In what can only be described as a cruel twist of fate, islander and former Lost Boy Peter “Deng Deng” Dut must wait and worry from afar, as unexpected violence in South Sudan threatens his newly repatriated family.
“This was my dream for years to make this happen, to help my family get back home. Nobody was expecting the coup,” Dut said.
Last month Dut, a former Sudanese refugee who lives on Vashon with his cousin, hosted a screening of the documentary “The Lost Boys of Sudan” — in which he is featured — to raise money to help move his family back to their home village in South Sudan after being displaced for more than two decades.
As Dut explains it, with the money that was raised at the film fundraiser, a gift from fellow Lost Boy and cousin Jacob Acier’s South Sudan Village Development foundation and funds he had saved on his own, there was enough to move his family back to their home. There was not enough, however, for him to travel to South Sudan to help them himself, so he sent the money for the move last month, planning to go to them when he could.
Three days after his family arrived back in South Sudan, the fragile new country fell back into violence after an attempted coup by ousted Vice President Riek Machar.
The war is already touching both Dut and his cousin’s immediate families, as both families live close to the violence, and Acier’s uncle, a high-ranking military official loyal to the president, was killed when Machar’s rebel forces overran the city of Bentiu, the capital of South Sudan’s vital oil producing state.
“Machar is taking all of the young boys,” Acier said. “Just like when we were the Lost Boys and soldiers were trying to take us, it is the same thing all over again. They are taking the young ones, and they are killing the high-ranking and older men who could oppose them. My uncle was one of those men.”
The conflict has been widely reported as having an ethnic basis, pitting Machar’s Nuer tribe members against democratically elected president Kiir’s Dinka tribe, but Dut says he has his doubts.
“This is not ethnic. They are trying to make it look that way, trying to turn us against each other when we were never fighting before,” he said. “This is really about greed, power and politics. The only way they could get support was to create this false division.”
The situation in South Sudan is so dangerous that the United States has drawn down its embassy staff there and evacuated as many U.S. citizens as possible. Unfortunately, not all have been able to leave, including many former Lost Boys, now U.S citizens, who had gone back to help rebuild.
The country, whose violence forced them to flee as children, drew many of them back in recent years with its hard-fought independence and promise of a brighter future — but at least one former Lost Boy has been killed as a result of this new conflict.
Dut said that while watching news of South Sudan recently, pictures were shown of former Lost Boys that were known to be trapped there, and he recognized several of them.
South Sudan’s oil reserves and shared borders with so many other African nations have made its stability a priority for many world powers, including the U.S. and China. Peace talks are being held in Ethiopia, but are currently stalled.
Estimates vary widely as to the number of people killed so far in the fighting, ranging from 1,000 to upwards of 10,000. The United Nations cites accessibility issues as the reason for such disparate estimates, but states that it believes the numbers will “be strongly in excess of 1,000.”
Meanwhile, Dut and Acier both worry about their families.
Acier, who was married just a few months ago and is still dealing with his uncle’s death, fears for his mother and sister. His wife is a Sudanese native attending school in Uganda, but his mother and sister live in a village in South Sudan.
“The war is causing them fear every day,” he said. “They call me every day to tell me they are scared and sometimes the fighting is not far away.”
If things get worse, Acier says he will send them to Uganda to stay with his wife.
Dut also fears for his family’s safety and is struggling with his inability to help them in person. His family members now live in the president’s home state, and government forces so far have been able to push back the rebels, but he’s unsure whether that will change.
“They were really so happy to be back home in our village, and they have been safe so far, but I do not know if they will stay safe. ... Every day we wait and see.”
If he had the money, Dut says he would go to them now, despite the danger.
“I have been there before. I am not afraid to go to my home, even if there is war going on,” he said.
The two men are no strangers to war. It was, after all, a brutal civil war more than 20 years ago that originally forced Dut and Acier, two of thousands of Lost Boys, to leave the country in order to survive.
“Before, we were united fighting a common enemy,” Dut said. “The Lost Boys lost their families to have a free nation; this is not the time to be creating division and making an ethnic fight where it doesn’t exist. It’s time for leaders to build the nation, and they are not doing that.”
And despite the decades of turmoil and violence, Dut remains hopeful about South Sudan’s future.
“These leaders are greedy, but they won’t be there forever,” he said. “I know there can be peace.”
Those interested in helping Dut achieve his goal of traveling to be with his family during this time, may contact him via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 489-8724.