Jacob Atem was about 6 years old when he and his cousin traveled away from their village in Marr, Sudan to tend their family’s herd.
They were still close enough to see clouds of smoke and hear gunshots as their village burned and their family was murdered.
The two boys fled quietly into the woods nearby. After three days and with no other choice, they began walking across the African desert in search of safety.
They faced wild animals, war, starvation and thirst, and they survived.
Atem, one of the 27,000 “lost boys of Sudan,” was invited by the Newman Club to speak at MCCC about his survival of the Darfur genocide and the Sudanese Second Civil War.
The “lost boys” is the term used to describe the human exodus of young boys that survived the war, while men and women were killed and girls were enslaved.
As they walked, they discovered other boys. Together, they covered thousands of miles barefoot over the course of years, surviving by eating mud and drinking urine.
“This is not in a movie; this is reality,” Atem said. “What happened to us should not happen to anybody.”
At one point in their journey, Atem was sleeping while his cousin took watch, Atem wrote in an autobiography.
Atem was woken by hard slap to the head by his cousin, to discover that a lion had entered their camp.
While running away through the dark, Atem ran into a broken branch of a tree that penetrated his leg so deep that he could see his own bone.
“There was no hospital, no first aid kit, but there was Michael and he helped me until my leg healed,” Atem wrote. “Today, I look at the scar on my leg and think of all Michael and I went through.”
When the boys crossed into Ethiopia, they probably thought they had reached safety, yet they were turned away and forced back into the afflicted terrain of Sudan.
Crossing the country once again, the boys headed south to Kenya. Atem and his cousin stayed in one of the many Kenyan refugee camps until Atem was 15.
The Darfur genocide has claimed the lives of over 400,000 civilians, and the Civil War has claimed 1.9 million, including Atem’s parents and many of his siblings.
Atem brought with him three objects to the presentation: a binder containing a photo, and two books – one relatively new and one tattered.
The photo, Atem explained, was of his cousin, Michael. Michael carried 6-year-old Atem on their dangerous journey when he could no longer walk.
“I don’t know how much you love your cousin, or how much you love your family, but hopefully you’re able to love your family as my cousin does,” he said. “If he didn’t carry me, where would I be? I probably wouldn’t be speaking at Monroe County Community College.”
The tattered book was a copy of the Bible that Atem got when the boys made it to Ethiopia, written in his African language. Atem carried it with him the rest of his journey.
“I cannot say I made it by myself without the help of God,” he said. “I’m not trying to convert anybody, but I am very appreciative of my Bible and what God has done for me in my life.”
The newer book is an American hymnal that Atem bought once he and his cousin made it to the United States eight years later.
Atem has presented at many schools and recently spoke at the United Nations.
Virginia Mitchell, an expert on the Darfur genocide and a cofounder of the Michigan Darfur Coalition, presented first to give students a brief history of Sudan.
The northern half of Sudan is primarily Arabic Muslims and holds the government forces, whereas the south is primarily Black Christians and holds the country’s major supply of oil.
The Sudanese Second Civil War started with the north’s attempt to convert South Sudan to Islam.
When Sharia (Islamic) law was imposed, Sudan President Omar Bashir called in the help of an Arabic militia group, the Janjaweed, to further impose radical Islamic beliefs on the South.
“The Janjaweed come in on horseback, burn the villages, rape and kill the women and men, and that’s when people start to flee,” Mitchell said.
The U.S. has intervened in the past.
U.S. President Bill Clinton sent missiles into Sudan to bomb a pharmaceutical plant which the CIA believed was making nerve gas to use against their own citizens, and in 2005 the Bush Administration helped to bring about a peace agreement.
The agreement was signed in 2005 and marked the end of the Sudanese civil war.
In January 2011, Sudan will vote whether to continue as one country, or separate into two.
“Most of the international community feels that if this goes through, and the South decides they want to be their own country, that it will spark another civil war unlike anything we’ve ever seen before,” Mitchell said.
Despite the peace agreement, the separate issue of the Darfur genocide continues today.
When Atem began his presentation, he talked about the difference between the Darfur genocide and the Sudanese civil war.
The civil war was an attempt by the North to take over the South and convert the Christians to Muslims, but Darfur is located in the North and is already primarily Muslim.
Atem said the problem in Darfur is fueled more by race than religion.
“So another issue you want to add in the Sudan issue is identity,” Atem said. “Who is true black and who is true Arab? It’s not a matter of Christian and Muslim anymore.”
Darfur rebel groups have opposed the government for their actions in the South; one group attacked a government airbase in 2000.
The Darfur revolts were met with a scorched earth campaign by the Sudanese government, starting the attack on Darfur that has continued for eight years.
In 2003, more than two million people needed help and U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powel declared the attack on Darfur as genocide.
Mitchell said this is important because in 1950 an international law was passed stating that if genocide was declared, countries bound by the law must step in and prevent it.
Despite Powel’s declaration, several leading countries including China, backed by the United Nations, argued that the issue did not constitute as genocide and no international action was needed. According to the Washington Post, China has invested heavily into Sudan’s oil business.
In 2008 the International Criminal Court declared genocide and many agencies responded. Two warrants have been issued against President Bashir since, but he still remains in power today.
U.S. President Obama, several members of U.S. Congress, and celebrities like George Clooney, have worked to raise awareness of Darfur.
Aid programs like the International Rescue Committee are working to bring the “Lost Boys of Sudan” to the United States.
Atem and his cousin were selected to come to the U.S. when Atem was 15. He described the transition as a cultural shock.
“Everything was confusing. I came during snow and it was freezing cold,” he said. “It was shocking dealing with the kids, the students who would make fun of you in high school for not speaking English.”
He said he couldn’t understand how people talked through the TV or how a telephone worked. When he first saw a “dead end” sign, he thought you would never die, because it said dead end.
“When they said man has walked on the moon, I said, ‘OK, I might be from Africa, but why you try to punk me?'” he said with a laugh.
Since then, he has graduated from high school, has earned a bachelor’s degree from Spring Arbors College, and currently is working on his master’s in Public Health from Michigan State University.
The Lost Boys use the phrase, “education is our mother and father.”
“As college students, I have a challenge for you,” Atem said.
His challenge was simply to stay in college.
“If you are from America, there is no excuse. You have to go and get your education,” Atem said. “I hope at this point you are not thinking to drop out.”
Atem has co-founded and is president of the Southern Sudan Healthcare Organization.
The organization is raising money to build a health-care facility in the Southern Sudan city of Marr, where Atem grew up.
Atem returned recently to Marr and was able to see some of his relatives. Two women from the village had been bitten by snakes and came to Atem for help, further motivating him to build the facility.
The organization already has raised $36,000. Atem said he needs help from college students for ideas to fundraise for his organization.
To contact Atem with ideas, email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Atem said students can help in many other ways as well; by joining SSHO from their website or on Facebook, by forming rallies on the issue, by talking to members of Congress, or by simply raising self-awareness.
“We need more awareness,” he said. “It’s up to you now to decide what can you do and how can you help.”
His final suggestion for students was to be appreciative of their lives.
“When was the last time you looked at the leaves of a tree? How many meals do you eat a day?” Atem said. “If you go home tonight to your mom or to your apartment, say thank God that I have even a refrigerator.”
Additionally, he said faith has been beneficial and important to him and many other lost boys.
“We believe God has protected us for a reason. We came to America, and here I am to share my testimony,” Atem said. “To me, it’s a miracle.”
“We can let go of everything, but our faith we can never,” he said.