The epic life of Jesh el Amer of South Sudan: Lessons of the 25th anniversary of the unforgettable 1987 journey to refuge

jesh el_amerOMAHA – IMAGINE having to watch your small children flee on barefoot to the wilderness or some distant country where they would spend decades on their own—a faraway land where either you as their parents or grandparents have never been before—or in the case of many, never having to see each other again.

Fatefully, that was the case with Jesh el Amer, a group that has become famously known as the Lost Boys and Girls of South Sudan thanks to the international news media which became fascinated with their story following arrival in western capitals at the turn of the century.

TWENTY FIVE YEARS ago last December, tens of thousands of those children, ages 7-11, fled their villages at the height of the Sudanese civil war. At such tender ages, children usually do not fit the typical description of venturing to new places either as travellers or globetrotters.

But this particular group of children for years found themselves trekking the vastly rugged, sometimes unforgiving terrains of East Africa , ‘up’ for safety—up being the preferred metaphor at the time for the peaceful and the quiet highlands of Ethiopia, or Kenya, the very neighboring countries, which in the ensuing years became the de-facto destination for child refugees from Sudan.

Up to now, there is no definitive statistics on the actual number of Jesh el Amer survivors or those lost along the way but some people believe that close to half or three quarters have perished over the years. Their storied journey as captured in a number of books, documentaries and by western journalists echoes this heart-wrenching quote now available on one Facebook page created by a fellow South Sudanese and devoted to creating awareness:

“By the year (1987-1992), 26,000 Lost Boys of South Sudan walked away from the war. They walked for days, then weeks, then months and finally for over a year. They walked anywhere from 900 to 1,000 miles, first to Ethiopia, then back to South Sudan, then south to Kenya, looking for safety. Ten and eleven year olds were the elders. Seven and eight year olds became each other’s’ parents, binding one another’s wounds, sharing sips of muddy water, burying their dead. When the littlest ones became too weak or tried to continue, the older boys picked them up and carried them. Some boys, too exhausted to go on, simply sat down and died of starvation or dehydration. Others lagged behind, becoming easy prey for lions, beaten by snakes or simply affected by certain diseases and then died.”

I will be citing the experience of Jesh el Amer of Panyido as a microcosm for this article. Granted, there are various contours based on the many things different groups encountered or faced over the years in their locations, for example, those who went to Itang, Dimo, Polataka, Pinyudo and Kakuma. But overall there is a single thread of narrative that binds the whole fraternity of Jesh el Amer.

For years, these children got used to being referred to by such names as the Unaccompanied Minors, or Lost Boys and Girls, but the one revolutionary and iconic name that has stuck with them is Jesh el Amer—the name that became so popular, both for its appeal and historical relevance, which, although it applied to the original group who are now grown men, that it could still serve its purpose in describing future generations of young South Sudanese. The translation: the little red army or children of liberation.

As curious little children full of boundless energy and loving care and about to learn the ways of the world and the society, these unsuspecting were already seeing early telltale signs of destructions of the civil war, years before their great escape. The tranquility of life in their villages, anchored by nature with its harmonious elegance and the breezy touch of African air mixed the aroma of lush vegetation,of land of abundance, of  farms and livestocks, of elegant trees and wildlife, and the peaceful environments was slowly beginning to shatter. Strange sounds of wild animals and birds began to be heard—signs of imminent danger, so warned the prescient voices of loving parents who were privy to the ills or shall we say the inner workings of the world, parents whose knees and heels those children learned the great societal values.

For five decades, the Arab world of Sudan was bent on devaluing the humanity of the African person in the Sudan. It conspired against the African child who was left to his or her own devices, and denied access to a future of a world class education that would allow them to navigate a world of their peers.

The north had achieved that through its perennial policy of marginalization whereby the Southern region was condemned and closed off to all sorts of developments. Through twists of fate and the dark forces of the evil system in Khartoum, through the inherent hand of north-south civil wars, tens of thousands of defenseless innocent children found themselves plucked from normalcy and plunged into war child status in 80s.

The liberation struggle had started 4 years earlier with the arrival of the Koryom, and Muor-Muor from Bonga. This generation of  children lived through the year of Bucket wheel, in which some saw the excavation of the now imposing Jonglei Canal. They heard news of the ill-fated journey–the thirst related deaths of SPLA soldiers at Owiny Ki Bul after they ran out of drinking water in the desert. Soon bad news of relatives getting killed in the frontlines was making people numb; people almost had no tears left in their eyes by the time war had ravaged the entire South Sudan. The roaring sounds of mortar shells from afar, coupled with the wheezzing sounds of aircraft bombers would rent the air. But it was just the beginning.

Then came the great escape. The year was 1987. Word had reached many chiefs in villages in the three previously predominant provinces of Southern Sudan—Upper Nile, Equatoria, and Bhar el Ghazal—from the top echelon of the liberation movement, instructing SPLA zonal commanders to let children start moving to safety, and commanders Kuol Manyang Juuk, Daniel Awet Akot, Riek Machar Teny, and James Wani Igga responded in kind, setting in motion the emancipation of the African child.

journeyBy the time their escape to Ethiopia culminated in Pinyudo, and Dimo, the Jesh el Amer had very limited choices. Perhaps, it was there that the Jesh el Amer philosophy was born—a belief and the eternal optimism and the hope for better tomorrow. Perhaps it was then and there that South Sudan’s promise of a tribe number 64 was born–one that was born of adversity. Perhaps it is that very philosophy that has allowed Jesh el Amer to spend decades chasing tomorrows. These unsuspecting children started embracing first things first. They had only themselves to look up to—small children, all hailing from different ethnic groups, trying to find their place in a cruel world for the first time. They started embracing diversity before that word event made it to their vocabulary. They started taking care of themselves. They became each other’s’ brother’s keepers. They made no excuses. When it came time for learning A BCs, they wrote in the sands with their fingers. When few education materials were made available, they shared them. Two pupils would share one pencil by breaking it into two pieces. They would also write notes in halved exercise books.

Those formative years and experiences followed them to Kakuma, Kenya, a country that will always be synonymous and credited with making the majority of the Jesh el Amer into the strong young men they have now become.

In 2001, the world heard and saw the full weight and the cruel nature of the Sudanese civil war from the stories Jesh el Amer had begun sharing.

Upon settling in America, the American Red Cross acknowledged the plight of the Lost Boys, describing them as “young children who fled their villages in Sudan in the 1980s to escape slaughter at the hands of Islamist government troops.”

According to this incredible humanitarian agency, “these young men, without parents or elders to guide them, set out on an extraordinary journey across Africa wilderness—a journey that took them to Ethiopia, back to Sudan and to refugee camps in Kenya. In 2000 and 2001, the United States government agreed to allow 3600 of them to begin new lives in America.”

“Throughout their journey,” added the Red Cross, “thousands of Lost Boys died along the way—they drowned, were eaten by wild animals, shot by military forces or overcome by hunger, dehydration and fatigue. Thousands of others survived to tell the story. It is a story about the courage of these young refugees and the kindness of those who have helped them. However, it also is a story about all refugees who travel through unimaginable conditions and survive against all odds.”

Across America, harrowing stories that were once repressed because of the stoic nature of the boys became impossible to miss in the media; enough to bring tears to the eyes of many even the most hardened of journalists.

But for the most part, the Jesh el Amer did not want people to spend time sympathizing with their plight. Their focus turned instead to those they had left behind. Few months after their arrival in North America, many started working, and began extending the reach of benevolence to relatives they had left behind in refugee camps, assisting them in every way possible. Even before they had begun figuring out how they were going navigate the newly uncertain worlds in their adopted nations, the Jesh el Amer already had on their minds the plight of their fellow countrymen and women. Through advocacy they educated friends, answered questions related to war and peace.

The Jesh el Amer also made the pursuit of education one of the top priorities. They also started raising families of their own. Their undying work ethic and the desire for education, values they have clung to throughout life, came to mean the world for them. Last month as CBS News was doing a follow up news story on the 12th anniversary of Lost Boys and Girls coming to America, one of the people in the video called the story of Lost Boys “one of the most successful resettlement stories in U.S. history.” But what the CBS did not point out fully to their viewers was the picture of that very success story.

Of course there have been challenges among the group. But on the education front, the Jesh el Amer have proved themselves worthy of respect in all fields of human endeavor given the improvable journey. Many have gone to prestigious private and public universities in Africa, USA, Canada, Europe and Australia, with some going to Harvard University, the prestigious Ivy League institution, here in the U.S. They have advanced degrees in Sciences, Business, and Economics. They have graduates holding MDs, JDs, MBAs and Ph.Ds.

The unspoken truth to the story is that when seen in larger historical contexts, the Jesh el Amer success is as much a testament to the resilience of the human spirit as it is a rebuke to the dark forces of marginalization of the old Sudan. It is a poetic justice for a generation who started learning at older age only to end up with advanced college degrees obtained outside places of their births—a cool irony so to speak. It is a message to the world that threw those lifelines in the course of long struggle that someday, these tested leaders will contribute to the world of their peers whether through advances in arts, science, business, economics, medicine, history, literature or journalism.

The story of Jesh el Amer has served as a triumph of hope over despair, allowing young children to move from a country and an era where power used to flow from the barrels of guns or bombs to a country where they now hope the power of the pen shall be mightier.

In life, the Jesh el Amer have been tested numerous times in their suffering. In 25 years, the Jesh el Amer are believed to have seen much share of pain and suffering than many people see in a lifetime. For many of them none was like the pain and suffering they saw after losing brothers, close friends and relatives along the way. The Jesh el Amer came to bear the brunt of intra-politics of the liberation movement when some them got caught in the crosscurrents  and the tragic evil of the split of the 1991.

For those whom the split hit so close to home, none is like the tragic betrayal they saw when some of their relatives or parents were wiped out from the face of the earth simply because of the passions of politics that split the SPLA/SPLM—atrocities that resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of women and children either at gun points or in the direct aftermath—atrocities, which by the standards in South Sudan where human life is so cheap that it could be taken any minute with impunity were considered massacres but which by the world’s yardstick, a genocide writ-large. But the Jesh el Amer met that test with dignified composure and resolve. They never split. They lived together, in diversity, knowing that justice may not come in this lifetime but maybe in the next.

And just when you thought this group of young men, who never had the luxury of childhood would have a little break from life, boy, were you so wrong. After independence, they are worrying and fearful like millions of South Sudanese because of the uncertainties rocking the new nation. For many South Sudanese, the hopes and aspirations of a better future that many sacrificed for are being betrayed by the widening gap between the original vision and the current level of governing. But there is hope. South Sudan could benefit from the lessons of the pioneering journey of Jesh el Amer, whose story has become a symbol of hope, liberation, courage and leadership.


rssAfter a quarter century, it is time to ask what to make of our entire journey experience, the liberation experience if you will. And, what better way to start that conversation than with the story of Jesh el Amer, especially on the day South Sudanese are marking a major milestone with the May 16th salute, the SPLA 30th anniversary of the day that started it all, the day we have kept alive the memory of those brave soldiers who have fallen. I feel it is appropriate to write about the Jesh el Amer experience on this anniversary because I think raising a nation is like raising a child. And leaders who excel at building great nations are like parents who rock at parenting.

In fact the United Nations once said that “the progress of a nation is measured by how well it treats or takes care of its children.” So there you have it South Sudan. How are you taking care of your children?

By now it is self-evident that one of the legacies of the north-south civil war will always be how innocent children were propelled to the heart of the civil war. Inevitably, the legacy of 1987 became one of life’s worst lessons: that of death or separation of children and their parents. And while experience has shown that the reason history is believed to repeat itself is because failed to fully learn from it, it is repeating before our very eyes. Small children are dying. In January 2015, we will mark the 10th anniversary of the CPA—the very document of political and economic state craft which gave us the little freedom our people are enjoying. But the question that many people have been asking, using the last 8 years as a backdrop, is what has our liberation experience really taught us in the short post war period?

Have we prevented the deaths of innocent children and women during the last 8 years? If not what does that say about self-government as it relates to the potent criticism of governance as was long claimed by the Jallabas? And if our children are being left to their own devices or to die after independence, then what does that say about the very SPLA/ SPLM promise that protected children as custodians of liberation, the very the basis that allowed for creation of Jesh el Amer? By the way, I should note that in the SPLA divisions, there were Jesh el Amer and some of them were sent to abroad for training.

As it later came to be known, the move to let children walk to Ethiopia was strategic for two reasons: first, for security reasons since it prepared the way for children, women and elderly to advance to safety. The mighty enemy in Khartoum was intent on inflicting incalculable damage as it later became clear, and, second, for young children to begin learning and be stewards of the liberation should the war drag on for so long. Simply put, the revolution was visionary in its approach to the war of liberation.

South Sudanese could learn or draw several lessons from the epic 25 years of this pioneering journey by recalling the Jesh el Amer experience. But I will focus on 4 broad lessons only. These lessons will draw on political, social-cultural, moral and educational investments made along the way.

The first lesson of the 25th anniversary of the 1987 escape by Jesh el Amer is for our political leaders who have wasted the last 8 years trying to unlearn the political vision or the experience that undergirded much of our revolutionary struggle instead of using it to shape a true national character. It is a riddle of a brave experiment in revolutionary politics that was waged flawlessly only to be dwarfed by lack of courage in leaders who felt scared to embrace and adapt to the changing landscape of self-government, undercutting the concept that a well fought liberation struggle is always a sure predictor of how good a country will be. We have learned a nation needs more than better ideas; it needs leaders who are selfless, who prize competence, accountability and rule of law over favoritism.

These days it looks like everything crashes and burns with the leadership of our country. Many in positions of power are obsessing with picking the low hanging fruits instead of striving to lay the lasting foundation for critical institutions and infrastructure— the bedrock principles of a free society.

The substandard and underperformance we have seen among our leadership over these last few years has caused millions to wonder how best ideas such as the SPLM’s, which were wrapped in a grand vision could be derailed in very short time by those who saw all the staggering costs South Sudanese paid in blood and treasure. When the SPLA took up arms, the basic intention was to improve things for the better for the masses.

At its inception, the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement, now the governing party in South Sudan made some visionary pledges with the creation of SPLA and Jesh el Amer—two enduring institutions that will always be associated with the legacy of the north-south civil war; two enduring institutions known for cutting their teeth on principled leadership and patriotism.

The Jesh el Amer became self-made leaders early on, in the absence of their parents and community or traditional leaders. Growing up under the tutelage of iconic leaders plus a few primary school teachers and caretakers like Pieng Deng Kuol, the Jesh el Amer have come of age and there is little doubt that they can be called upon as the rightful leaders and authors of this next chapter in our nation’s history.

Almost every major commander of the SPLA passed through Pinyudo and had word of advice for Jesh el Amer. The first to do so were the late revolutionary sages Dr. John Garang, and William Nyuon Bany. 

Although all the SPLM leaders have not lived to witness the final contributions of these children, John Garang, the revolutionary icon and founding father of South Sudan, was able to see a glimpse of how his vision paid off in the spirit of these young people. First, in 1988, Garang addressed the newly arrived Jesh el Amer in what was then an almost inhabitable place called Panyido, Ethiopia. I remember vividly the day Jesh el Amer had to repeat in unison as Dr. Garang was taking on the task of teacher-in-chief, reciting from megaphone all the 26 letters of the English alphabet (ABC to Z) as Jesh el Amer were chasing convoys on their way to Zing. In 1989, Garang and his deputy William Nyuon Bany came back to address Jesh el Amer. The two leaders were surprised to see how those young children had transformed forests into livable habitats, with makeshift schools for learning ABCDs.The two leaders came to motivate Jesh el Amer to learn and be future doctors, engineers and leaders. The Jesh el Amer could feel the genuine feelings and aspirations those two men had for them and the would-be nation.

One year before his passing, the late John Garang came to see his children for the last time. He left an important meeting in Nigeria in August 2004 after word got to him that the Jesh el Amer had invited him at the their first reunion in Phoenix, Arizona, USA. On that summer day in the Valley of the Sun, Dr. Garang brought the Jesh el Amer to their feet by delivering one of the most edifying speeches—a real piece of history—parts of which later appeared in the landmark address at the CPA signing at Nyayo Stadium in Nairobi, Kenay. Garang confided in the Lost Boys and Girls many things as he was watching these patriotic children sing revolutionary songs not at ages 7-11 but as young men and women, his face spelling pride and wonder at times.

“I have come to wake you up and remind you that your day has come, tomorrow is already here and so take over leadership of your Movement, take over leadership of the SPLM/A; you have very little time left to prepare yourselves to take over that leadership in whatever fields: in agriculture, carpentry, architecture, medicine, politics, economics, in raising a family…all these require leadership and all contribute to building the New Sudan for which we have fought and sacrificed for over the last twenty one years,” he told them.

From reciting ABCD in 1988 in Panyudo to giving the “Establishing Anchor in History” speech at the Lost Boys and Girls conference in Phoenix, Arizona, USA, in August 2004, the journey came full circle and I think Dr. Garang left this world knowing that the Jesh el Amer he loved so much, the same eternal optimists as he was, would remain clear-eyed about the future and would someday make our country proud.

scan00011Speaking at the same conference in 2004, Dr. Garang told the Lost Boys and Girls:

“I appreciate and applaud your tenacity and courage throughout the difficult years of our struggle as a group and I applaud your personal struggle as individuals. I salute your great spirit of survival and steadfastness. And I commend you for the firm commitment to the cause of our people despite all the hardships and suffering you have gone through. I congratulate your leadership and for having been good ambassadors for Southern Sudan, for the New Sudan and for the SPLM/A. Your Movement had always wanted to prepare you to be the future leaders of our nation. This is still the purpose; you are the generation that shall develop the New Sudan. Even though the difficulties and events of our struggle have separated many of you from the Movement and some have scattered all over the world yet the aim is not lost.”

But what have we learned? We have learned in the 8 years since the CPA, our leaders have failed to stabilize the country. They have failed to deliver much needed security. It is like there is a new phenomenon in South Sudan called death by independence. Countless women and children have died needlessly as a result of violence. In all the social, political and economic lives of the country, the leadership risks marginalizing the masses they were fighting to free.

During the war, South Sudanese would do more with less. Let’s call that frugality. The SPLA was practicing it; fighting mighty enemy with less resources. All the civilians were practicing it, fending off hunger with the little food rations there were. But fast forward to the last 8 years and you would be shocked to figure out how much we have wasted on personal greed, all at the expense of our fellow citizens who are vulnerable, not to mention institutions and infrastructure which are woefully inadequate or lacking at all. In those days, you would feel the genuine camaraderie between soldiers and civilians especially the children. It was patriotic at best. Because the SPLA soldiers knew they were fighting for something larger than themselves—the liberty and the dignity of all fellow South Sudanese. The SPLA made sure the elderly, women and children were safe. The famous refrain from leaders was: this liberation is being fought because of children. Now, the children are dying at the hands of South Sudanese. What a shame!

Policy making towards citizens especially the children has been lacking. Feelings of mistrust, of powerlessness, and helplessness, and disunity in the country are now more palpable than ever; the cause of which being intolerance which is fed by mindless leaders lacking directions and a public wanting to fill that same void. With all the hate campaign now prevalent in South Sudan, you wonder why Jesh are not called upon to share their experience as the nation sets out on healing the scars of the civil war.

But there is hope in what the government could still do to support the historic name of Jesh el Amer. We have learned the historic name of Jesh el Amer will not be retired anytime soon. Instead it will inspire future generations of children around service and leadership. The Red Army Foundation was recently inaugurated in Juba. Aremd with the zeal and heart of John Garang, all Jesh el Amer everywhere could do justice to the name by joining those at home to push our law makers to create Jesh el Day.

The parliament could enact the Jesh el Amer Child Potential Act of 2013, a law that could potentially impact the welfare of the African child in far reaching ways: it could launch building of landmark features such as parks and recreations, playgrounds, as well as ensuring there is a frame work f or developing nutritious programs and school lunch programs for school children.

The second lesson is that the society could learn to embrace the past and future by taking a leaf from the philosophical import that is the Jesh el Amer experience. The men and women leading our mea culpa (the national peace, healing and reconciliation) ought to take a leaf from the philosophical import that is the Jesh el Amer experience. It is an experience that if well harnessed could help repair decades’ worth of historical damage done to society.

In general the experience could be of great help for a society, which is struggling with the aftermath of a long civil war that has left many communities fragmented and unable to heal faster. When Jesh el Amer ventured into the wilderness, nothing had really prepared them for their journey except being armed with instincts, the values of egalitarian societies in which they were partially raised, and perhaps the survival instincts of once fiercely unique societies known for their warrior skills.

But throughout journeys, and in tough times, the Jesh el Amer have remained steadfast, fighting the good fight by holding on to the best of tradition and cultural value system and folklore. They drew from the infinite wisdom of their grandparents, employing the beautiful storytelling skills of their parents and grandparents–stories that were once handed down at firesides of once stable societies—skills children learned at the heels and knees of their loving mothers and fathers. But above all, they were sustained by their Christian faith.

In a tribalized society such as ours, maybe embracing the children who have lived diversity amid adversity, who have the humility and the courage of conviction and the vision could serve as a starting point for a national conversation that has been sorely lacking. Maybe that could help quell violence and set the republic on a path to prosperity.

This is not to say there are no downsides to the story as some Jesh el Amer have fed violence. For example, David Yau Yau, who was in Dimo, is now killing innocent people and was recently alleged to have captured the strategic town of Jebel Boma.

But we have 99.9 percent of former Jesh el Amer that hate violence, who could potentially be taped for their social capital. Their ideas and insights cuts across cultures and they are needed now more than ever. They understand diversity better. They have lived it all their lives. It is about understanding; it is about respect and tolerance. Diversity and inclusiveness is a prerequisite for nation building. Their capacity for appreciation and understanding and recognition of all the unique attributes of 63 ethnic groups in South Sudan puts them above all else. They have the willpower, the wherewithal of a fraternity, the intellect and the emotional intelligence to heal the scars of civil war.

For a nation that is deteriorating, oscillating between euphoria of the independence on the one hand and feelings of disillusionment and betrayal on the other, few leaders with ears and hearts for the good of the nation would be wise to turn to this group of young men and women.

The third lesson has to do with re-creating our moral code as a society. This lesson is both for men and women of the press as well as religious leaders and institutions whose roles remain vital as far as crafting the moral foundation of our new nation. The two could work in concert to preach the need for our shared moral values as a nation. These groups could create the urge for reliving the holistic experience and the story of our suffering as a people. It ought to be about social justice. At the outset, they need to drive home the message that throughout the years South Sudanese have witnessed the generosity of the world and that it is now time for us as a free society to start thinking hard about taking care of our own people; the most vulnerable and the downtrodden among us.

South Sudanese, like other peoples of the world, are a historically exceptional people. In their cry for justice and freedom, they, too, became influenced by the biblical story of Exodus. Who will forget the edifying work of the church in the lives of our people, under all sorts of conditions and trees imaginable, in both displaced and refugee camps? Throughout their long years of suffering our people have drawn solace from the pages of the Bible. Faith was a vital source of sustenance for Jesh el Amer throughout their journey and remains so even to this day.

Like many who have seen their fair share of suffering, South Sudanese have invoked prophetic imaginations of their own. They have read and talked about the verses from Isaiah 18, where God speaks highly of His tall and beloved people with smooth and dark skin along the Nile River. Like the Israelites, South Sudanese have talked of their promised land, too. President Salva President Salva was called Joshua following the untimely death of South Sudan’s Founding Father, Dr. John Garang de Mabior.

This past month of April, I learned a lot from the Jewish holiday of Passover. It is a celebration that takes 7-8 days here in the United States. As I was watching the movie The Ten Commandments, I was struck by the line Moses had for his people while I nthe desert, when he told them, “There is no freedom without the law.” Surely, this should be read to our leaders who should know better that the freedom we got less than two years ago will not be within reach for millions of our citizens without the rule of law. This is where the media and our religious leaders ought to throw down the gauntlet and push the government to live up to its ideals of peace, justice and prosperity for all.

During that same week I also came across one great article titled “The Exodus Effect.” The article was penned by the Rabbi Irving Greenberg, a prominent leader among the Jewish people in the United States, who said the story of Exodus is “the most influential historical event of all time”. In it he wrote,

“When Jews observe Passover, they are commemorating what is arguably the most important event of all time–the Exodus from Egypt. If for no other reason than the fact that the Exodus directly or indirectly generated many of the important events cited by other groups, this is the event of human history.”

The Rabbi  then added: “The secret of the impact of the Exodus is that it does not present itself as ancient history, a one-time event. Since the key way to remember the Exodus is reenactment, the event offers itself as an ongoing experience in human history. As free people relive the Exodus, it turns memory into moral dynamic. The experience of slavery that breaks and crushes slaves does not destroy free people. It evokes feelings of repulsion and determination to help others escape that state.

Exodus morality meant giving justice to the weak and the poor. Honest weights and measures, interest-free loans to the poor, leaving part of the crops in the field for the stranger, the orphan, and the widow, treating the alien stranger as a native citizen–these are all applications of the Exodus principle to living in this world.”

The lesson from this is for South Sudanese to start hewing to our moral standards that define us while sharing our story with younger generations. We can begin reliving our story by applying an all hands on decks approach to sharing and shaping the character of our nation by communicating our values in both traditionally powerful story telling fashion as well as through modern technologies.

We now live in the age of infinite technologies. We are blessed with the internet technology. The power of technology and social media has aided in the collective and indelible memories of Jesh el Amer and their childhood. Their childhood photos are now immortalized in a digital database on the internet.

A couple of years ago, pictures of Jesh el Amer childhood, which were taken in 1989 in Panyido, started showing up on social networking site, Facebook. The result was the work of an American Researcher who retrieved them from Ethiopia.

“The records from this childhood were nearly destroyed. But an American researcher, Kirk Felsman, recovered them in 2004 from a warehouse in Ethiopia. Eventually, the documents were scanned and turned over in digital form to the AZ Lost Boys Center in Phoenix, where about 600 of the Lost Boys now live. A group of volunteers worked to organize the documents in a way that makes them easy to search,” The New York Times reported back in 2010.

“These personal war histories can now be ordered at a Web site ( that has received thousands of hits from countries around the world,” added The New York Times.

panyThose pictures quickly started transporting Jesh el Amer back to the 80s, times when they were not even sure they were that young. Many of those who retrieved online photos of their younger selves couldn’t believe they were that young. But then photos don’t lie.

Now, a time capsule of their lives —a virtual tableau if you will—graces Facebook thanks to one famous page which was created by a fellow South Sudanese who is probably a former member of Jesh el Amer. The page is called “We Were Children (26,000 Lost Boys) Unaccompanied Minors of South Sudan.” Its goal is to “promote awareness about what happened to Lost Boys and how {that} should not be allowed to happen anywhere in the world.” It is a page full of pictures that were taken in the most unimaginable conditions, while travelling or sitting or sleeping throughout their long journeys. The page adds, “We say never again.”

Finally, this whole experience would be incomplete without mentioning the people of the world who stood with the Jesh el Amer in their hours of need, which brings me to the fourth lesson: the need for Jesh el Amer to imaginatively leap into the future of global partnerships vis-à-vis the nation building of south Sudan. The Jesh el Amer will forever be grateful to members of global community who deserve recognition for being with them through thick and thin, and without whom Jesh el Amer would not have made those impressive accomplishments.

Take for example the education they have obtained, all paid for in foreign money, without a single dim from the country of their birth. The closer they actually came to getting help from South Sudan was years ago when the government was approached to see if it could pay off some of the student loans owed by Jesh el Amer, just as an attempt to free up some of the graduates to go back to the homeland in order to help in the rebuilding efforts but so far I think the request has fallen on deaf ears.

All in all, creating solid relationships around the globe will be crucial now more than ever because South Sudan is still a nation mired in a sea of challenges. There is critical need for lasting investments in education because even with the few Jesh el Amer with advanced degrees, there are millions thirsting for knowledge. South Sudan has large populations of young people.

In fact, young people make up over 70 percent of the population of South Sudan, according to a great new book The Power of Creative Reasoning by Dr. Lual A. Deng.

It is for these reasons that the Jesh el Amer must join forces with friends and create a global or a national campaign centered on education and other social welfare programs, with the aim of investing in young people who are the future of South Sudan.

Since 2005 the world has been eyeing South Sudan with skepticism after the donor pledges made in Oslo, Norway. And that is perhaps because they were signs that we have started the country on a wrong foot.

It is even scarier for a young nation that will try to gain a foothold in the shadow of the Millennium Development Goals which are set for 2015.

With woefully inadequate institutions to show for, maybe these campaigns could be the last key left to save the new republic from this crisis of governance.

The challenge for sustaining those global connections on behalf of South Sudan will rest on the shoulders of all young people in the not too distant future. The Jesh el Amer will need to cultivate relationships and mentoring so as to be ready for the challenge.

In the meantime the government of South Sudan could use former Jesh el Amer who have come home with knowledge acquired from across the globe to develop both the political and economic systems which are lacking. 

This article is both a reflection on childhood that was spent on the frontiers of refuge as well as a distillation of the Jesh el Amer experience, which should help South Sudan.

While Jesh el Amer do not see themselves as heroes, it will be an understatement to say they have left footprints in the sands of South Sudanese liberation struggle. But this story is not so much about them anymore as it is about the young people of South Sudan, including the children who were born right after January 9, 2005. They should own this story.

For Jesh el Amer, the epic struggle for self-determination which South Sudanese witnessed as it became due on July 9, 2011, is an 8 million-person- story that will always be at the heart of the country’s founding. It is the story written and cemented by the blood of our fallen heroes and heroines. It is the story about all young people. It is the story of liberation. It is the quintessential New Sudan experience. But it is an experience that is getting dishonored every day as our leaders fail to address all the national security and economic challenges which should not be causing us headache this far in the brave liberation experiment we started 30 years ago.

In recalling the Jesh el Amer experience, their epic life and sacrifices, I dream that 26,000 balloons will someday brighten the skies of Juba or Bor Town, signaling the return of Jesh el Amer,with a message of peace for all South Sudan.

Joseph Deng Garang is Co-founder and President of The New Sudan Vision. E-mail: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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