More than two decades after he fled the civil war raging in his homeland, Guor Mading, one of Sudan’s Lost Boys who is now a U.S. citizen, has returned to South Sudan to use his status as an Olympic athlete to publicize the plight of refugees who pack camps across the eastern African country.
That mission was close to his heart; but when he arrived in South Sudan’s capital, Juba, in late May, Mr. Mading, a marathon runner in the London Olympics last year, also had something else on his mind. He was thrilled by the thought of being reunited with his elderly parents at their home in Pan de Thon village in South Sudan’s Unity state.
“It was a great reunion. They were just relieved that I was alive because they had been hearing my voice, but leaving as a young kid and to come back as an old man like this, they were really shocked,” Mr. Mading, 29, said Wednesday from Juba.
“It took them a day to believe that was me.”
When he was an 8-year-old boy, Mr. Mading’s parents sent him to stay with an uncle in the Sudanese capital, Khartoum, to escape the horrors of the war.
The conflict between mostly black African Christians of the south and Arab Muslims of the north lasted from 1983 to 2005 and killed about 2 million people, including eight of Mr. Mading’s siblings.
The Lost Boys were a group of more than 20,000 children, many of whom who were orphaned and forced from their homes by the war. These children, some as young as 4, walked for months across harsh terrain and through treacherous rivers to get to refugee camps in neighboring countries. Many of them didn’t make it.
The young Mr. Mading was kidnapped by Sudanese soldiers and later by Arab herdsmen before he finally arrived in Khartoum.
Mr. Mading and his relatives fled from Khartoum to Egypt in 1999 and were resettled in the United States in 2001.
As the nation was formed, thousands of southerners poured in from the north, straining resources in the fledgling state. Many more continue to flee a war still raging between southern rebels and the Sudanese armed forces in the border states of South Kordofan and Blue Nile in Sudan.
There are 223,754 registered refugees in South Sudan, a majority of whom are in camps in the border states of Unity and Upper Nile, according to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.
Mr. Mading recently visited two camps in Unity state, which host refugees from South Kordofan and four camps in Upper Nile that are home to refugees from Blue Nile.
“The conditions are not too bad in terms of security but the population is vulnerable to disease,” said Mr. Mading, adding that the camps face acute shortages of medicine and medical supplies.
South Sudan also is struggling with internal wars that have compounded the refugee crisis.