Kansas man relives violence in his homeland of South Sudan
By Brian Burnes | The Kansas City (Mo.) Star | Published: January 31, 2014
When the bullets started hitting the walls, Manon Bol hit the floor.
He crawled under a bed as the gunfire rattled up and down the streets of Juba, his homeland’s capital, in late December.
How could this be happening again?
Some 30 years before, while tending his family’s cows as a boy, he’d watched marauding militia members kill his father, steal their cows — a principal currency in rural Sudan — and send his mother and brother fleeing.
It was one of many instances during his country’s civil war that troops had invaded rural villages, killing adults and taking children captive. Bol had been taken north to Khartoum and, during the years of captivity that followed, become a Lost Boy, one of the thousands of children orphaned during the conflict that plagued his homeland from 1983 through 2005.
For decades Bol had been displaced, just like the estimated 26,000 other young men who had wandered for years during the 1980s and 1990s. In 2001, perhaps 3,000 of these Lost Boys began arriving in the United States through a State Department resettlement program. Some of the “boys” — by then grown men — came to Kansas City in 2001.
Bol arrived five years later, through a United Nations refugee initiative.
He had embraced his new world. In a 2011 ceremony at the Kansas City, Kan., federal courthouse, Bol had become a U.S. citizen.
He’d driven forklifts for five years in an Olathe warehouse and, most recently, prepared pork in a Guymon, Okla., meat-processing plant. For a while, he’d had a high-profile uncle living nearby — the late Manute Bol, the former NBA star who moved to Olathe in 2007 and who was a celebrity in his homeland. It was his uncle, during one of his many charitable missions back to South Sudan, who saw Manon Bol’s mother and later told him she was still alive.
The younger Bol had returned briefly to South Sudan in 2012 to reunite with his mother and help arrange surgery for her back problem.
His relatives in South Sudan considered him a wealthy American.
But now, having returned again to help his mother, he was back where his nightmares began. He was hiding under a bed, recoiling from the sound of automatic weapons fire. Bullets thundered against the exterior walls of his cousin’s home and echoed up and down the street. Would he survive this? How would he ever get back to Kansas?
“Tat-tat-tat-tat-tat,” Bol said recently, recounting the experience while sitting in the Overland Park home of friends.
“Gunfire. It is very scary, right? OK. But this one, the fight ... they are shooting the house. That is very, very worse. Yes. Very worse.
“I wasn’t sure if I was going to be still alive.”
Bol believes he is 41. That’s his best guess.
“I was not born in a hospital,” he explained.
That means he would have been about 10 years old when civil war erupted in Sudan in 1983 between forces in the largely Muslim north and those affiliated with the many Christian residents in the south. An estimated 2 million people died in the 22-year conflict that left perhaps 4 million others displaced.
Many boys fled for their safety into the wild.
They banded into groups, then long columns. For years they wandered, their numbers thinning by half because of disease, fatigue and wild animals. Many of them filled a refugee camp in Ethiopia, but when that country’s government fell in 1991, armed soldiers forced the young men back into open country.
Still more died, some of them drowning or being attacked by crocodiles, while trying to cross the Gilo River in southwestern Ethiopia. Many eventually found refuge in a camp in Kenya.
Bol’s story was a variation of the Lost Boy story. The militia that murdered his father held him captive for years. It was not until 2002 that an international aid organization — Bol believes it was Catholic Charities — made possible his relocation to a resettlement program in Cairo.
Along the way, Bol fathered a son.
In 2006 he came to Kansas City, which began receiving its first Lost Boys refugees in 2001. There are now about 200 Lost Boys among the approximately 3,500 Sudanese living across the area. Bol made friends while attending Unity Church of Overland Park and never missed a session with the volunteer English instructors affiliated with the Johnson County Adult Education program.
Then, late last year, an aunt called from South Sudan, which gained its independence in 2011. His mother, suffering from various medical issues, needed medical attention again.
Bol quit his job and spent about $1,600 of his pork-processing money on an airline ticket, leaving Kansas City on Nov. 19.
Four days later, he was in Juba. His mother’s village, Turalei in northern South Sudan, stood more than 500 miles to the northwest.
Bol rode a truck north for three days to a city called Wau.
“It was a very uncomfortable truck, a lorry, with no seats,” he said.
“The next day, it was a different truck, for one day.
“Then we walked.”
He found his mother’s straw hut. He arranged her admittance into a clinic in Wau. He stayed for almost three weeks before, in late December, he made his way back to Juba.
Meanwhile, violence had begun on Dec. 15. Much of the conflict has been between members of South Sudan’s two largest tribes, the Nuer and Dinka.
Bol is Dinka.
When he heard gunfire Dec. 28, he went under the bed.
The next day, he and his cousin ventured outside. They didn’t have to walk far to see the worst of it.
“People killed on the street,” Bol said. “Four men, one woman.”
The same day, he saw a large transport plane pass overhead.
“We all started running for the airport,” he said.
American military personnel assigned to South Sudan after the Dec. 15 outbreak of unrest had been helping foreign diplomats, U.S. Embassy and other American citizens depart on large military transport aircraft.
Bol flew out of Juba on such a plane, with seats lining both sides and passengers strapped in.
“Very uncomfortable,” he said.
It was a long two weeks. On Jan. 15, the phone rang in the Overland Park home of Ernie and Evelyn Lobb, friends whom Bol had met through his English instruction at Johnson County Adult Education.
It was Bol, calling from Dulles International Airport near Washington, D.C. After all he had gone through, he still would need a ride home from Kansas City International Airport.
It’s not unusual for Kansas City-area Sudanese to return to their home country to help close relatives despite their traumatic experiences as children, said Gina Moreno, a Kansas City area placement specialist who helped about 60 Lost Boys find work upon their 2001 arrival in Kansas City.
They feel it imperative to provide for older relatives, she said.
“As soon as they get their citizenships, they apply for their passports and are gone to visit family,” she said.
Those who return to Sudan are eager to visit relatives whom they once may have thought dead, said Awan Ater, a translator at Della Lamb Elementary Charter School who arrived in Kansas City from Sudan in 1998.
“When these people left, they didn’t know about their relatives,” Ater said. “Today they go back to help build homes for them, give them medications and tell them about their educations.”
Last month, area resident Joseph Rufino also went back to reunite with his mother.
Rufino’s story is familiar to viewers of “60 Minutes,” whose crews first encountered him in a Kenya refugee camp in 2001. Those journalists covered Rufino’s journey to Kansas City and documented his continuing, unsuccessful efforts to enroll in medical school.
A recent “60 Minutes” segment updating Rufino’s story apparently was seen by the chancellor of St. George’s University Medical School in Grenada. Through an intermediary, the chancellor tracked down G. Joseph McLiney, a Kansas City investment banker who had served as Rufino’s mentor since 2001.
Last week, McLiney and wife Liesl took Rufino to Grenada, where he enrolled in medical school on a full scholarship.
“A miracle,” said McLiney, who returned Monday.
Bol, meanwhile, said he could use some good luck himself.
He’s looking for work.
Since his departure from South Sudan, negotiators have arranged a cease-fire. But the peace remains fragile. So why, given all that he went through as a child, did Bol leave Kansas City to go back again?
“Do you know what?” he said. “When the war happened, a long time ago, and they kill my father and they took me away? I forgot my family for a long time. When coming back, I spent about three days in Kenya, and I would cry to myself at night.”
Now Bol wants to bring Nybol, Yor and Makuch — his mother, son and brother — back to Kansas City.
To give his family a proper home, he needs his own address. He currently is sleeping on a couch in the Overland Park apartment of friends.
He needs a job. And he doesn’t want to go back to the Oklahoma processing plant.
“Kansas City is good for me,” he said. “There are lots of places to learn English.”