As a young boy growing up in Sudan and then as a refugee in Ethiopia and Kenya, I witnessed atrocities and was subject to difficulties that no boy or girl should have to experience. And yet, I remain thankful because those painful experiences led me to Jesus and have contributed to my commitment to sharing the hope of Christ and advocating on behalf of the war-torn and downtrodden throughout the world.
I grew up in Duk, a collection of small villages in the central region of what’s now South Sudan. Back then, though, Duk was part of Sudan. My parents were farmers, and I herded their cattle, goats and sheep. My father, Majok Gutatur, launched his public career as head of the cattle camp, then ascended to a prominent position as the head chief of the Nyarweng Dinka of Duk. Though I was young, I discerned that my parents were preparing me to be a future chief. They instilled in me the value of hard work, honesty, humility, fairness and justice.
As civil war erupted in Sudan in 1983, my father’s role evolved into political affairs as the right-hand man of the Sudanese People Liberation Army/Movement in Duk. The SPLA was fighting to overthrow the theocratic Arab-dominated regime of Sudan, which ruled the entire country as an Islamic state—subjecting everyone to sharia law. Those of us in the South were Africans and Christians, so we were persecuted. Because he helped mobilize men, cattle and food supplies for the SPLA soldiers, my father was hated by the Khartoum regime and their allies.
In 1987, when I was just 10, my world turned upside down. Aerial bombardments had become frequent. When fighting intensified, it became necessary for young boys like me to leave because we were prime targets. The government’s goal was to kill us before we came of age. My dad told me to go and escape to the bush.
With a radiating sunset behind me, I fled eastward, heading toward an unknown destination. Until then, I had never struggled for food or water. But, now, I found myself uprooted into a new world: the jungle, packed with lions and all sorts of wild creatures. I had to make a 180-degree turn from being a dependent to a survivor. Eventually, 30,000 people would run for their lives.
As the saying goes, “necessity is the mother of invention.” Barefoot, hungry and thirsty, I learned quickly to gather wild fruits, vegetables and leaves, and to cook them for meals.
Though I did not know it early on, I discovered in time that we were walking toward Ethiopia and a refugee camp there. That would be 1,000 miles from my home in Duk!
Not only did we have to battle the sun, the desert, wild animals, and belligerent communities, we still had to evade aerial bombardments. As we dispersed into the bush to hide, I heard one boy was killed, struck down so young.
Another dark moment came when we awoke one hot morning and we were informed we had to leave. We were told that our destination would be a river. To lighten the load, we emptied our water containers because we could refill them upon our arrival. When we got there, the river was dry. People broke down from dehydration. Two boys collapsed, and I helplessly watched them die. It was a terrible afternoon.
Finally, after three months, we came upon a river and could see the refugee camp on the other side—in Ethiopia. I dove into the cold water and swam across, while most were ferried on boats by SPLA soldiers, who were training in Ethiopia.
I found life in the camp even more devastating than the jungle. It seemed peaceful because of the lack of gunfire, but hunger was pervasive and made me—and everyone else—vulnerable to all kinds of diseases: chickenpox, measles, typhoid, hepatitis and acute malnutrition. People were so emaciated, so skeletal. Far too many died, and I knew some of them, including a few relatives who had escaped Sudan after I had.
In the midst of all this, I met Jesus! Only one time when I was growing up had I heard about Him. While our cattle were drinking at a river’s edge, I heard singing and instruments playing. I followed the sounds and came across people under a tree singing about God. I was fascinated, then I moved on. Not until I was at the refugee camp did I hear anything more about God, this time Dinka preachers proclaiming that Jesus came from Heaven to earth to be crucified on a cross for our sins. They also preached about a man born blind who was healed and then who testified before religious leaders that Jesus was the Son of God. I was fascinated once more, and I committed my life to Jesus as Savior. A year later, when I was 11 years old, I was baptized.
To know more about Christ from the Bible, I needed to learn how to read, so in Ethiopia I started going to school for the first time. My classroom was in the shifting shade of moving branches of a tree rocked by the wind. The sandy soil was my notebook, my index finger was my pencil, and my bare feet were my erasers. I made steady progress and learned to read God’s Word in Dinka and I started getting to know God.
Little did we know that a revolutionary change of the communist government in Ethiopia was underway and that we would become a target. The refugees were kicked out in 1991, and we fled on foot back to Sudan. In a handmade backpack I had some lentils, beans, a notebook and two New Testament Bibles, one in Dinka and the other in English. Heavy rains poured on us throughout this dreadful journey.
Amid this chaos, I found time to teach myself English from the Bible, by comparing words in the Dinka text with the one in English. Line by line, verse by verse, chapter by chapter, I accumulated an English vocabulary.
We didn’t make it back to Duk but to an area near the border with Kenya. A year in the jungle of Sudan felt like a century, almost all of it again spent dodging aerial bombardments, wild animals, belligerent communities and diseases, and learning to live with hunger.
Praise God that with the help of some NGOs, I traveled on foot to safety in northern Kenya, where I was “warehoused” for a decade in the dusty Kakuma Camp. The camp was established in 1992 following the arrival of the “Lost Boys of Sudan,” a phrase I think was coined by the media.
In a dramatic turn of events, amazing grace fell on me, right in the dust of Kakuma. God provided an unforeseen opportunity to leave the camp and come to America. His leading was to Phoenix, Ariz., through the U.S. Resettlement Program. The transition was at least smooth from a climatic standpoint!
Since moving here, I’ve had the privilege of attending Arizona State University and then graduating with an MBA from George Washington University and a second master’s degree in public administration from Harvard University.
During my time in the States, I have consulted for the World Bank & International Finance Corporation and worked with the U.S. State Department distributing messaging throughout South Sudan and also advocating to the U.S. Congress on behalf of the Lost Boys. Today, I am serving as protection technical advisor with Samaritan’s Purse in Boone, N.C.
God has given me a wonderful wife, Sarah Amour, whom I met on that same journey from Ethiopia to Sudan to Kenya. Our families knew each other in Duk. We married in 2010 and have three young children: Akhat, Majok, and Jok.
According to the United Nations, the world is now witnessing the highest levels of displacement on record. An unprecedented 65.3 million people across the globe have been forced from home. Among them are nearly 21.3 million refugees, over half of whom are under the age of 18.
I was one of them, yet by the grace of God I was granted freedom from the oppression of poverty and war.
My desire is to be used by God to help those in need who cannot help themselves, in gratitude for how He has richly blessed me. ©2017 Deng Majok Chol