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."
But by the early 1990s, Cuba was struggling to take care of them without Soviet aid. The Sudan People's Liberation Army was riven with factions and its leaders seemed more concerned with preserving their power than with the children they had sent abroad. It was also around this time that the tectonic plates of global politics shifted, and it was now the United States and its Western allies that backed the SPLA, while Russia and China lined up with the government in Khartoum.
"We had sometimes to share shoes with classmates," said Daniel Thon Duop, 35, who had fought for the rebels until he left at the age of 13.
After 10 years, they'd finished medical school, but Cuba could no longer support grand projects like the Island of Youth and there was no place for them.
Finally, in 1995, Cuba enlisted the help of the United Nations, which gave the students refugee status and looked for someone else to take them. Some went to Europe, and a few to the United States. Canada took in the doctors.
THE TRUE NORTH
Canada offered more opportunity than Cuba, but not in the field the doctors wanted. While they had completed medical school, they had not finished an internship or a residency, and Canadian institutions would not accept their credentials. They spoke Arabic, Spanish, some Portuguese and the language of their ethnicities - Dinka, Nuer, Anuak - but not English or French.
They also had families back home in south Sudan to support. Many could only find minimum-wage jobs working at meat-packing plants in Brooks, Alta., and in Winnipeg. Dr. Deng sold contracts for Direct Energy. Dr. Tut Pur worked as a physical therapist. Okony Simon Mori, 36, tried to volunteer in a hospital, but couldn't find anyone to take him. He worked with disabled children instead and at a meat-packing plant.
In 2005, after the civil war finally ended, Dr. Thon Duop caught word of Samaritan's Purse, an evangelical Christian group led by Franklin Graham, the son of Billy Graham, that declares on its website "first-class treatment in the Name of the Great Physician."
Samaritan's Purse has worked in south Sudan since 1993. Dr. Thon Duop decided that he would ask the charity to train all those doctors well enough to complete their mission and go home.
"He kept mentioning this word mission, that they were on a mission," recalls John Clayton, projects director for Samaritan's Purse Canada. "They've been living with that sense of destiny and calling in their lives ever since."
Samaritan's Purse approached the medical school at the University of Calgary in 2005. The plan was for a refresher course before the group returned home. It lasted for nine months, but did not go as planned.
The doctors had been out of medical school for as long as seven years and some were still struggling with English. They needed to be trained in basic techniques - scrubbing themselves down before surgery, for example.
For the past year, the doctors have been in Kenya completing the equivalent of the residency program that they never received after medical school in Cuba.
It has been another difficult time. Some of the doctors were struggling with alcohol abuse, and some still do.
"Everybody's hoping and wishing for the best ... but not taking quite as much stock of how really degraded their knowledge and skills were from all those years. Which is nothing against them," said Scott Shannon, an American doctor who is running their training program in Kenya.
One of the original 15, one of two women in the group, decided not to continue. Another went on to south Sudan without finishing the Kenya program because Dr. Shannon ultimately decided he would never be ready to be a doctor. The first three of the remaining 13 are finally returning home this month to fulfill Mr. Garang's commandment. The remaining 10 will return home early next year.
Those who work with the Sudanese doctors say the difficulties are a reflection of the incredible struggles they have faced since embarking from Sudan more than 20 years ago. They've essentially been orphaned three times: by their families, by their own country and by their adopted country, Cuba. Then they had to fend for themselves in Canada.
Since they've come to Kenya, others have chafed at Dr. Shannon's decision to abandon a timeline and decide that the doctors would be sent back only when they are ready. The program had originally been expected to finish this autumn, but will now go well into 2008 before all the doctors are ready. Some may never be ready and will return home to do other work.
They are also making far less money than they did working at meat-packing plants in Canada. Samaritan's Purse has recently announced it will give each of them $1,000 as they set up in Sudan, but the charity is still seeking donations to raise the $160,000 it needs to continue the program once they return to south Sudan.
For the past year, the doctors have been at five hospitals across Kenya, learning how to treat the kinds of illnesses that they will confront most often in south Sudan, which has some of the worst health indicators in the world. Life expectancy is 46 years, and people are subjected to a host of illnesses, among them tuberculosis, cholera and malaria.
The health-care system in south Sudan is nearly non-existent. It's now estimated that there is about one doctor for every 192,000 people and many of those aren't clinically active. (In Canada, the ratio is closer to one for every 600 people).
Still, Sudan is the place that Dr. Deng and the others dream of returning to. Some of the south Sudanese friends they left behind in Canada could not believe that they would want to return.
"They are saying, 'You guys are crazy; here you have everything, why do you have to go back?' " Dr. Simon Mori said. "For many people, it's hard to understand that, but we understand exactly. If we don't come back those people will stay in this position forever, but if we come back we can make them dream that at the end of the tunnel, there will be a light. Because up to now, they don't have any dream."
Many became Canadian citizens, and are returning to a country that they have not known for years, where life is harder than almost anywhere else on the planet.
"It has been a long time, we have very little picture of it," Dr. Deng said. "Some people might go and feel disappointed, that will be the first impression, but I think they will remind themselves, 'This is my mission, this is my mission and I've come to make a change.' "
The doctors have grown tired of delay. They have been trying too long to give up now. And they say that after so many foreigners have gone to south Sudan to help, it is their turn.
"It was very wise of Garang to send the younger people to the West to get an education and the older ones go to war to fight on the front lines," said Dr. Simon Mori, who has spent more time living in Cuba and Canada than in his homeland, and planned to return last week.
"We think we can make a difference, and the only way to make a difference is to go to south Sudan and help our own people."
A history rife with conflict
Sudan, the largest country in Africa, was ruled jointly by Britain and Egypt from 1899 until achieving independence as a parliamentary republic at the beginning of 1956. Since then, it has been ruled by a succession of unstable civilian and military governments.
A long-running conflict between the Arab Muslim northerners of Sudan, the base of the government, and the black Africans of the south, who practise mainly Christian or animist beliefs worsened following the imposition of strict Muslim sharia law in 1983 under then-president Gaafar Nimeri. Two years later Gen. Nimeri was deposed and the new regime relaxed the application of sharia to non-Muslims in the south. However, the Sudan People's Liberation Army continued and increased its long-running attacks on the north and by the mid-1980s, the country was in full-scale civil war.
Negotiations between the government and the political wing of the SPLA took place in 1988 and 1989, but they were overtaken by events, when General Omar Hassan Ahmad al-Bashir took power in a military coup in 1989 and banned all political parties.
DEVELOPMENTS IN THE 1990S
In 1991, Gen. al-Bashir's government gave the southern states a non- sharia legal system, and considerable autonomy in internal affairs. However, non-Muslims living in the north of the country were still subject to sharia. The last round of peace negotiations between the government and the SPLA broke down in September, 1994, over that issue. The decade saw a succession of regional efforts to broker an end to the Sudanese civil war.
In 2003, the Darfur region of Sudan exploded into violence after a rebel group began attacking government targets, saying the region was being neglected by Khartoum. The conflict, which has left at least 200,000 people dead, is a separate conflict from that in southern Sudan. HISTORIC ACCORD
The Government of Sudan and the SPLA reached an agreement in 2005 on the role of state and religion and the right of southern Sudan to self-determination. The agreement called for a general election in 2009 and a referendum in 2011 on whether to authorize independence of the south. However, in October, the SPLM accused Khartoum of failing to honour its deal with the southern rebels and suspended its involvement in the national-unity government.
Source: BBC, AllAfrica, U.S. State Department
CARE OF CUBA
In the 1960s, in the aftermath of the Cuban revolution, half the island's doctors fled the country, leaving the fledgling nation with the challenge of having to rebuild its medical system. Today, the country has an enviable ratio of one doctor to every 220 people.
Seeing an opportunity to promote its revolutionary successes abroad, Cuba jumped into the business of exporting doctors. Havana set up its first international medical brigade in 1963 and dispatched 58 doctors and health workers to newly independent Algeria. From 1963 to 2005, more than 100,000 Cuban doctors and health workers have intervened in 97 countries.
Cuba has also trained 30,000 health-care workers from developing countries at Cuban medical schools. In 1998, it established the Latin American School of Medicine for that purpose, and also began creating the machinery to send large-scale medical assistance to poor populations affected by natural disasters.
Cuba's medical aid was initially given free, but since 1977, those able to pay, such as oil-rich Libya, do so in hard currency, although at rates considerably below those charged by other nations.
The new arrangements have led to some unintended consequences: In 2005, Cuba's agreement with Venezuela - under which about 20,000 Cuban doctors and dentists work in the South American country in exchange for 90,000 barrels of oil a day - sparked protests from Venezuelan doctors who said their wages had been depressed and their jobs taken by Cubans.
Source: UCSF School of Medicine; Hernando Calvo Ospina, Le Monde Diplomatique; Julie Feinsilver, Yale University; BBC