No Country for Young Men

A generation of Lost Boys returned home to build a new nation in South Sudan. Now war has found them again.

It was 3 a.m. on Monday, Dec. 16, and the rebel army was coming. Panther Alier's iPhone was still lit up from the call that awakened him at the South Sudan Hotel in Bor, the capital of Jonglei state. In the phone's glow, he looked at his wife and baby, asleep under a mosquito net. The rebels were 20 kilometers south, the caller said.

Alier looked outside and saw people filing into the parking lot on the banks of the Nile River, he later recalled by email. Had it come to this, again? The moment at which he must decide to run from his homeland, or stay and face men with guns? In the end, the choice was clear. Thirty years after first fleeing from war in Sudan as a barefoot child, Alier, now a U.S. citizen working for Deloitte Consulting, prepared to make a second escape from Jonglei, this time with his wife and infant son on a United Nations helicopter.

Alier is a member of South Sudan's generation of Lost Boys, former child refugees who walked hundreds of kilometers across sub-Saharan terrain to crowded refugee camps in neighboring Ethiopia and Kenya in the 1980s to escape from Sudan's second bloody civil war. Thousands died along the way. But Alier, who was only 10 when he fled in 1987, did better than just survive. He excelled in the camps' schools, learned English, and became one of about 3,600 children accepted into the Lost Boys child resettlement program. Placed with a host family in Massachusetts in 2001, Alier continued to work hard in school, eventually graduating magna cum laude from the University of Massachusetts in Boston. He shook the hand of then-U.S. Sen. Barack Obama, who delivered the UMass commencement speech that year.

Stories of the Lost Boys' suffering, survival, and adaptation to Western cultures have been well-documented in newspapers, books, and films over the years. Less attention has been paid, however, to the postscripts of those who returned to South Sudan to help build the world's newest nation from scratch. "Because so many of them grew up without sectarian prejudices, and have spent so much time in mature and functioning democracies, they have a particular mix of optimism and hope and pragmatism, divorced from historical biases," author Dave Eggers wrote in an email. (Eggers's award-winning 2006 novel, What is the What, was based on the life of former Lost Boy Valentino Achak Deng.)

Since the signing of the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement that ended one of Africa's longest civil conflicts and paved the way for southern independence in 2011, many former Lost Boys have joined development organizations, academia, and government, or launched their own grassroots projects that have brought clean water to rural villages, built health clinics, and enabled thousands of children to attend new schools. According to the former coordinator of The Hope of Sudan Alliance, a Chicago-based group that tracks nearly two dozen non-profit organizations founded by Lost Boys working in South Sudan, an estimated 700 former Lost Boys -- about 20 percent of those originally accepted into the resettlement program -- have returned over the past decade to pick up the pieces of broken lives, find families last seen decades ago, and help lay the foundation for the country's future. Indeed, many of them hope to become South Sudan's next generation of leaders, and today they constitute a small, well-educated, and networked group of activists and advocates for peace.

In December, however, a political struggle between the new nation's rulers devolved into open fighting, exacerbated by deep divisions within the country's army, and engulfed the two-year-old nation in new conflict. The International Crisis Group estimates that as many as 10,000 people have been killed in violence that initially spread along ethnic fault lines. According to U.N. statistics, nearly 700,000 people have been displaced internally and an additional 167,000 fled to neighboring countries as sporadic fighting continued into late February.

Former Lost Boys who returned from exile to help their struggling homeland are deeply upset by the fighting, though they say they are determined not to allow the current political upheaval and violence to derail their work. "The government says disarmament will stop the war. But if you have two people beating each other with sticks, and you just take away the sticks, won't they still fight?" said John Dau, founder of the Lost Boys of Central New York and the John Dau Foundation, a non-profit based in Syracuse, New York, that opened the Duk Lost Boys Clinic in Jonglei state in 2007. "They'll box, they'll kick, they'll use nails," Dau added. "Just taking the arms away doesn't help. You have to disarm their hearts. You have to bring surgery, clinics, roads, schools. Help them, sit down with them, and let them understand that if you stop fighting, the government can do this, the international community will help. We can bring peace to South Sudan."

The magnitude of this task is daunting, however, and while the prospect that a few hundred activists could change the fortunes of a war-torn country of nearly 11 million isn't impossible, it certainly seems far-fetched. And the recent conflict has thrown the progress made by the Lost Boys into sudden jeopardy.

Dau's foundation brought health care to a previously un-served rural area and coordinates annual trips by U.S.-based doctors to South Sudan to perform eye surgeries, which have restored the sight of more than 600 blind people. The project is also a platform for a peace initiative called the Ambassador Group, which arranges discussions with patients from different ethnic groups and led by former Lost Boys -- 26 from six different tribes -- to improve historically tense relations. Their latest trip to Jonglei, scheduled for December, was to dovetail with a planned surgery mission by U.S. ophthalmologists, but it was put on hold after the fighting started. Now it's tentatively rescheduled for the end of the year; whether it occurs depends on the trajectory of violence in South Sudan.

Abraham Awolich, founder of the Sudan Development Foundation (SUDEF), which operates two clinics in the center of South Sudan, similarly found his painfully crafted gains suddenly under siege. The clinics -- the only functioning health care facilities in the area where they're located -- were overwhelmed by people fleeing fighting in nearby states. Awolich found himself coordinating with the International Medical Corps, which set up emergency surgery and intensive care operations at the SUDEF clinics. The World Health Organization stepped in, too, providing solar power and refrigeration units. In January, as he worked feverishly from Juba to keep the clinics open, Awolich wrote in an email that the conflict is "eroding social capital and a sense of nationality really fast... It will take decades to rebuild communal relations. We are hopeful that our leaders here can regain their sanity and bring this senseless destruction to a halt.''

When the fighting began in December, Panther Alier saw years of work endangered. He'd spent the past four years with international development organizations contracted by the U.S. Agency for International Development -- first Winrock International, then Deloitte Consulting -- to help the government of South Sudan deliver critical public services like water, sanitation, and education, most recently in Jonglei. The time he had leftover was poured into side-projects with similar aims. The fresh conflict threatened both. The new private school in Bor that he and two other former Lost Boys had raised funds to start had 150 students when the recent civil conflict broke out, but has been forced to close its doors until the fighting quiets.

In mid-December, as they fled Jonglei, Alier and his family took shelter at an overcrowded U.N. compound in Bor that provided temporary refuge to an estimated 17,000 people, spending five days with his wife and baby sleeping on a single blanket on the muddy ground. When they finally tried to board a helicopter evacuating U.S. citizens, rebel soldiers stopped him. Because of Alier's ethnic background, the rebels who had taken the city refused to let him leave, despite his U.S. passport. His family went on, but he was stuck. Only after a U.N. official intervened was Alier allowed to depart the next day and join his wife and baby. "What started stupidly as a political wrangle among the elites in Juba became clearly a fight along ethnic lines," he later wrote in a Jan. 18 op-ed for Al Jazeera. The entire family is now in Nairobi.

Despite their dismay about the crisis, many Lost Boys still think their experience could be a key to breaking the cycle of inter-tribal conflicts in South Sudan. Awolich, since returning to the country in January, consulted with colleagues at the Sudd Institute, a Juba-based think tank, brainstorming strategies to bolster a shaky ceasefire before traveling to New York in March to attend meetings at the U.N. "We are a little different among the diaspora, in that we have been able to hold together as a group," said Peter Magai Bul, a former Lost Boy from Chicago who coordinated the Hope of Sudan Alliance. "The fact that we lived together in Ethiopia, in Kenya, the fact that we have memories of how we survived and traveled together, those years of living as nomads brought a bond that lasts."

Alier, who is working remotely right now, assembling and reviewing training materials for high-level members of Jonglei's state government, echoed Bul's sentiments. "I am sure a political solution will be found," he wrote in an email in March. "I think our Lost Boys' work has laid some foundation from which the country will need to grow. We all know the benefits of economic growth, health facilities and quality education. These are services that we all [should] enjoy regardless of our ethnicity. I am ready to go back anytime now."



Where's NATO's Strong Response to Russia's Invasion of Crimea?

Why action -- not activity -- is the only way to put the brakes on Moscow.

As Russia completes its invasion and eventual annexation of Crimea -- and possibly threatens more Ukrainian territory -- one can be forgiven for asking, "Where's NATO?" With NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen in Washington this week, perhaps we'll find out.

NATO's job No. 1, set out in the Washington Treaty, is to defend the territory of its members. Beyond that, it has often served to project security and stability in Europe. It is the organization that faced down the Soviet Union without firing a shot, deterred nuclear Armageddon, and gave inspiration to dissidents and other democratic activists in Europe's East. NATO also stopped the killing in Bosnia and Kosovo, and helped over 100 million Central and East Europeans establish security as new, democratic, market-driven societies.

Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, NATO has engaged successfully in crisis management, building far-reaching partnerships, bringing in 12 new members, shifting toward deployable, sustainable military capabilities, and attempting to build a relationship with Russia (despite Moscow's demonstrated antipathy).

No NATO territory has been invaded by Russia, so NATO's collective defense commitment has not been formally tested. But NATO allies in the East -- the Baltic States and Poland, for example -- are rightly worried about Moscow's intentions. And, perhaps even more importantly, non-allies -- such as Moldova, Georgia, Ukraine, and Azerbaijan -- are watching to see whether NATO pushes back, or accedes to a revived Russian sphere of influence over pieces of the former Soviet Union.

As we approach the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, Ukraine has been invaded and NATO is almost invisible.

To be fair, NATO has been awash in activity. The North Atlantic Council (NAC) met in special session to discuss the crisis, and has issued three statements -- one where it treated Russia and Ukraine equally, calling upon "both parties to immediately seek a peaceful resolution through bilateral dialogue"; and another where it promised to "pursue and intensify [its] rigorous and on-going assessment" of the situation. In its third statement the NAC urged "the Russian Federation to de-escalate the situation." 

NATO held meetings of the NATO-Russia Council (March 5) and the NATO-Ukraine Commission (March 2), and hosted a visit by Ukrainian interim Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk (March 6) at the alliance headquarters. The Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council, comprising NATO and all Euro-Atlantic partners (including Russia and Ukraine) discussed the situation on March 14. Secretary General Rasmussen has made several press statements. NATO has cut back on cooperative exchanges with Russia, offered to increase partnership activities with Ukraine, and sent AWACs surveillance aircraft to southeast Europe to better observe the Russian offensive. On a national basis, the United States has increased its participation in Baltic air-policing, added to its air defense contingent in Poland, and sent a ship to conduct naval maneuvers with Romania and Bulgaria in the Black Sea.

Yet all that activity is just that -- activity. Missing is strategic purpose, coordinated action (not words) and real effect. Nowhere has there been a credible threat of action, which might deter Russia. As Russia gobbles up territory and conducts major exercises on the borders of the Baltic States and Ukraine, the United States talks about off-ramps, Washington and Brussels lumber toward phased, underwhelming sanctions, and NATO cuts back on cooperative activities. NATO seems to be stuck operating in the logic of partnership, rather than the logic of defense and deterrence.

Especially as Russia threatens to move into Eastern Ukraine -- and perhaps now also to annex Transnistria, from Moldova -- NATO needs to re-learn the logic of deterrence: the willingness to use force if necessary, and to decisive effect, in order to deter conflict. While Crimea may be lost already, deterrence is all the more relevant to prevent further Russian incursions into Ukraine and other areas of Eastern Europe.

Yet today, while NATO talks about de-escalation, Putin thinks in terms of escalation dominance -- something at which NATO used to excel, but refuses to consider today. If Putin persists, there is no one to stop him.

Clearly, the U.S. and EU strategy is to put in place travel, economic, and financial sanctions targeted against key people in the Russian leadership, oligarchs, and state-run businesses, rather than consider military steps. But Putin clearly believes he can weather these sanctions, up the ante, and outlast Europe and America's willingness to pursue them. Indeed, the list announced on March 17 -- intended to be a shot across the bow -- instead came across in Moscow as weakness. 

By Putin's logic, the acquisition of territory is permanent and strategic; sanctions are temporary. Add to that his belief that Russia's potential countersanctions against Europe -- especially in energy -- will force the West to back down. Indeed, it's almost a game to him, with Putin now reportedly deciding which U.S. leaders he wants to sanction. Putin is not only undeterred, but eager to ride out whatever U.S. and EU sanctions are put in place.

Not so many years ago, members of NATO saw it as a critical goal to produce a joint policy, with coordinated action and statements, in order to concentrate effort and achieve strategic effect. Today, it appears that several allies aim instead to prevent NATO from making a strong statement or -- worse yet -- taking action, so as to avoid "escalating" the crisis.

NATO cannot function without U.S. leadership -- and with the United States studiously avoiding any suggestions of military response to Putin's military aggression, NATO is almost by definition on the sidelines.

Yet even if the United States were to suggest a far more robust NATO posture now, it would be an uphill climb. Berlin also wants to avoid a serious NATO policy backed up by action, and the de facto situation in Crimea and along Ukraine's eastern border is daunting for all Europeans. Ever since the former German chancellor -- now Gazprom employee -- Gerhard Schroeder was in power, Berlin has sought to minimize NATO's military engagement, political role, and any push-back on Russia. Angela Merkel has moved Germany toward a slightly tougher position, but only slightly.

Even with Allied hesitation, it would be far better for the United States to put the most significant security issue in Europe in 25 years squarely on the NATO agenda, rather than to acquiesce and keep NATO out of the picture. NATO is, after all, the essential venue for consultation among allies under the Washington Treaty.

In the wake of Russia's imminent annexation of Crimea, here are a few specific suggestions of what NATO -- with strong U.S. leadership and participation -- should and can do:

  • Shift the logic of NATO action, from partnership to defense and deterrence.
  • Issue an iron-clad statement articulating the absolute commitment of the alliance to defend the territory of all NATO member states, no exceptions.
  • To back up this commitment to collective defense, update and put in place defense and exercise plans for each and every allied member, and strengthen air defense assets deployed to the Baltic states.
  • Send NATO military forces (ground forces, not just AWACS planes) to NATO allied territory bordering Ukraine to conduct military exercises.
  • Determine that any further assaults on Ukraine's territorial integrity beyond Crimea represent a direct threat to NATO security and, accordingly, issue a statement saying that any such efforts to break off more territory will be met with a NATO response.
  • Task the NATO military authorities to draw up contingency plans in the event of a Russian military invasion or subversion of eastern Ukraine.
  • In concert with the European Union, NATO should sell new military equipment to the Ukrainian armed forces, based on U.S. and EU loan guarantees.
  • Also in concert with the European Union, agree to an embargo on arms sales to Russia, including French "Mistral" ships and German live-fire training gear.
  • At Prime Minister Yatsenyuk's request, provide NATO-country advisors and trainers to assist the Ukrainian forces in defending their country.
  • Expand intelligence sharing with the Ukrainian government, and allow Ukraine to post a military liaison at NATO's Supreme Allied Headquarters in Belgium, to facilitate real-time intelligence sharing with the Ukrainian armed forces.
  • Counter increasingly rabid Russian propaganda pitched at ethnic Russians in Eastern Europe with increased funding for broadcasting outlets such as Voice of America, Radio Free Europe, and local efforts -- such as Latvia's center of excellence in strategic communications.

None of these actions place U.S. or NATO ground troops in Ukraine. But together these actions, they may be sufficient to get Putin's attention. And if NATO shows unity of purpose and stands its ground, it can deter Putin from further land grabs and only then see a possible "de-escalation" of the crisis. None of this will happen with out determined, courageous U.S. leadership -- which is what makes NATO Secretary General Rasmussen's meetings in Washington this week so important.