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Olympian returns to land of Lost Boys to raise awareness of Sudan refugees’ plight
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.
South Sudan achieved independence from Sudan in 2011.
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.
More than 120,000 people have fled fighting in South Sudan's Jonglei state. They are hiding in malaria-infested swamps without access to safe drinking water, food or medical care, the international medical humanitarian organization Doctors Without Borders said Friday.
Mr. Mading's trip to South Sudan was made possible by the U.N. refugee agency.
"One family torn apart by war is too many" is the U.N. theme for World Refugee Day, which is commemorated each June 20.
"Guor's story epitomizes that theme," said Charity Tooze, director of celebrity relations and special projects at the U.N. refugee agency office in Washington, who first reached out to Mr. Mading last year.
The refugee crisis created by the war in Syria has eclipsed other crises and diverted international attention.
Ms. Tooze described the situation in South Sudan as unique.
"It is a brand-new country that is trying to create stability with all these refugees on the border in what is the toughest part of Africa to get to," she said.
Mr. Mading developed a passion for running while in high school in New Hampshire. He studied chemistry at Iowa State University and now lives in Flagstaff, Ariz.
Mr. Mading, who was not a U.S. citizen at the time, participated in the marathon at the Olympic Games in London last year under the Olympic flag, unaffiliated with any nation. He became an American citizen in February.
When he left Sudan, Mr. Mading swore he would never run again because it was something he associated with fleeing for his life.
"I didn't know running is something you do as a sport," he said. "But running has given me an opportunity to give back what I owe to people."
Mr. Mading wants to help develop a sports program in South Sudan and use his experience to train young athletes.
As for his own goals, he hopes to run again in the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro in three years.
"Hopefully, in 2016 I will either represent South Sudan or the U.S.," he said. "I see them both as my country."
© Copyright 2014 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.
About the Author
Ashish Kumar Sen is a reporter covering foreign policy and international developments for The Washington Times.
Prior to joining The Times, Mr. Sen worked for publications in Asia and the Middle East. His work has appeared in a number of publications and online news sites including the British Broadcasting Corp., Asia Times Online and Outlook magazine.
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