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Sudanese refugee travels to tell his story

April 26, 2007

Violence in Sudan is presented in the media on a regular basis, but students at UW-River Falls recently had the opportunity to listen to a first-hand account of the atrocities.

August Mayai, a 25-year-old Sudanese refugee, is a graduate student at UW-Madison. On April 12 Mayai spoke to a political science class at UWRF, sharing vivid memories that not only haunt his mind, but also motivate him to create change.

In early 1983, a civil war engulfed Sudan for a second time, forcing thousands of children, later deemed the “lost boys,” to flee the scene of killing, rape, burning of homes and slave acquisition. This war lasted for 22 years, leaving approximately two million dead and four million displaced.

According to the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) Web site, the deep-seeded violent history of Sudan is a reflection of Arab Muslim “domination of largely non-Muslim, non-Arab southern Sudanese.”

Mayai lived in the southern town of Akop, where he said he lived in peace with his family and received the love he needed — that is until at the age of seven when he heard news that an attack was going to strike near his home. He was forced to join thousands of other young southern Sudanese on a journey that lasted over 500 miles on foot.

“We just took off as a result of expected attacks that was coming in,” Mayai said. “There wasn’t an option but to run for safety, and that’s how it was.”

The attacks did come, relentlessly carried out by government troops, claiming the lives of five members of his family. A year later his mother died of natural causes, but Mayai said “her sickness could have been attended to by a doctor if it wasn’t for the war.”

During their long walk the boys faced grizzly circumstances such as hunger, thirst, sickness and exposure to dangerous animals. Mayai said one incident in particular stands out in his mind, and that is when his life nearly came to a close in a most grim manner.

Mayai ingested something that caused him to get severely ill with bloody diarrhea.

“ … I almost died, but I was lucky,” he said. “For three days I couldn’t walk. The whole trip got stopped. I was just lucky that they stopped at that time.”

People on the journey often had to eat tree leaves and roots. They also had no choice but to drink dirty water, while some men drank their own urine. So, under those conditions, it comes as no surprise that Mayai nearly perished.

“[I] witnessed a lot of people in my age range dying on the side,” Mayai said.

Crocodiles, hippopotami, snakes, lions and hyenas were also enemies. Hyenas are generally known for being scavengers, but Mayai said they became acquainted with the taste of human flesh from casualties rotting on the battlefields, so they turned into fierce predators.

Mayai said there were some elders on the journey who led the children to neighboring Ethiopia, in an effort to seek safety. However, when they reached Ethiopia they were forced to leave because of a conflict that had erupted there.

Mayai and thousands of others instead ended up in Kenya at a refugee camp called Kakuma. The camp is composed mainly of Sudanese refugees, and according to the Refugees International Web site, “Kakuma camp in Kenya is one of the oldest and largest refugee camps in the world.”

Mayai had no choice but to call Kakuma his home for several years.

“Refugee camps are not good places,” he said.

Mayai said there was some structure at Kakuma, including about 40 different schools for 80,000 refugees, but other conditions were not so pleasant. He and his peers depended on a monthly allotment of 12 lbs. of corn wheat per person.

Mayai said a deeper knowledge and awareness about the situation in Sudan finally reached the West after several years. He said one organization, Catholic Relief Services, presented information at a bishop conference. Leaders at the conference then shared their concern with the U.S. government, and in 1997 Canada, Australia and the United States granted asylum to thousands of young refugees. Mayai claims that the United States initially was going to allow 5000 to immigrate, but 1000 were cut off from immigration and forced to stay in the refugee camps or resettle in Sudan.

Mayai was lucky enough to be granted admission into the United States and he arrived in Salt Lake City, Utah, in 2001.

In Salt Lake City he attended the University of Utah. He gained his U.S. citizenship in 2005 and he is currently going to graduate school at UW-Madison for a Ph.D. in Sociology with an emphasis on demography.

Despite his turbulent life, Mayai traveled across the world to gain an education to be able to support a positive future for Sudan, especially with the advent of the genocide occurring in Darfur.

According to the CIA Web site regarding the civil war in Sudan, “Peace talks gained momentum in 2002-04 with the signing of several accords.” However, during that same time the Darfur conflict sparked momentum.

Darfur, a region in western Sudan, has seen an estimated 400,000 casualties, many of whom have been civilians. The conflict started when non-Arab, anti-government rebel groups in Darfur began attacking various Sudanese government entities, including the police and military. The rebels believe that the Arab government is oppressing the non-Arab population.

Soon after the fighting began the Sudanese government retaliated has provided support for the Janjaweed, nomadic cattle herders from the region. Like the civil war that Mayai escaped, various atrocities have been committed on civilians, including rape, torture, burning of homes and murder.

“So such activities that are occurring in Darfur occurred in the south as well,” Mayai said.

His personal connection has made him a devotee to the toil in the country, and he is currently involved with public speaking engagements to raise awareness and support in the American public.

“I don’t see myself coming off the scene of what’s going on because of my past experience,” Mayai said. “I see myself as a weapon of that mechanism of change in the country.”

Mayai is also actively involved in an organization whose goal is to establish a project in Sudan to provide clean water, as parasites and water-related illnesses commonly plague the country.

He is currently working with Wisconsin Senator Sheila Harsdorf to promote American divestment in foreign companies who are doing business with the government of Sudan.

“It’s those companies that are helping to fund the genocide that is occurring in Darfur,” Harsdorf said. “This legislation would call on the State of Wisconsin Investment Board (SWIB) to divest from those companies.”

According to their Web site, “ … SWIB is concerned about atrocities and human rights violations in Sudan.” It is their goal to identify companies who are doing business with Sudan and “evaluate the nature of those relationships.”

Harsdorf said it is a targeted divestment effort involving 12-15 companies, and as many as 20 states have either taken action or are considering similar legislation. The legislation would not effect any U.S. companies because the country is already prohibited from doing business in Sudan, as it is considered a terrorist country.

Mayai said that divestment is important in the peace process, because if Sudan loses millions of dollars it will be difficult for them to continue their violent campaign. However, he said divestment is not the most critical component in the process.

“The U.S. government would only help strongly if they try to support the U.N. through funding and through political effort,” Mayai said. He said the U.N. does not currently have the mandate to shoot back and protect citizens from the infamous Janjaweed, who are known to ride into towns on horseback to commit murder and other heinous acts.

Although it may appear as if the majority of the killing has been done, Mayai said it is not too late for the future.

“The war is still going on,” Mayai said. “It will never stop until everyone is killed.”