Lost Boy Kuany works to rebuild peace in his native land
By Jessica Connor
The horrors still haunt him: the gunfire that ripped his tiny village apart, the terrified screams of neighbors and friends as their homes were set ablaze, the 2,000-mile walk he and other young boys were forced to take to a refugee camp in Kenya, all the while fearing soldiers would slice him limb from limb.
Since the day soldiers attacked his southern Sudan village and Michael Ayuen de Kuany became a 7-year-old refugee, he has struggled not just to survive but to thrive. Now he hopes his dream of a new school in the Republic of South Sudan will help his nation on its way to peace.
Kuany shared his story of destruction, survival and redemption with a packed auditorium at the World Methodist Council at Lake Junaluska, N.C., Nov. 13-15 for the fourth annual Peace Conference “ Poverty, Abundance, and Peace: Seeking Economic Justice for All God s Children.
The conference explored causes of poverty and economic disparity to equip participants as change agents for a more just and peaceful world. Kuany; Dr. David Beckmann, president of Bread for the World; and Bishop Nkula Ntanda Ntambo of the Katanga Conference in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, among others, spoke at the conference.
Kuany talked about how he founded Rebuild Sudan, a non-governmental organization working to build a new interfaith school in his homeland to help right the wrongs in his native land.
Violence, then a long walk
Kuany remembers well the day of the attack. He had been playing with boys his age on the outskirts of his small farming village. Born to a family of nine children in the mostly Christian Dinka Bor culture, he and his playmates were no strangers to violence. The government in the north controlled Sudan then, but the southern tip contained most of the resources “ including oil “ coveted by those in power. The extremist forces tried to force Christian and traditional faiths to convert to their version of Islam.
The Dinka people became a target for their beliefs, Kuany said, recalling how village elders often warned them never to be captured or they would be cut into pieces alive.
When the boys heard the gunfire and saw their village begin to burn “ and saw government troops running toward them “ they fled for their lives into the woods, beginning a journey of more than 2,000 miles that ended at a refugee camp in Kenya.
How did I survive? I don t have an answer, Kuany said. I always say God protected me.
The boys joined others fleeing similarly destroyed villages, but had nothing more than the clothes on their backs and a will to survive to keep them walking. Animals and dehydration as well as soldiers were the enemy. Kuany said he watched many of his friends die.
We drank our urine as water and would eat the leaves of trees as food, he said.
They eventually reached Ethiopia and lived for four years in a United Nations refugee camp. But, political violence in 1991when Ethiopia split into two countries and Eritrea declared war against Ethiopia, forced them to flee once again “ this time at gunpoint into the deep, crocodile-infested Gilo River.
Waiting for them on the other side were Sudanese forces.
Thousands of people drowned, and the people who couldn t swim would pile on you and pull you under, and you would drown, Kuany said.
He was one of the lucky ones who knew how to swim, and he realized his only hope was to dive underwater and swim as far from the crowd as he could.
Faced with Sudanese forces waiting to capture him, Kuany and the boys who made it kept running. They walked another thousand miles until they reached refuge in Kenya.
˜We demanded education
Life in a refugee camp was rough, Kuany explained. Food was scarce, and the boys lived on one meal a day. There were few medical supplies.
Yet, when asked what they wanted most, the answer was easy.
We demanded education, Kuany said. With no family to teach them, he said they told the camps, Education was our mothers and fathers.
They got what they asked for. Kuany and the other Lost Boys of Sudan learned their lessons under a tree where they first prayed in the sand.
Kuany finished high school, moved to the United States through a sponsorship program and earned his bachelor s degree from the University of Wisconsin and his master s from the Center for Justice and Peacebuilding at Eastern Mennonite University.
Kuany was driven. His education had a purpose. He knew he needed to do something for the people he left behind “ those who were not as lucky as he to make it out of a war-torn nation.
I had hope all these years God had a plan for me, he said. I always thought, ˜What can I do? What can I do for my country?
Meanwhile, good things were happening in Sudan. As more and more people learned the stories of Kuany and the other Lost Boys, the United States in November 2002 passed the Sudan Peace Act. Spurred by this, northern and southern Sudan signed a peace agreement in 2005. Just four months ago, South Sudan became an independent republic.
Good news soon came for Kuany as well. After spending years believing he was an orphan, he learned his mother and younger sister had survived the attacks and were living in a refugee camp in North Uganda, and his father ended up in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Though his sister eventually died in that camp, he finally got the chance to reunite with his mother in 2007 on his first return trip to his native land.
Then, one night, Kuany said, he had a dream that shook him to the core.
I heard a voice: ˜Michael, have you forgotten the people you left behind? Kuany said.
The next morning, he withdrew all of his savings, $200, and gave it to his American family, telling them he wanted to build a school for the people of Sudan.
A school, Kuany knew, meant options for poor, rural villagers often tempted by government forces into non-peaceful living.
In North Uganda, it s very easy for the (militant group LRA, or Lord s Resistance Army), to recruit children to fight their war, he said. We don t want that to happen to the children of South Sudan.
Kuany hit the speaking circuit, raising money as quickly as he could. Rebuild Sudan has raised more than $200,000 to build a school in South Sudan for Muslim, Christian and children of other faiths to learn and grow together.
I truly believe that when you have a dream ¦ people will support it, Kuany said. The problem is not finished. Let s work together to bring peace to Sudan ¦ so they don t see themselves as enemies but as brothers and sisters.
What happened there can easily happen here.