By Patrick BuffettMarch 13, 2014
FORT LEE, Va. (March 13, 2014) -- A coincidence is when two related events occur at the same place or time. A miracle is a circumstance that defies explanation and is usually associated with divine intervention.
This story leans toward the latter category.
It's about two 9-year-old boys forced to flee on foot from villages in what was then the Republic of Sudan, an Arab state in the Nile Valley of North Africa. Their ensuing journeys intersected at a refugee camp in Ethiopia where they attended the same school. Five years later, they parted ways -- one joining his home country's military forces and the other trudging hundreds of miles to a new refugee camp in Egypt where he was given the opportunity to come to America.
Neither of them knew if the other had survived until a couple of weeks ago when U.S. Army Capt. Gabriel Deng recognized a name on an International Student Program class roster at Fort Lee's Army Logistics University.
"I could not believe my eyes," said Deng, who is attending the Combined Logistics Captains' Career Course at ALU. "I saw Mamer's name (Capt. Mamer Peter Magot) and was filled with joy because he had survived. That is a very good thing for people in the Sudan."
The true magnitude of that comment is found in a summary of the country's history. Its citizens have long-endured rampant ethnic strife, slavery, civil wars and poverty. The racially motivated war in the Darfur region of Sudan has resulted in "tens of thousands of deaths" over the past decade, according to a recent Congressional Research report.
In 2011, South Sudan gained independence from its parent nation, but that had little impact on the continued fighting between opposing factions and tribal groups in the country. News reports today are still peppered with stories of mass shootings, guerrilla warfare, and disease and starvation among displaced refugees.
"The situation is not good," said Magot, a logistics and transportation officer in the Sudan People's Liberation Army. "There are many political differences and our nation has a long history of violence to overcome. That is what makes my presence here so important. My government's army wants to transform from a rebel ideology to a professional national force that can protect our government's constitution and the citizens of the (South Sudan). What I learn here from the U.S. Army, I can take back and do something good for my country."
Arriving at Fort Lee and seeing his "brother, Gabriel" is like "a gift from God," Magot added. "It is just good to know that he is OK and living here in America."
Sharing the story of their childhood, Magot and Deng said they were born in Dinka Bor tribal villages in the Jonglei region of the Sudan. The sequence of events that brought them together started with the second Sudanese Civil War (1983-2005), a clash that was mainly centered on civil rights issues.
"In 1987, the government's army started coming to local villages, burning down houses and beating people," Deng recalled. "Our local leaders learned they were going after children (for slavery or as part of ethnic cleansing), so it was decided to send the boys out of the country. There was no better way to help us than to get us out and send us to someplace where there would be a chance for survival."
Deng and Magot were among several thousand "lost boys" who set out for the refugee camps more than 1,000 miles away. Many didn't survive the punishing march.
"We had run from our villages without food, water or clothes," Magot said. "When we reached Pibor County, we came under attack from Murles Tribes. They killed and abducted some of my brothers. We ran and hid in bushes and tall grass to survive. We reached Pachala (on the border of Ethiopia) and there were no more attacks, but we had to beg for food.
"After three days, we moved into Ethiopia and settled in a camp called Panyadu where we waited for (United Nations relief), still without food. We ate tree leaves, roots and some green vegetables," he said. "There was no medication, and more children died of blood diarrhea and malaria. In September 1987, the UNHCR finally came. It was a new life again."
Deng's journey was equally perilous. For two months, his group of boys pushed themselves forward despite constant thirst and hunger. They witnessed disease and death among their group almost daily.
"Many of our brothers were taken away from us," Deng said. "We were too young to understand the situation mentally and emotionally. Maybe that was a good thing because it allowed us to move forward and survive the journey."
When the boys reached the Panyadu camp, they were divided into living and working teams. Both Magot and Deng landed in the same group and became fast friends while performing camp chores and attending school classes together. The two captains managed a laugh when they talked about their time there. "He was better at sports," Deng said while pointing at his much taller friend. "That made him more popular."
Their safe haven in Ethiopia, however, was short-lived. In 1991, rebel forces overthrew the government in that country, and a new civil war again churned up threats of violence and bloodshed. The boys fled from the fighting and resettled in Pachala. Those camps were attacked one year later by militants from North Sudan and the youths were again on the run, this time bound for an SPLA base in Kopetia County.
"That is where I separated from Gabriel Deng," Magot said. "I chose to remain with my brothers in the army. I just traveled with them until 1997 when I got big enough to hold a gun, and then I joined SPLA training in a place called Matoto in Yei County."
Deng had survived another 1,000-mile foot march fraught with guerilla army attacks and near-starvation. His group finally crossed the northern border of Sudan and found humanitarian help at the Kakuma Refugee Camp in Egypt.
"The relief agency there had a resettlement program, and I was one of the (4,000) lost boys chosen to come to America," Deng said. "I was sent to Kansas City (Mo.), and given an opportunity to attend the University of Missouri. I noticed the Reserve Officer Training Corps program and asked a recruiter about it. He got me into the program, and I earned my citizenship in 2007, which allowed me to receive my commission when I graduated in 2009."
Fort Lee is Deng's first duty assignment. He started with the 49th Quartermaster Group, a U.S. Army Forces Command unit that was deactivated in October 2012. He was reassigned to the 54th QM Company and has deployed with that unit to Afghanistan.
"I believe it is a privilege to wear this uniform," Deng said, reflecting on his military career thus far. "The Army is a force for good, and that is why I am here."
He also acknowledged the fact that he now sees a brighter future because of the opportunities the service provides.
"When I came to this country, I didn't have a dime in my pocket," he said. "I look at this professional institution and realize that it gives you everything you need. It will train you, it will teach you. This is my best hope for a good future. If I do the right things and everything I'm asked to do, then my future children will not go through the pain I went through in the past."
Magot is also optimistic about his career prospects and the positive outcome of his training at ALU. There is a downside, though. His family still faces many dangers back home in the South Sudan.
"I try not to worry, but it is difficult," Magot said. "The last information I received was on Feb. 15. I know they are not in a good (situation), but they are alive ... they are not killed. So, that has really been the best news such as it is."
Magot will graduate from the ISP in April, and Deng will complete CLC3 in May, after which the U.S. Army captain will be reassigned to Fort Riley, Kan. Readers who want to learn more about the "Lost Boys of Sudan" are encouraged to watch the special "60 Minutes" news report at www.cbsnews.com/news/the-lost-boys-of-sudan-12-years-later-02-04-2013.