Machot Lat Thiep outside his home, in Lynnwood, Washington. Photo by Kyle Johnson
It started as a simple idea: visit the world’s newest country with Machot Lat Thiep, a gangly 32-year-old Sudanese former Lost Boy who wants to help his nation, a homeland that is less than three years old and already in danger of becoming a failed state. Machot thinks he can make the situation better, even if it isn’t apparent that he knows how. What better way to understand the vagaries of saving Africa than with an African who wants to save Africa?
The Lost Boys are the thousands of children who fled the brutal civil war in greater Sudan and ended up in refugee camps in countries such as Ethiopia and Kenya. Over the past decade in particular, the plight of the Lost Boys has spawned myriad articles, appeals, films, and books; even celebrities like Brad Pitt and George Clooney have gone to great lengths to raise awareness about the former child soldiers.
In the midst of the convoluted battle for South Sudanese independence, about 3,800 of these young boys, many of whom are permanently scarred with the tribal markings of the Dinka (the ethnic majority) or the Nuer, were fostered in American homes. Most have done well, using their opportunities to get an education, a job, and a new life. Some, like Machot, have prospered in the States and now want to divert their fortunes back to their homeland and help forge a strong South Sudan.
Machot is tall, thin, and very dark. He is a Nuer who carries the tribal scars around his mouth, as well as six lines running across his forehead to the backs of his ears. A manager at a Costco in Seattle, he is married with two children, drives a minivan, and enjoys a version of the American dream. He thinks he could do better here, but for now he is fine.
I first came to know Machot shortly after his family was kidnapped for ransom by Somali thugs working the Kenyan border. A friend of his—the man who sponsored his entry into the United States—had reached out to ask for my advice on how to get them out. Eventually they were freed without having to pay the ransom.
A few years ago, as independence came to be a real possibility for South Sudan, Machot became involved in the political process of his nascent homeland. He soon returned to help write its constitution. In late 2013, Machot and I began discussing the idea of visiting the new nation together. The idea was to meet with Riek Machar, the Nuer leader and then vice president.
By mid December, however, the political situation in South Sudan had taken a violent turn. President Salva Kiir insisted that Machar had attempted a coup. News spread quickly. There was a shoot-out between Dinka and Nuer presidential guards of the Tiger Battalion, and a melee erupted in the capital of Juba. Dinka militia and military troops went door to door looking for Nuers to kill. Machar barely escaped as tanks and heavy gunfire razed his home.
Following these events, Machot wished to salvage what was left of his country and perhaps even stay to defend it.
I bought Machot a ticket to Nairobi, and he persuaded his boss to give him a month of unpaid leave. I provided some funds for his family to live on while we would be gone, and in January we left with our photographer and videographer, Tim Freccia.
Our simple trip to South Sudan became complicated. Battles raged all over the region, and Uganda had joined the fight. The cities of Bor, Malakal, and Bentiu were under siege as the country split between the government-backed Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) and the renegade Nuer forces, ostensibly under the control of Machar, who was reportedly hiding somewhere in the bush. Not quite the simple trip to South Sudan we had initially envisioned.
We consulted a few regional experts about Machar’s location. The answers varied: “Machar is in the US Embassy.” “Machar is on Giraffe Island, in the middle of the swamps.” “Machar is in London.” All we knew for sure was that Machar was in the bush, and that the government of South Sudan had just dispatched roughly 2,000 men to hunt him down and kill him. The most credible theory was that Machar was in Akobo, the easternmost town in his home state of Jonglei, butting up against the western border of Ethiopia. That’s the abbreviated version of events that led us to Nairobi, in a car with Edward, our fixer, searching for a pilot to drop us behind rebel lines.
Edward works with a man named Ian Cox. Together they run Lorry Boys, a company that furnishes aircraft, ground vehicles, and heavy equipment for people with needs like ours. Recently, much of their business has focused on rescuing foreigners from South Sudan via emergency evacuation flights. My request to go the other way may seem like a simple matter on the surface, but at the moment most foreigners have been shuttled out, and no one is allowed back in. In other words, the government in Juba isn’t allowing any pilots to land in rebel-held territory—essentially the entire countryside surrounding Juba.
Brave local pilots who are used to flying anything into just about anywhere agree when we first ask them. Then they check with Juba and quickly find out that any charter company or pilot who dares support the rebels will be blacklisted. We get a series of polite declines. Then we dig deeper into the cadre of Kenya-based pilots who are known to do the kind of work we need—pilots who won’t bother asking Juba anything. Most of them make a living doing ransom drops, hostage extractions from Somalia, and other odd jobs. In other words, illegal work that pays very well and puts the plane and pilot at great risk.
We meet in the parking lot with a famous pilot whose photo, name, and business cannot be found on the internet. He says he can do it, but he is busy at the moment; there’s plenty of work to do for the military, aid organizations, and the relief sector. He is a former British Special Air Service pilot, neatly dressed and knowledgeable about the area. He examines the map and calculates the distance. Although we have dragged him away from a shopping trip, he seems interested in the gig.
“You’ll need to push a couple drums of fuel into northern Kenya, on the other side of Lake Turkana,” he says. “When we land we don’t want any visitors.”
The price? “Depends on the risk,” he says—an awkward way of telling us he can charge whatever he wants.
Tim recognizes the neatly dressed pilot and says, “You picked up Amanda Lindhout and Nigel Brennan in the Cessna 210. I was on the strip when you arrived.”
The pilot smiles. He says he also pulled out two Seychellois fishermen who had been kidnapped by pirates. “They paid a lot of money for those guys.” The stories pilots tell.
That’s when it truly hits us: Is entering South Sudan to enumerate the reasons the country’s heading toward failed statehood and tracking down its deposed vice president worth paying 15 grand, risking your life, and enduring the heat, pestilence, and hostility for? Our answer, of course, is “absolutely.”
All things considered, our journey is fairly normal. Or at least as normal as a former child soldier with severe facial scarring working at a Costco in Seattle.