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“Reliving his nightmare"

Louise K. Ahern
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Louise Knott Ahern is an award-winning journalist with 20 years of experience in news markets from Washington D.C. to her hometown paper, The Lansing State Journal. A graduate of Michigan State University, her work has been honored with numerous regional and national awards, including a 2014 Sigma Delta Chi for feature writing by the Society of Professional Journalists. You can follow her on Twitter at @WeezWrites

'Lost Boy' escapes Sudanese violence a second time

For more than a week before Christmas, friends and family of Jacob Atem, a former Sudanese “Lost Boy” who graduated from Michigan State University, waited in fear as news broke that he was trapped in a fresh wave of violence in the region. He eventually made it out.

This is how he escaped.

Jacob Atem thought it was over when they asked for his identification.

It was a few days before Christmas, and he and thousands of other displaced civilians had been hiding inside a United Nations compound in South Sudan to escape growing violence between government and rebel forces.

Food and water were scarce. Outside the UN walls were 15,000 armed rebels and a worsening conflict that threatened to plunge the world’s youngest nation back into civil war.

But now, on Dec. 21, there was a plane, a way out.

Hope bloomed as Atem waited in line to board. The flight would take him to South Sudan’s capital, Juba. From there, he would fly to Rwanda where his pregnant wife, Linda, waited for him.

But then a rebel carrying an automatic weapon began asking for passports. This wasn’t good. Atem is Dinka, one of two major ethnic groups in South Sudan. The rebels outside the U.N. compound were from the rival tribe, Nuer.

Atem handed over his passport reluctantly, fearing what would happen if he refused.

“Are you Dinka?” the rebel asked.

Atem said yes. There was no point in lying.

“You’re not leaving,” he recalled the man saying. “If you get on the plane, we will shoot it down.”

More than two decades after escaping civil war in Sudan, after wandering for years in the unforgiving African bush with thousands of other young men later dubbed “Lost Boys,” Atem feared his struggle had accomplished nothing.

He had survived the murder of his parents, the kidnapping of his sister, a lion attack, a river swimming with crocodiles, unrelenting heat and hunger.

He had eventually found refuge in America, in the warm embrace of a family in Webberville. He learned to speak English, earned his bachelor’s degree at Spring Arbor University, his master’s degree at Michigan State. He’d found love and life.

Then he’d returned to his home country during a brief moment of peace to help his people by opening a health clinic.

But as he looked at the end of the gun now pointed in his direction, he suddenly wondered if he had ever really escaped.

The unending violence in Sudan was going to kill him after all.


The world first learned of the Lost Boys of Sudan in the 1990s, when thousands of boys between the ages of seven and 17 began arriving at refugee camps in Kenya, Ethiopia and Uganda telling a tale almost too horrific to be believed.

More than 20,000 in all, they were orphans of a civil war between the Sudanese government and a rebel army.

Most of them were the sole survivors of their families, having escaped death by raiding forces because they were out working in the fields when their parents and siblings were killed.

Together, they walked thousands of miles across Africa to refugee camps. Many died during the trek from disease, hunger and animal attacks.

In 2001, the United States allowed roughly 3,400 of the boys to resettle here.

Jacob was taken in by a Webberville woman named Jane White. He graduated from Webberville High School, earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees and just a couple of years ago moved to Florida to work on his Ph.D.

All the while, he dreamed of one day returning to his home country to rebuild what war had destroyed.

He finally achieved the dream a year ago. Along with another former Lost Boy, Lual Deng, Atem created the Southern Sudan Healthcare Organization and opened a clinic that now serves as many as 100 people a day in his home village of Maar.

That’s what brought Jacob to South Sudan in December. He and Linda arrived early in the month to work and then spend some vacation time together — a last, much-needed respite before the arrival of their first baby.

Then came Dec. 15.And with it, the guns.


They weren’t together when it started.

Linda was in the capital, Juba. Jacob was farther north in a town called Bor, where he was meeting with South Sudan’s minister of health.

Early reports would call it a coup when forces loyal to former Vice President RiekMachar began firing on troops loyal to President SalvaKiir. It escalated quickly. Gunfire became bombs.

Linda called Jacob on his cellphone. He said he still wanted to head to Maar to check on the clinic. She told him to stay where he was. The U.S. embassy in Juba was going to evacuate American citizens, but if he went to Maar, he would be on his own.

As the violence continued over the next two days, Jacob told Linda to get out of the country while she could. He would find his way out. She flew to Rwanda before the airport was closed.

On Dec. 17, the conflict reached Bor.

“I was in a hotel with the mayor and the minister of health,” Jacob said. “At 1 a.m., they started shooting at us.”

It was no longer safe to stay. They fled, first by car and then on foot.

The minute his feet touched the ground and he began to run, he became a 7-year-old boy again, fleeing violence and war and death, running toward the unforgiving African wilderness, targeted for his ethnicity.

A lost boy once again.

“I couldn’t believe I was caught in that mess again,” he said. “It was so sad because you see the children running. They are five years old. I feel guilty. You have thousands of people walking at night into the bush, scared for their lives. We could see people dying by the road. One person, his hands and leg were dangling. I thought I left all this behind in 1991. We got our independence. Why do we keep hurting ourselves?”


Back home, friends and family learned of his plight in the way news is so often delivered today — on Facebook.

On Dec. 12, before it all began, Linda posted a smiley face on her Facebook status.

I love feeling baby wiggle around in my belly! So strange but fascinating!

Her next status update was three days later.

Gunshots and bombs going on all night in Juba, we can’t go anywhere,
Jacob Atem and I are in 2 different cities! Lord have mercy! Please join in prayer for South Sudan!

At the time, many members of his Webberville family were unaware where Jacob was.

His older brother, Jimmy Holmes — who was already grown and a father when Jacob came to live with his mother — said the family has always been proud of all that Jacob accomplished.

Over the years, his life taught them lessons they never would have learned otherwise, Holmes said. He taught them a new definition of family and faith. He taught them the realities of a world most Americans cannot imagine — how meager a week’s worth of U.N. rations are, how rare a gift an education can be, that smiling is easy and giving up is hard.

He said the family stayed glued to Linda’s updates and relied on their faith.

“I was concerned for Jacob and Linda, but there was not much I could do,” Holmes said. “So I prayed, put it into God’s hands, and helped keep our family and friends up to date.”

From Rwanda, Linda was able to call Jacob on his cellphone. When he told her he’d made it to the U.N. compound in Bor, she was relieved but knew he wasn’t safe yet.

She sent emails to the state department, posted updates on Facebook and begged anyone and everyone who was listening to rescue him. For days, that was the pattern. Phone calls with Jacob. Relentless lobbying to anyone back home who could help them.

“By Friday it was really crazy,” Linda said. “Of course, I was trying to remain as calm as possible, but once I heard he was not allowed to get on the plane because he was Dinka, I freaked out. I remember crying a little because I felt like this was the end. I could hold on as long as there was a glimmer of hope here and there, but when you hear the rebels are in control and not allowing him on the plane, it was devastating. For the first time, I pictured that he might not get out and I might be raising this child by myself. But then I stopped crying, and I got back on email.”

Saturday morning, Dec. 21, brought one of those glimmers of hope.

President Barack Obama had issued a statement condemning the violence and announced he was sending 45 U.S. servicemen to the country to protect the U.S. embassy there.

But then came the dashed hopes again.

A rescue attempt of U.S. citizens in Bor was aborted Saturday morning after three U.S. aircraft were fired upon, forcing the convoy to turn back. Four U.S. servicemen were wounded in the attack.

Linda sent an email to friends and family that afternoon.

“I just spoke with Jacob,” she wrote. “The U.S. State Department had a plane that was going to pick up U.S. citizens from Bor this morning, however the fighting escalated and some militia began shooting at planes coming into Bor. The plane is waiting for things to calm down and then they will try again. Let’s pray that things calm down long enough for the plane to arrive and remove our citizens.”


Inside the UN compound, Jacob continued to pray.

“Every day,” he said, “I would tell myself that I get to leave today.”

On Sunday, Dec. 22, word began to circulate that another U.N. plane was coming to Juba. Was this his chance?

“They let us go the airport as a group,” he said. “These people who are rebels are in control of the airport. They are familiar with the people. As we were going up the stairs of the plane, it was so sad, there were children running by themselves, everyone running for their lives.”

He found a seat, but it still wasn’t over. He said an armed rebel boarded the plane and started studying every face he passed, looking for Dinka.

Two people were pulled off the plane.

The man in the seat next to him was speaking in Dinka, and Jacob hissed at him to stop.

“One minute was like one hour,” he said. “You know that even once you get up, they have all their guns pointed in your direction. All you can do is think, ‘God is good.’”

Sunday afternoon, Linda posted a new Facebook status.

Great news! Jacob Atem has arrived in Juba. He is getting ready to register to be flown out to a neighboring country (Kenya or Uganda) Praise the Lord! I’ll let you know where he is heading when I get more information. Thank you all for your support, calls, and prayers. #overjoyedandgrateful#prayersoftherighteous

A few hours later, the news their friends and family had been waiting for:

Jacob Atem is now on his way to Kenya and then to me in Rwanda #thankyouJesus


Nearly 10,000 people have been killed in the month-long violence, and a million people have been displaced from their homes.

A tentative cease fire was reached last week.

Linda and Jacob live in Florida now, where he is pursuing his Ph.D. in public health.

“Everywhere he has gone, he has had an impact on how people perceive the world,” said his brother, Holmes. “Jacob is another example that with God, all things are possible.”

Jacob and Linda’s goal is the same: To help South Sudan become a peaceful democratic state, and to provide the medical care that is sorely lacking there.

Jacob said he’s not sure when they’ll be able to go back, but they will go back.

“Someday, there will be a solution to this,” he said. “We cannot afford to let this country go. It is from my Christian belief that I have to give back to this country, a new nation.”

Published in the Lansing State Journal, January 27, 2014 (Lansing, MI)

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