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saving south sudan doc

The Lost Boys

This is chapter four of Robert Young Pelton and Tim Freccia's sprawling 35,000-plus-word epic exploration of the crisis in South Sudan. We will release a new chapter daily, but you can skip ahead and
May 20, 2014, 11:35am

Photo by Tim Freccia

According to Machot, he was born in Bentiu, one of 14 children. He is a Nuer, but his grandmother was a Dinka. Machot has a big, hearty laugh and loves to joke. If you spoke with him on the phone, you wouldn’t guess his humble upbringing. If you met him, the first thing that would strike you would be the scars on his face, keloids deliberately raised by deep cuts etched in his skull when he became a man. There are deeper cuts, to his soul and psyche, that you cannot see.

As a child, Machot lived in a traditional wattle-and-daub house with a large thatched roof. The largest structure in the vicinity was the luak, a cow shed, surrounded by smaller wattle-and-daub huts called diels or tukuls. Machot’s father came from a spear-making family, honing long rods of steel brought from the north into sharp blades. A man who can make a beautiful spear is called a “spear master,” and he is believed to have the power to predict the future. Machot’s mother and sisters would tend the crops while he went out with his father to fish, hunt, and take care of the cows. Wealth was measured by the number of cows the family owned, which also dictated how many wives a man could support. By 1989 Machot’s father had three wives (despite his grandmother’s inclination to chase off the property any women he brought home), thousands of cows, and large swaths of land on which his cattle grazed. Machot had nothing to want for.

Education was often considered a bad thing because of the fear that men who could read and write would show up to interfere with the area’s simple pastoral lifestyle—specifically Sudanese tax collectors who would arrive at Machot’s father’s homestead and demand cows as payment. To Machot and his family, being “educated” meant you worked for the government and became corrupt.

Then Machot’s placid village existence came to an abrupt end.

In the dark hours of early morning, the sound of gunfire and exploding grenades rang through his village. Terrified, Machot ran into the bush to hide. When he returned, everyone was gone. Machot was alone at eight years of age.

Machot began to walk. He heard Ethiopia was where kids like him were heading. By this time, there were bands of what would later become known as Lost Boys wandering the wilds of South Sudan. When rebels captured their young prey, they grouped the children by size. The larger, stronger boys were instantly press-ganged; the smaller, weaker ones were left to wander until they were picked up and put through the ringer again.

At some point, Machot was intercepted by rebels who press-ganged him into their unit. It was a brutal introduction of rape, beatings, and constant abuse. If new recruits refused to fight, their own commanders would shoot them.

This is where Machot’s unique sense of time and place becomes obvious. He has forgotten large portions of his life and skips over others, often leaving out the years he spent in the camps as though they never existed.

After a year without contact, Machot’s father began to investigate what might have happened to his son. He met with Riek Machar, then one of the rebel leaders of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army. When Machot’s father demanded that his son be returned to him, Machar refused. Instead he said that if Machot’s father agreed to let the rebels educate Machot and his brothers, they would be appointed to posts in the new government once South Sudan was established as an independent state.

Machot at home, in Lynnwood, Washington. He is a Nuer. It is difficult for outsiders to distinguish Nuer from Dinka, or a half dozen other tribes in the region. Knowing their respective facial-scarring patterns helps, but even then it’s easy to get confused. Perhaps that’s because the most decisive characteristics are arguably philosophical: The Nuer are a more democratic people who pay far less attention to royal lineage than the Dinka. Photo by Kyle Johnson

Machar then demanded that Machot’s father forfeit custody of his son, infuriating the already frustrated father, who refused. Machar ordered him beaten by his guards and had him thrown in jail and assaulted several more times before releasing him.

Once freed, Machot’s father fell gravely ill, throwing up blood and growing weaker by the day. He died a month later.

Machot managed to escape from the SPLA and continued his flight to Ethiopia. When he arrived at a UN camp he remembers by the name of Etom, he was discouraged to find that it was under the control of the SPLA. Without parents to look after him, he was taken in as an orphan (which wasn’t far from the truth), and he studied at the camp’s school for six months, all the while unaware of what had become of his father and three mothers after the raid of their village. Rebels living inside the camp worked as informants, identifying youth who were ready for military training and who would then be marched away in the dead of night.

Machot studied hard, regaining his strength and settling into a considerably regular routine, given his situation. But then, one night, they came for him. They dragged him into a vehicle and drove for five days to another camp ostensibly run by the UN. Along the way, his rebel captors told him they were his mother and father. They warned Machot that if he tried to escape, they would shoot him.

A rebel named Taban Deng Gai supervised SPLA interests inside the camp. He resided in a large compound surrounded by bodyguards and controlled the local black markets of food, goods, and children. Deng Gai would reappear in Machot’s life later as he rose up the ranks of leadership in the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement.

Machot remained a ward of the SPLA for years. He is vague about exactly what he did. He says he was a radio operator because he’d learned how to speak Arabic; he also said he knew how to use a gun.

He remained in the camps as part of the SPLA until 1991, when Ethiopia’s decades-long civil war concluded and the Ethiopians began clearing the camps because they no longer trusted the Nuers inside their borders. Machot and a group of boys living with him decided they would walk to Kenya, where, they heard, the camps were safe. But they had to pass through the war in southern Sudan first. They walked west toward Nasir, a town near the Ethiopian border, and when the bombing became too intense they headed south to Kakuma, a sparse UN-run camp in the desert.

Machot lived in Kakuma for five years. The UN issued him a tent and a blanket, and every week he was rationed a cup of corn flour and some cooking oil. Contrary to the conditions described in the press releases, life in the camp was a harsh, ugly existence. Soon the boys began to talk about finding a better life in Khartoum. One could apparently get a job and go to school in the capital of Sudan, and there was no war. He and a group of older boys simply left and walked north for two months.

But Khartoum wasn’t much better. Refugee camps ringed the city. There were odd jobs in construction, however, and Machot took one. In the beginning he could carry only one brick at a time, because he was so weak and thin. Khartoum is also where Machot met Paulino Matip Nhial, a Nuer commander who fought for the government of Sudan. Machot remembered Matip Nhial’s face—he had been one of the men responsible for the violence in Machot’s village. Despite this, they became friends.

A February 8, 2011, photo of South Sudanese President Salva Kiir, in the cowboy hat, and former Vice President Riek Machar, center-left. AP Photo/Pete Muller, File

In 1993, Machot left Khartoum and his job there. His boss at the construction site gave him $200 out of pity. He and two friends who had saved their money headed to Kenya by way of Ethiopia, forgoing the long walk this time for buses and cheap hotels. When they reached the border at Malia, a Nuer from Machot’s hometown of Bentiu befriended them. The three boys paid $600 to be smuggled across the border and were told to wait at a hotel on the Ethiopian side. The would-be smuggler didn’t show up, but the police did. The boys were deported all the way back to Kukuma camp, from which they had set out on their journey a year earlier.

In Kakuma a rumor spread that Lost Boys could go to America from Ifo, a camp in the east, about 50 miles from the Somali border. Machot had already followed rumors and found nothing but broken dreams. Lost Boys were famous for simply leaving camps and wandering hundreds of miles in vain. Some died in the bush, some were captured and press-ganged, and others made it to yet another camp.

But something about Machot’s spirit forced him to keep trying. In March of 1995, Machot traveled with a group of boys who braved corrupt Kenyan police and Somali bandits to arrive safely at Ifo. Their timing was perfect. The UN was preparing to close the camp, expediting visas to America and Europe for weary Lost Boys. On the first day they arrived, Machot and his friends hurriedly filled out the paperwork. Three months later they were screened for US-entry visas.

Machot arrived in New York City on September 8, 1995. It was not a joyous occasion. It was cold. The city was ugly. He was under the strict supervision of handlers who didn’t know his language. It took an hour for him to figure out how to use the television in the hotel room. He didn’t use the telephone because he had been warned that dialing 911 by mistake would result in his immediate arrest. He didn’t sleep. He didn’t eat. He was terrified of making an error that would send him back to Sudan.

Eventually Machot was placed in a foster home that he hated. He was still unable to sleep. When they took him to shop at Goodwill, he refused. He didn’t want to wear “dead people’s clothing.” He knew that just about everything in America was new, and that’s what he wanted. He began to fight with his foster mother’s son. One day it got so bad that his foster parents called the police, and he ended up in a shelter for minors.

Finally Machot was placed in a foster home that suited him, and he studied hard. He loved to run. Running took him back to his homeland, where he felt the wind on his face and his whole body was free. He excelled at track and field, which earned him a scholarship to Skagit Valley College in Mount Vernon, Washington. During college he worked at Burger King. After that it was the Department of Transportation, and in 2003 he joined the ranks of Costco. That year his plight became famous via the documentary Lost Boys of Sudan. Books followed, and Americans began to learn about the horrors of thousands of young Nuer and Dinka boys being abducted, beaten, raped, forced to fight in an endless war, and sometimes even eaten by lions.

He paid his own way. He also formed a charity to help South Sudanese refugees acclimate to America. He saved his money to send home and to visit. Although there was hope of a new nation, he could never stay. There was nothing there for him.

On one of his trips to visit his mother back home, she demanded that he get married so that she could grow old and die in peace. She informed him that he had 24 hours to find a wife. He went from home to home, meeting eligible women and giving a sales pitch about the luxuries of life in America. He spent about 45 minutes at each house, meeting young daughters and their families. He might have a new life in America, but he would never escape his past.

With the help of his cousin, he eventually narrowed the candidates down to five, then three, then one: Rose. When he told her that she was his first choice, Rose lectured Machot on his arrogant approach to getting married. She refused to get on a plane the next day, but she agreed to being engaged for a couple of years while she finished her schoolwork.

Two years later they were married, and today they have two children.

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