Fanning the Flames: The Freedom Project Blog


Survivors of war in Sudan reflect on past and look toward future

By Jamie Loo

(left to right) Malual Awak, Peter Bul, Neima Tarifa, and John Dut from the Sudanese Community Association of Illinois speak about surviving the Sudanese civil war at the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center in Skokie on Thursday.

Advocates say U.S. needs to keep pressure on country for fair elections in 2010.

By Jamie Loo
First Amendment reporter

Go back to your childhood.

Imagine being age 6, 7 or 8 years-old and playing with your friends outside. Suddenly, you hear gunfire and bombs. You go home to find your house on fire and your parents being arrested. You make a run for it through the fields staying off the roads because the military and police are there.

Soon, you find other children also fleeing from the militias. As you continue walking you find more children, until your numbers swell to 27,000. Older children, ages 10 and 11, become the leaders of the group. The group reaches a river. Some of the children try to cross on bridges and are gunned down. Others try to swim across. About 11,000 die trying to cross that river.

The children sleep where they can, eat when they can, often traveling at night to stay undercover. If there’s nothing to eat, you eat mud and grass. Many die along the way, and with no adults around the children bury their dead. Eventually about 10,000 children make it to a refugee camp. You’re given one cup of corn twice per month to eat.

It’s the story of the 27,000 “Lost Boys of Sudan” who were displaced during the Sudanese civil war between 1983 and 2005, which by some estimates killed up to 2 million people. These children made perilous journeys from Sudan to refugee camps in neighboring African countries such as Kenya and Ethiopia, which is the rough equivalent of walking from Chicago to Denver.

Four of the survivors shared their stories, talked about life in the United States and views about U.S. policy toward Sudan, in a program at the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center in Skokie on Thursday.

The youngest of nine children, Peter Bul said he was 6 years-old when he left Sudan in 1988 with his mother. After six days, his mother collapsed and couldn’t go any further. He said aid truck carrying water was going to a nearby village, so it took Bul’s mother to get medical help. Bul continued on with the other children for three months.

“A lot of children died along the way. I didn’t want to die so I tried my best, I worked,” he said. “We buried children along the way.”

He stayed in a refugee camp in Ethiopia for about four years. In 1991 there was a war in Ethiopia, so Bul started to travel back to Sudan. There was still violence in Sudan, so he fled again, this time arriving in Kenya in 1992 where he lived in a refugee camp for nine years. The U.S. offered to take 4,000 of the Lost Boys in 2001, and Bul said he was among the lucky group. He arrived in Chicago in April 2001.

Bul, who serves on the board of directors for the Chicago Association of Lost Boys of Sudan and Sudanese Community Association of Illinois, has helped to start a school in Sudan which now has 1,000 students. Sudan is the largest country in Africa, with hundreds of tribes and languages. This cultural and language diversity, along with lack of education means that many Sudanese cannot communicate with each other. By providing education about the country’s diversity and history, Bul said he hopes future generations can learn to live together in peace.

Malual Awak, president of the Sudanese Community Association of Illinois, said he was in high school in 1986 when he walked to Sudan’s capital, Khartoum, to live in a displacement camp. Awak walked to Liberia in 1987 where he had relatives and stayed until 1990 when civil war broke out there. He then sought safety in Ghana. In the mid ‘90s the U.S. government offered to help some refugees leave the country. Awak came to Chicago in 1995. He worked as a dishwasher through college and earned a bachelor’s degree in economics in 1999.

“I loved that job because it was the first job I had in my life,” he said. “I didn’t have anything before that.”

Bul and Awak said Illinois has many war survivors because there is a strong Sudanese community network and supportive U.S. citizens in the state. The Chicago Association for the Lost Boys of Sudan (CALBOS) offers services such as mentoring opportunities, career counseling, medical, emotional and education support. The Sudanese Community Center of Illinois helps all residents of Sudanese descent with social services and leads local efforts to advocate for change in Sudan.

At age 10, John Dut was considered an elder among a group of Lost Boys in 1987. He fled to Ethiopia for five years before returning to Sudan, only to have to flee again to Kenya. When he was in high school in Kenya, Dut said he remembers the U.S. providing aid to the refugee camps. He came to the U.S. in 2001 and is currently working on his master’s degree in business administration.

Neima Tarifa said the war also had “lost girls,” some who traveled with the lost boys and ended up in Kenya and Uganda. The U.S. also helped bring these girls to the U.S., she said, and most of them ended up in Michigan, Mississippi, Pennsylvania, and Washington. Tarifa left Sudan in 1999, living in Egypt for two years before coming to the U.S. She is going to school and raising four children.

Bul said he is worried that the upcoming elections will lead to another civil war. The country is supposed to hold a presidential and parliamentary election in 2010, which is the first national election to include southern Sudan in 40 years, according to the Associated Press. The current president, Omar Hassan al-Bashir, took over the country in a military coup in 1989 and became president in 1993. In March, the International Criminal Court issued a warrant for Bashir’s arrest for war crimes and crimes against humanity.

U.S. Special Envoy to Sudan, Scott Gration, was in Sudan last week to continue bilateral discussions with the National Congress Party (NCP) and Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM). Although a peace agreement was signed in 2005, implementation of parts of the agreement has been met with resistance. Gration has been criticized by some human rights groups for being too soft on the NCP, which perpetrated the genocide in Darfur. The Obama administration is expected to announce its policy on Sudan soon, according to media reports.

Bul said he is disappointed at the administration’s slow pace on developing the Sudan policy. During the 2008 presidential campaign, Bul said he campaigned for Obama because the then-candidate said he cared about international issues like the crisis in Sudan.

Gration has talked about easing some sanctions to try to create a better relationship with the Sudanese government, Bul said, but he doesn’t think this should happen until after the election. He said Obama should put some pressure on Bashir to make sure a fair election happens before trying to improve relationships. Bashir will not give up power easily, Bul said, and part of the reason for the war in Darfur is because Bashir doesn’t want the people there to vote.

Dut said Obama’s policy should have steps to ensure free elections and equal rights. Religion and politics are too tied together in Sudan and need to be separated, he said.

Tarifa said real change can’t happen in diplomatic documents, and must be concrete through development. In southern Sudan there are few schools, no hospitals and no clean water, she said. Tarifa said for those lucky enough to go to school, “you can find a class of 200 students in one class.”

The most important thing Obama can do is to make sure a peace agreement is reached between the north and the south, and implemented, Awak said. That peace agreement will help bring peace in Darfur, he said, which needs a larger peacekeeping force to help the United Nations African Union force in Darfur (UNAMID). UNAMID had 16,961 peacekeeping personnel in Darfur from 39 countries at the end of July.

Awak, Bul, Tarifa and Dut said they share their stories to raise awareness about the situation in Sudan. Dut said after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks some U.S. citizens treated the Sudanese like terrorists, so the opportunity to talk to people about their history is important. Dut said residents should also contact politicians to tell them that Sudan needs to be a priority. As the Sudanese and their supporters become a larger, and more vocal voting block, Dut said more legislators are noticing them. He said they’ve been telling legislators to keep an eye on the Sudanese elections and do everything possible to prevent war in the country.

“Our goal is to make sure that what we have gone through should not happen to other generations,” Awak said.

SIDEBAR: Sudan’s conflicts

Malual Awak said after Sudan gained its independence from England in 1956 the country had a civil war for 17 years. After a period of peace, war broke out again in 1983. Awak said the country had an “identity crisis” trying to figure out if it was an African or Arab country. Then when oil was discovered in the south, he said things became more complicated because more international interests were involved. Religion plays a big role in Sudanese culture which has fed the larger conflict. Sudan has Christians, Muslims, and many other religions.

Peter Bul said the fight over natural resources is one of the focal points of the conflict. Money from oil has gone primarily toward the northern part of the country for development, he said, leaving Darfur and the south poor. Bul claims that Bashir knew long ago there was a possibility of civil war again between the north and south, and that Darfur probably wouldn’t support him. Instead of fighting a war with Darfur later, Bul said he thinks Bashir tried to wipe out the people through the genocide which began in 2003. Former United Nations African Union peacekeeping commander, Gen. Martin Luther Agwai, told Agence France-Presse in August that although the war is over in Darfur, the region still has security and humanitarian problems. Thousands of refugees are still living in camps across the border in Chad.

In 2005, the Sudan Comprehensive Peace Agreement was signed which ended the civil war and triggered a six year interim joint power sharing period between the ruling National Congress Party (NCP) and Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM). Elections will take place next year, and in 2011 a referendum will be held in southern Sudan to determine whether it should secede from the north.

On the Web

To learn more about the Sudanese community in Illinois, visit the Sudanese Community Association of Illinois Web site,

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Managing Director

McCormick Freedom Project

Shawn is responsible for overseeing and managing the operations associated with the McCormick Freedom Project. Additionally, he serves as the in house content expert and voice of museum through public speaking and original scholarship. Before joining the Freedom Project, he taught American Government, Economics, American History, and Chicago History at Community High School in West Chicago, IL and Sheboygan North High School in Wisconsin.

Shawn is a doctoral candidate within the Political Science Department at the University of Illinois at Chicago where he received his MA in Political Science. He is a 2001 James Madison Fellow from the State of Wisconsin and holds a bachelor's degree in Political Science, History, and Secondary Education from the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

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About Fanning the Flames and the McCormick Freedom Project

Fanning the Flames is a blog of the McCormick Freedom Project, which was started in 2006 by museum managing director Shawn Healy. The blog highlights the news of the day, in hopes of engaging readers in dialogue about freedom issues. Any views or opinions expressed on this blog represent those of the writers alone and do not represent an official opinion of the McCormick Freedom Project.

Founded in 2005, the McCormick Freedom Project is part of the McCormick Foundation. The Freedom Project’s mission is to enable informed and engaged participation in our democracy by demonstrating the relevance of the First Amendment and the role it plays in the ongoing struggle to define and defend freedom. The museum offers programs and resources for teachers, students, and the general public.

First Amendment journalism initiative

The Freedom Project recently launched a new reporting initiative with professional journalists Tim McNulty and Jamie Loo. The goal is to expand and promote the benefits of lifelong civic engagement among citizens of all ages, through original reporting, commentary and news aggregation on First Amendment and freedom issues. Please visit the McCormick Freedom Project's news Web site, The Post-Exchange at