BY JODIE MARTINSON
William Pioth was 32 years old when he went backto visit
for the first time in 2008. After the long flight from Vancouver,
he landed in Sudan. Soon he was driving down a bumpy, dusty
road toward the villages he had left, last time on foot, at age 9.
William went to meet the village chief. The chief had the translator ready. Wearing a button-down shirt and pants from a mall in Burnaby, British Columbia, he didn’t look like he could speak the local language. But when William responded in perfect Dinka, he caught the attention of a woman in the corner, one of the chief’s wives.
William had a surprise for the chief and his wife. He had waited a long time for this moment. He was going to make it last.
He asked the chief about the village, about the chief’s family, then about one of the chief’s sons. The son was one of many young boys who had fled from the village during Sudan’s civil war in the 1980s. Trekking across Sudan looking for safety, a journalist called them the Lost Boys and the name stuck.
As William asked questions about the chief’s lost son, the chief’s wife crept closer and closer, fixated on William. William wondered if she guessed the secret he had come to share.
He decided he had toyed with them long enough. “I do not believe your son is dead,” William announced. The chief waited for proof. William took a deep breath and stole a glance at the woman. “I don’t believe he is dead because I am your son! I am Kolong!” he said, proclaiming his birth name. William’s mother leapt up and tears flowed down her cheeks. Villagers came running to see the commotion.
The celebration continued as parents lined up to look at the photographs William had brought of other Lost Boys from the village of Panlang. They prayed that William would tell them their sons, too, were alive and successful in North America — not dead as they had always believed.
The making of a Lost Boy
In 1983, when William was seven, civil war broke out for a second time in Sudan. The roots of this war extend far before William was born. From the beginning of the twentieth century, the British-administered Sudan was divided into two distinct regions: the mostly Arab and Muslim north and the mostly black and Christian south. Then, in 1947, the British merged the two regions and gave administrative power to the northerners. By the time Sudan became independent in 1956, the seeds of enduring conflict had been sown.
The first civil war broke out in 1955 and lasted until the brokering of the Addis Ababa Peace Agreement in 1972. The agreement aimed to integrate southern guerrilla fighters into the army and granted some political autonomy to the south.
For the next decade, the northern-dominated government repeatedly violated the agreement. In 1983, when the southerners finally reached a breaking point, the second civil war began — a war that would greatly impact William and tens of thousands of boys like him.
During the war, the government army attacked southern villages. Troops slaughtered mothers and fathers, raped daughters or took them as slaves and killed south Sudanese boys who looked old enough to be threatening.
In William’s village, like many others, his parents faced a choice: keep their boys at home, or send them on a long trek to safety. Both options were fraught with the risk of death.
William and 300 boys from his tribe would be among the first in a long stream of boys who left south Sudan for refugee camps throughout the 1980s.
The boys aimed for Ethiopia, but with no roads to follow and no maps or navigation tools to guide them, they traced squiggles and circles across southern Sudan. They walked from sunrise to evening. And they became each other’s family — a family of reluctantly nomadic brothers.
“At the beginning, it was too emotional,” William said. “We thought our lives [were] going to end up like that…. Most of the Canadian children don’t understand that part … of struggling on your own since you were nine years old to find where you’re going to sleep later on, what you are going to eat, and live day by day.… We adapted and we were always prepared to die at any time.”
One of the biggest threats were the lions. Some lions would stand in the middle of their path, daring the boys to come closer. The boys learned their best protection from the lions was each other. Backed up by the caravan of Lost Boys, some of the bravest boys would challenge the lions, scaring them off with their arms raised and feet stomping.
The boys finally made it to Ethiopia after about three months of walking. In relative safety, the boys set up makeshift schools using pieces of cardboard and charcoal for writing.
In the following years, more Lost Boys would join them. Some of the boys were tending cows away from their villages only to return to find their homes ransacked and their families dead. Others were child soldiers in the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), the southern Sudanese rebel group, who managed to escape the conflict.
Gestures toward peace
Hope for conflict-affected children in Sudan grew as the war waged on. John Garang de Mabior, the former leader of SPLA, told a group of his child soldiers to put down their weapons. He sent them and English-speaking fighters to teach the Lost Boys in Ethiopia. The boys took school seriously. Garang told them that when the war ended so many would be dead that it would be up to these Lost Boys to rebuild their country.
“[He] told us that we would be the new leaders,” William said. “We would build our classrooms everywhere we would go.”
Leadership came naturally to William. By age 12 he was a school captain responsible for a group of about 3,400 younger boys. His English was good, so he was also put in charge of distributing the food and water brought by humanitarian groups to the other school captains.
Meanwhile, international attention on child welfare was growing. In 1989, the United Nations adopted the Convention on the Rights of the Child, an international agreement to protect children. Sudan signed on in 1990.
Among the many provisions in the convention that had been consistently violated with respect to the Lost Boys were the right to: be cared for by and maintain a relationship with his or her own parents; be free from discrimination, including ethnic discrimination; access health care services, including nutrition; be protected from all forms of violence and abuse; and life.
Despite codifying some of the infringements of rights going on in Sudan, the convention did little to address the problems faced by Sudanese children. According to a report published by the World Organization Against Torture in 2002, the government and SPLA continued “to engage in brutal and systematic violence against children” after signing the convention.
Moreover, little was done to help the Lost Boys reconnect with their parents. Instead, in 1991, just one year after Sudan signed the Convention of the Rights of the Child, the Lost Boys were forced to go on the move again.
In 1991, war broke out in Ethiopia. The Lost Boys, whose numbers had swelled, were given just twenty-four hours to vacate the country. For another four months, the boys walked all day. William said the Red Cross would drive out to them in the desert and distribute water and small amounts of food every few weeks. When that food would run out, the boys foraged from trees and bushes.
Those lost along the way
Thousands of boys died travelling to Kenya. Some were killed by animals such as alligators and lions. Others died of hunger and fatigue or from eating poisonous plants. Still others were shot. “That was the most difficult time,” William said of the walk to Kenya.
One day, the boys came to a flooded river. The shorter boys struggled to cross and many were washed away. Those who reached safety were attacked. The boys scattered, against their better judgment. They knew their strength lay in numbers. Many drowned and many were lost to bullets. “I think that [day] is the most sad memory,” William said simply.
Another long journey
William and a diminished family of Lost Boys eventually made it to the Kakuma Refugee Camp in Northern Kenya. At the camp, William attended high school and was noticed for his basketball skills. He was offered a scholarship to a Kenyan high school and competed in tournaments that took him as far away as Uganda.
Eventually he got a job with the UN doing social work in the refugee camp and was given the opportunity to move to Canada. A Canadian government lawyer came from the Nairobi embassy to Kakuma and arranged for him to move to Vancouver in the late 1990s.
“Canada is very cold,” William remembers him saying. “The only place that you can survive is Vancouver.”
“I know how to survive,” William assured him.
He flew into the heat of Montreal’s summer. While the Canadians were running around the airport in shorts and sandals, William was hit by the coldest air he had ever felt. He later learned it was air conditioning.
He was too cold to answer any of the questions at customs. He could only make a single appeal. “Please,” he remembers saying. “Help me out. Whatever you have … a blanket, a jacket….”
William continued to Vancouver, where it took him about six months to get settled in completely. It didn’t take him long, however, to start making his mark on his new home.
Like many of the Lost Boys, William is determined to make his life count. He’s spearheading a long list of projects that would rival the resumes of the best do-gooders around. Children are his main priority. “I failed as a child to get [all of the brothers I lost safely] here…I don’t expect any other children to have to face the same things.
“Human rights are very important. I grew up in a refugee camp and I worked with the UN as a social worker, so I understand … how kids should be treated.”
He’s started a homework club for children of Sudanese immigrants living around Vancouver. The club meets every Saturday in a church basement. William partners struggling kids with Sudanese students at the University of British Columbia. He describes the children in the program as academic orphans. Their parents simply don’t know enough English, math or science to be able to help their kids. In fact, the kids teach their parents, helping them translate and calculate their bills. In this way, William’s program helps bridge the gap between parent and child.
The 2005 signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement brought a rocky peace to southern Sudan. With the window of peace open in his region, the timing was right for William to fulfill what he and the other Lost Boys had been tasked with so long ago — rebuilding south Sudan.
In January 2008, William returned home to his village of Panlang with the funds and expertise to install a hand pump. Thousands of inhabitants of Panlang and those from the surrounding region have since enjoyed clean, safe water for the first time in their lives.
He’s now fundraising to build a clinic in Panlang that will focus its services on women and children. Currently, people must walk two days to the nearest clinic — a trek that is unmanageable for the sick, pregnant and elderly. The clinic will also train women to be childbirth assistants and offer HIV and birth control education.
William left Vancouver for Sudan to start the construction at the end of January 2009. Some of the top contributors to the project are the other “boys,” as he calls them: other Lost Boys of Sudan, his brothers. After what they have been through, he knows he can count on them: “We always support each other.”