., concerns about attacking a country on the basis of clandestine information in pursuit of "a strategy of preempting threats").


Around this time, the Sudanese rebels became the favorite cause of Village Voice columnist Nat Hentoff, who has been spending the past six months or so it seems castigating the Cuban government for repressing dissidents. Many of his columns were focused on the alleged enslavement of Christians:


Actually, when I started writing about the slaves of Sudan in the Voice about six years ago, the beginning of the New Abolitionist movement was driven by the American Anti-Slavery Group, headed by Charles Jacobs, who first told me of the horrors in Sudan.


"There was also a young graduate student at Columbia University, Sam Cotton, who traveled to black churches and newspapers around the country to spread the liberating word. In Denver, Barbara Vogel told her fifth-grade class that slavery was not dead, and those kids began collecting money to free slaves in Sudan through Christian Solidarity International. Other schoolchildren around the country joined in.


There is not so much attention paid nowadays to the problem. This might be a consequence of John Garang's manipulation of do-gooders anxious to purchase the freedom of Sudanese slaves under false pretexts. A February 26, 2002 Washington Post article reported:


The highly publicized practice of buying the freedom of Sudanese slaves, fueled by millions of dollars donated by Westerners, is rife with corruption, according to aid workers, human rights monitors and leaders of a rebel movement whose members routinely regard slave redemption as a lucrative business.


"The more children, the more money," said Mario Muor Muor, a former senior official in the Sudan Peoples Liberation Army (SPLA), the leading southern rebel group in Sudan's 19-year-old civil war. Insiders say that SPLA commanders and officials have pocketed money paid to buy captives' freedom and in some instances stage-manage the transactions, passing off free southerners as slaves.


However sordid all this might be, the Christian people of the south deserve the best. One can only hope that oil proceeds are truly used for the benefit for the entire country and that people like Peter and Santino can enjoy a peaceful and prosperous future in their homeland.


"Lost Boys of the Sudan" is currently playing at Village East Cinema in NYC. The film has a website at: http://www.lostboysfilm.com/. A Christian website that has taken up their cause is at: http://www.sudanlostboys.com/. My review of the film "Khartoum", which starred Charlton Heston and was based on the Mahdist revolt, can be read at: http://www.columbia.edu/~lnp3/mydocs/fascism_and_war/mahdism.htm