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The Lost Boys of Sudan find their way home Add to ...

For the people of south Sudan, the story has acquired the air of legend. In 1985, with the East African country mired in a bloody, interminable civil war that killed more than two million people, southern Sudanese rebel leader John Garang ordered 600 child soldiers to put down their guns.

Instead of fighting with AK-47s, he declared, they would fight with pencils. The children were to be delivered into the arms of revolutionary comrades in Cuba, where they would train to be doctors, engineers, veterinarians and economists, then return to build an independent south Sudan.

Little did these young rebel soldiers know that they were embarking on an extraordinary global odyssey. For most, any hope of returning to help their homeland would be shattered by unforeseen twists of fate, including the collapse of the Soviet empire. Scattered to the winds, they would start new lives, in new homes.

But a core group, whose journey would take them from Cuba to unlikely asylum in the towns and cities of Western Canada, never gave up on the dream.

For these children of war, it would take more than 20 years to complete their mission. The first three of the doctors who were part of Mr. Garang's dream are about to conclude their incredible journey.

OUT OF AFRICA

They were known as the Lost Boys - thousands of children from south Sudan who walked for days, weeks and even months to escape the raging civil war, eventually ending up in the Ethiopian refugee camp of Itang.

It was there that they met Mr. Garang, the charismatic leader of the Sudan People's Liberation Army, which was fighting for independence for the largely Christian and animist south from the Muslim north.

Mr. Garang himself put a select few through Spanish-language classes in preparation for the journey to Cuba. Cuban military trainers had arrived earlier that year, and the children were signed up to the Soviet-backed education program to join some 40,000 sons and daughters of other revolutionaries from around the world, mostly from African nations such as Mozambique, Ethiopia and Angola.

Half of the 600 were put on a Soviet-made cruise ship. For most, the 24-day voyage was the first time they had seen the sea. At one point, they hit a storm that was so bad their food careered off the tables in the cafeteria. Russian dancers performed traditional songs and they were fed James Bond films and Second World War propaganda movies in Russian with English subtitles. But their favourites were Charlie Chaplin movies - no words to confuse them.

"On the boat actually it was very fun the first two weeks," said Michael Tut Pur, 33, who was 11 years old at the time and will return home later this month. "We were having a lot of fun playing soccer, playing volleyball, and also there was even a pool to play in."

Cuba was a dream, with thousands of students from around the world, all living on the Island of Youth. This was Fidel Castro's plan for spreading the revolution around the world.

"When we were in Cuba, the expectation was to finish and come back [to Sudan]" said Deng Mayom Deng, 33, another of the doctors. "Garang had come twice and all these visitors were a reminder: 'Don't forget the war is still on, you have been sent for tomorrow.' " For the first few years, the Island of Youth resembled a perpetual Communist summer camp. Each country's children were assigned to their own schools. Every year, as some prepared to enter university, an administrator would offer them a choice of profession - medicine or engineering, for example - and place them according to their academic records.

"There was no time of laziness in Cuba," Dr. Tut Pur said. "We were studying very hard from primary to secondary school. All of us who are doctors coming back got the highest academic marks."

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