[Marxism] Lost Boys of the Sudan
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
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
"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
"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
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