[Marxism] Lost Boys of the Sudan

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Thu Mar 11 13:37:19 MST 2004

"Lost Boys of the Sudan" tells the poignant story of Peter Dut and 
Santino Chuor, two teenaged Christian orphans from Sudan's southern 
regions. Their family was gunned down by federal troops from the 
Arab/Islamic north in a brutal civil war that has taken more than 2 
million lives over the past 20 years, mostly black Christian tribesmen 
like these two Dinka boys. The war broke out in the early 1980s when the 
government in Khartoum declared that 'sharia' or Islamic law codes would 
be applied throughout the country.

Given shelter by Christian charities in the United States with a 
long-standing paternalistic interest in such orphans, Peter and Santino 
make fitful attempts to adjust to a cold and cash-driven society. As 
typical Sudanese youth, they thought that their homeland was the most 
beautiful place on earth and enjoyed tending their village's cattle and 
goats. That pastoral life would be shattered in a civil war whose 
ultimate cause is the colonial system. Once they become workers in the 
United States, the land of their ostensible salvation, they begin to 
experience for themselves what Marx described in the "Economic and 
Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844": "...the worker feels himself only 
when he is not working; when he is working, he does not feel himself. He 
is at home when he is not working, and not at home when he is working."

The "Lost Boys of the Sudan" makes no attempt to explain what caused the 
civil war that turned their lives upside down, despite being alluded to 
throughout the film. Although this review can obviously not flesh out 
this troubled history in the kind of detail it deserves, it will provide 
some background for those who plan to see the film now showing in NYC or 
for those with interest in the region. But first some words about the 
film itself.

When we first meet Peter and Santino, they are in a meager refugee camp 
in Kenya anxiously awaiting word on resettlement. Their time is divided 
between kicking a soccer ball, playing basketball in the dusty 
campgrounds, hanging out with friends or eating meals seeming to consist 
largely of flat bread and water. When Peter, an avid basketball player, 
finally gets word that he is going to America, he bequeaths his sneakers 
to a campmate but has to apologize for the fact that the soles are 
completely worn out. Their only outlet from the monotony of daily life 
is communal dancing to the beat of a drum. Despite the general poverty, 
it is clear that solidarity and friendship run deep-- perhaps too deep 
for the USA. The boys are warned that they should not hold hands in 
public when they arrive since this is considered homosexual behavior.

Life changes dramatically the minute they get off the plane in the 
Houston airport. After being dropped off at their new apartment in a 
typical sterile-looking complex, they are given a short orientation 
speech by their Christian counselor who seems oblivious to the culture 
shock that faces her wards. She breezily tells them that they have to 
start working immediately since rent and food must be paid for.

The jobs turn out to be the typical dead-end jobs that await all 
immigrants, whether or not they are the beneficiaries of Christian 
good-will. They assemble electronic goods for $7 per hour or retrieve 
shopping carts from a Walmart parking lot in the sweltering heat. A 
manager tells Peter that he should not mind the heat so much since he is 
from Africa where it is hot all the time. While they hold down full-time 
jobs, they attend local high schools.

The psychological and cultural disjunction between the two boys and the 
denizens of the brave new world they have found themselves in makes for 
gripping if not painful drama. In one scene, Peter's autobiography, 
which is part of a college application, is being reviewed by his high 
school guidance counselor. It describes in vivid detail how he walked 
barefoot for days in the wilderness to escape from northern troops who 
had already killed his father and other family members. The guidance 
counselor says something like "Golly, that's some story you have there. 
I don't know quite what to make of it."

Meanwhile, Santino finds himself at a social sponsored by a local 
Christian youth group. As the exclusively white and middle-class 
gathering strums guitars and sings hymns that are a world apart from the 
uninhibited music and dancing he enjoyed back in Africa, Santino sits by 
himself adrift in his thoughts. Earlier in the day, he has confessed to 
a female member of the group that it is difficult to meet women. It is 
obvious that this environment is not conducive to such meetings.

As their frustrations mount, their thoughts keep returning to their 
homeland. At one point, they sit on their sofa in Houston and sing what 
amounts to a Sudanese blues. They declare misery with their current 
situation, love for their homeland and a desire to return to it at once. 
It is obvious that the American dream has turned into a nightmare for them.

During a group meeting at a national weekend retreat for lost boys of 
the Sudan (there were 4,000 at the height), there are references that 
might be lost on members of the theater audience. People stand and cheer 
for the SPLA and express a desire to fight the enemy from the north, who 
has killed their parents and other family members. With little 
background available in the mainstream media, it is difficult to place 
all this in context.

The SPLA is the Sudan People's Liberation Army, which actually just 
signed a peace treaty with the Khartoum government that will at least on 
paper divide the nation's new-found oil wealth equally between north and 
south, as well as granting a large degree of autonomy. Considering all 
that has happened in the past, this would be a tremendous step forward.

As might be expected, the enmity between north and south was a legacy of 
colonialism. Sudan was cobbled together by Great Britain in the 19th 
century largely out of geopolitical considerations. There never was a 
pre-existing country called Sudan. Egypt, Great Britain and the Ottoman 
Empire shared administrative power over the Islamic north which was 
compelled to deliver slaves to the cotton plantations in Egypt. The 
northerners really had no choice in the matter. Since Great Britain 
demanded tax payments and since chattel slaves were the only 
cash-producing commodity, the whole relationship was tantamount to 

Eventually the Islamic north rose up in the 1850s led by the Mahdi, a 
charismatic military and spiritual leader. His revolt was ultimately 
crushed and Britain regained complete control over the country, the 
largest in Africa, in the 1880s. From that point on, a dual policy was 
carried out. In the north, the British cultivated local elites who would 
feel identity with the mother country. In the south, Christian 
missionaries transformed the largely animist populations into 
English-speaking believers of the divinity of Christ and the beneficence 
of the British Empire. As John W. Burton observed in an article that 
appeared in the 1991 Journal of Modern African Studies:

"The southern tribes were to be led down a long path of progress, step 
by step, first learning how to grow crops in straight rows, how to 
unscrew bottle caps, recite the Lord's Prayer, and cover their bodies in 
European fashion.

"The British simply reoccupied the small slave-raiding stations that had 
prospered in the nineteenth century and slowly built these into centres 
for their particular administrative purposes and, importantly, for their 
own personal safety. Conscripted labourers then toiled under British 
behest to build narrow gravel roads that would connect these satellites 
of foreign domination. In the early days of the present century, the 
southern Sudan became a model illustration of that infamous phrase, 'the 
white man's burden'".

By the same token, anything Arabic or Islamic was denigrated. The 
British not only banned Islam, they expelled Islamic merchants from the 
region. Of course, the whole purpose was divide-and-conquer as always.

After independence in 1956, Khartoum's government tended to reflect the 
strong Arab nationalist dynamic that was at work throughout North Africa 
and the Middle East. When mixed with a "modernizing" sensibility of 
intellectuals and technocrats of a leftwing or CP background in the 
government, the net result was a mixture of paternalism and progressive 
attitudes directed toward the sub-Saharan sections of the country. 
Instead of sending Christian missionaries into the south as the British 
had done, they sent in Islamic preachers, opened Koranic schools and 
made Arabic mandatory. Such national and religious chauvinism led to the 
first revolt, which was led by the Anyanya, a guerrilla group who took 
their name from snake venom obtained by grinding up cobra heads.

Like the Kurds of Iraq, whose cause was also just and for many of the 
same reasons, the Sudanese rebels often chose unsavory allies. A 1964 
CIA-backed revolt by Moise Tshombe in the Congo was opposed by leftist 
governments throughout the region, including Sudan's. After Tshombe 
defeated his opponents within the country, he decided to aid the enemies 
of his enemies, in this case the Anyanya. Eventually, another US 
client--Haile Selassie's Ethiopia--threw its support behind the Sudanese 
rebels as well. The largely Christian and Francophile government of Chad 
joined in as well and opened up its borders to the Anyanya.

Not surprisingly, such pressures had the effect of eroding the 
revolutionary fiber of the Khartoum government. As leftists became less 
prominent in the government, a solution based on respect for the 
aspirations of the south faded as well. The next phase of the conflict 
began in 1983 under the auspices of Jaafar Nimeiri, a military leader 
who had seized power in 1969. At this point, the Anyanya were superseded 
by the SPLA, which was under the leadership of John Garang, a southerner 
who had been an officer in the Sudanese army. During a repressive raid 
against the south, he switched sides and encouraged other garrisons to 
revolt against the north. He is every bit as unprincipled and corrupt as 
the current leadership of the Kurds in Iraq.

Just as was the case in northern Iraq, the rebels have often fought 
among themselves with devastating results to the population on whose 
behalf they are fighting. Largely, these divisions are tribal in nature 
with Garang's Dinkas being opposed by the Nueri faction.

An April 14, 1993 Christian Science Monitor article cites an anonymous 
Nairobi churchman: "I have found very few SPLA people who really care 
about their people."  Francis Deng, a Sudanese senior fellow at the 
Brookings Institution, added that the split "probably begin with ... 
rivalries in the movement" based not on political differences but on 
"very personal motives". Amnesty International accused the Nasir 
faction, one of the SPLA breakaway groups, of killing over 2,000 Dinka 
civilians in an assault in January 1992 on Bor, the home area of John 

One can understand why there would be animosity toward the rebel leader. 
When three underlings decided to challenge him in 1987, they were put in 
holes in the ground and held for several days according to the Monitor. 
Then, for more than three months, they were held in a container only 5 
feet by 7 feet, packed with other prisoners.

The SPLA became the beneficiaries of President Clinton's largesse in 
1996, when $20 million in military aid was sent to Ethiopia, Eritrea and 
Uganda, who were assisting the Sudanese rebels in much the same fashion 
as what took place in the mid 1960s. This was justified as part of the 
war on terror and had about as much basis in reality as this year's war 
on terror. Just to show his dedication to Christian rights, Clinton 
bombed the al-Shifa pharmaceutical company in the country two years later.

In a reply to a couple of Clinton officials who were defending the 
bombing in the pages of the neoliberal New York Review of Books, Smith 
College professor Eric Reeves makes a point that sounds eerily similar 
to those that are being made continuously over the unilateralism that 
was on display in Iraq:

 >>More consequentially, Benjamin and Simon give no sign of having 
considered the real issue in the al-Shifa episode; they never seriously 
ask what evidentiary standards should have obtained to justify an attack 
on Khartoum. Instead, they vaguely declare that "the perception of 
imminent danger was sufficient to overcome these concerns" (i.e., 
concerns about attacking a country on the basis of clandestine 
information in pursuit of "a strategy of preempting threats").<<

Around this time, the Sudanese rebels became the favorite cause of 
Village Voice columnist Nat Hentoff, who has been spending the past six 
months or so it seems castigating the Cuban government for repressing 
dissidents. Many of his columns were focused on the alleged enslavement 
of Christians:

"Actually, when I started writing about the slaves of Sudan in the Voice 
about six years ago, the beginning of the New Abolitionist movement was 
driven by the American Anti-Slavery Group, headed by Charles Jacobs, who 
first told me of the horrors in Sudan.

"There was also a young graduate student at Columbia University, Sam 
Cotton, who traveled to black churches and newspapers around the country 
to spread the liberating word. In Denver, Barbara Vogel told her 
fifth-grade class that slavery was not dead, and those kids began 
collecting money to free slaves in Sudan through Christian Solidarity 
International. Other schoolchildren around the country joined in."

There is not so much attention paid nowadays to the problem. This might 
be a consequence of John Garang's manipulation of do-gooders anxious to 
purchase the freedom of Sudanese slaves under false pretexts. A February 
26, 2002 Washington Post article reported:

 >>"The highly publicized practice of buying the freedom of Sudanese 
slaves, fueled by millions of dollars donated by Westerners, is rife 
with corruption, according to aid workers, human rights monitors and 
leaders of a rebel movement whose members routinely regard slave 
redemption as a lucrative business.

"The more children, the more money," said Mario Muor Muor, a former 
senior official in the Sudan Peoples Liberation Army (SPLA), the leading 
southern rebel group in Sudan's 19-year-old civil war. Insiders say that 
SPLA commanders and officials have pocketed money paid to buy captives' 
freedom and in some instances stage-manage the transactions, passing off 
free southerners as slaves.<<

However sordid all this might be, the Christian people of the south 
deserve the best. One can only hope that oil proceeds are truly used for 
the benefit for the entire country and that people like Peter and 
Santino can enjoy a peaceful and prosperous future in their homeland.

"Lost Boys of the Sudan" is currently playing at Village East Cinema in 
NYC. The film has a website at: http://www.lostboysfilm.com/. A 
Christian website that has taken up their cause is at: 
http://www.sudanlostboys.com/. My review of the film "Khartoum", which 
starred Charlton Heston and was based on the Mahdist revolt, can be read 
at: http://www.columbia.edu/~lnp3/mydocs/fascism_and_war/mahdism.htm


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