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One of the Lost Boys of South Sudan, David Vincent now works for peace. Mike Lowe reports:
Many parents worry that their kids grow up watching too much violence on TV. David Nyuol Vincent didn’t even see a television until he was a grown man. But by then he had seen with his own eyes far too many people die violent deaths or from sickness or starvation.
He is one of the ‘Lost Boys’ of South Sudan, uprooted by war from his home and family. At the time of independence from British rule in 1956, Sudan was geographically the largest country in Africa. But war broke out immediately between the predominantly Muslim Arab north and the country’s southern populations, who were mostly either Christian or Animist.
As a child, Vincent recalls seeing homes burned to the ground and the charred bodies of infants. At age eight, Vincent’s father took him away, joining the thousands of refugees making their way on foot into Ethiopia. Vincent’s pregnant mother would not have survived the journey and was left behind. The trek took months and involved crossing part of the Sahara desert where many perished from starvation or dehydration. By the time they arrived in the makeshift refugee camp of Pinyudo, Ethiopia, death was a familiar sight.
But their ordeal was far from over. Cholera and other diseases ravaged the camp claiming many more lives. The camp was run by the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) – the army of the southern forces – and Vincent, along with the other children, was taken from the camp to train as a child soldier.
He went willingly. By then he had learned to hate the Arab northerners with a fierce passion. Despite the brutal beatings that were a part of soldier training, Vincent was eager to fight. What stopped him from going was his small size. Joining the parade of boys to be picked for combat, Vincent stood on a stool and wrapped a blanket around himself to make him look taller. But he was recognised and refused. It probably saved his life.
After four years in Pinyudo, war broke out in Ethiopia and the camp was attacked by Ethiopian rebel forces. Many were killed by gunfire or died trying to escape across the swollen and crocodile-infested Gilo river. Vincent got hold of a gun and fought his way to safety, joining others who managed to find their way back into South Sudan. There they were once again targets for Sudanese planes dropping bombs. So the refugees started a long journey south into Kenya.
In the 12 years that Vincent spent in Kenya, the Kakuma camp grew to about 80,000 refugees. They built their own mud huts, and later built schools, churches and a hospital. Though safe from the war, violence would break out from time to time between the different tribes within the camp, reflecting the mounting tribal conflict between Dinka and Nuer in South Sudan. Vincent had become a skilled soccer player in Pinyudo. A natural leader, he formed and then captained a team in Kakuma which included both Dinka and Nuer players, and he determined to use soccer as a uniting force across tribal lines.
In 2004, after despairing of ever leaving the camp, Vincent was accepted for resettlement in Australia. He had been a refugee for 17 years. Now, for the first time in his life, he could earn money and had a fridge full of food. But he did not have peace.
‘I had carried the heavy burden of pain and hatred since I was eight,’ he says. ‘And I couldn’t shake it off. When you’re plunged into a desperate situation and running on adrenaline, there’s no time to dwell on what you’re going through. All you can think about is where your next meal will come from. Once you’re in a safe place, and life is less urgent, suddenly there’s time to think. And now, images that had been stockpiled in my head flickered non-stop like a slideshow. Things I had done. Things I had eaten. Things I had seen. Things that had happened to me. Images of people dying in front of me, and of burying their bodies.’
Hoping to find relief through helping others, he approached the National Council of Churches where he met Visier Sanyü, a former refugee himself. Sanyü put him in touch with Initiatives of Change and enrolled him in the nine-day residential Life Matters course at the IofC centre in Melbourne. Part of the course involved participants sharing their own personal stories.
Vincent found it extremely confronting. When it was his turn he walked out. That night he cried for hours. But the next day he told his story. When he finished speaking several others were crying but Vincent felt lighter. ‘I had found my turning point,’ he says.
Part of that turning point was a decision to let go of the hatred he had carried. Through friends he was introduced to Faten, a north Sudanese woman living in Melbourne. After telling her his story, she cried and asked his forgiveness on behalf of her people. They decided to bring others together, forming a group: Sudanese Youth for Reconciliation and Hope. A fragile peace had emerged in Sudan, but Vincent was convinced that unless north and south could work together, the war would continue to be fought by every generation. ‘It was our responsibility to end the cycle of violence’, he says.
With support from IofC they started having regular meetings and organized a first Sudanese-Australian youth conference. Encouraged by its success, they began to reach out to politicians on both sides back in Sudan.
But they also faced opposition. Vincent started receiving angry emails and phone calls, and false rumours were spread that he was being bribed by the north. Undeterred, they raised money to send a delegation to the north and south of Sudan hoping to share the experience of youth working towards peace.
In January 2011, South Sudan held a referendum on whether to separate from the north. Whilst passionately in favour of independence, Vincent and his fellow peace activists were concerned about the potential that this could re-ignite the conflict, so they planned a summit which brought together about 200 from north and South Sudan in the ‘neutral’ territory of Nairobi, Kenya. Word got around to the South Sudanese government who chartered a plane to fly 20 of them to the southern capital of Juba, where they were invited to hold a similar summit.
Amidst all this, Vincent somehow found time to complete a degree from Melbourne University, campaign against racism in Australia, and was reunited with his mother, whom he had almost given up for dead. He continues to live on one meal per day, sending as much money as possible to his family in South Sudan where it supports about 57 people. In January 2012 he was appointed as one of 40 People of Australia Ambassadors by Prime Minister Julia Gillard. His autobiography, The Boy Who Wouldn’t Die, was launched on 25 July, the first anniversary of the Republic of South Sudan. ‘My story is not the worst story,’ he says. ‘There are people who have had a tougher life than mine. I’d like people to think about what they can do to help change someone’s life.’
Who we are: Initiatives of Change (IofC) is a world-wide movement of people of diverse cultures and backgrounds, who are committed to the transformation of society through changes in human motives and behaviour, starting with their own.
Purpose: We work to inspire, equip and connect people to address world needs, starting with themselves, in the areas of trustbuilding, ethical leadership and sustainable living.
Omnia Marzouk, President, IofC International
'Nothing lasting can be built without a desire by people to live differently and exemplify the changes they want to see in society.'