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Southern Sudanese Expats Return Home to Help Rebuild

New buildings are under construction in Juba as the city prepares to become a capital, January 12, 2011
New buildings are under construction in Juba as the city prepares to become a capital, January 12, 2011

As southern Sudan tries to rebuild its institutions, infrastructure and services following decades of conflict, it faces a severe shortage of skilled professionals. Some help, however, is coming from southern Sudanese who have returned home after years abroad.

William Deng Deng is a tall man who looks older than his 45 years. He is one of the early lost boys. He fled the conflict in southern Sudan in 1971, long before the lost boys of the 1990s who were popularized recently in the media.

Deng fled when his boarding school was attacked by the Sudanese army. He was seven years old. The oldest in his group was 12.

"I was a most fortunate one because I didn't die," said Deng. "Many of my colleagues died along the way. Some were eaten by crocodiles, by animals. Some were bitten by snakes. But I survived."

Deng grew up in camps in neighboring Ethiopia and eventually went to the United States and Canada to study. He returned and lived in the bush, "to give back the knowledge" he had received.

When a peace accord ended the war ended six years ago Deng was put in charge of southern Sudan's Disarmament, Demobilization and Re-integration Commission (DDR). Under the accord the DDR is charged with de-commissioning 90,000 combatants and helping them return to civilian life. The Khartoum government has pledged to demobilize an equal number of its forces.

To date some 12,000 soldiers have been demobilized. Deng says demobilization is a difficult task, because the soldiers and the communities they seek to rejoin have been traumatized by the violence.

"DDR is the bridge between post-conflict and development," Deng explained. "We are moving from the war to peace and peace to development. So it is more complicated than that."

Dr. Lul Riek has a less dramatic, though equally compelling, story. He left his family as an adolescent to study abroad, first in Egypt where he became a doctor, then in the United States where he obtained a Masters degree in public health policy.

Riek now heads the Community Health Department in the Health Ministry. He says the ministry is faced with rebuilding the region's health services from almost nothing.

"All the health infrastructures, the little that we had, has been destroyed," Riek noted. "There was no opportunity for the development of human resources. So the health situation in southern Sudan in general is among the very poorest in the world."

The task is daunting. In southern Sudan, only 16 percent of the population has access to healthcare. One out of every seven children dies before the age of five. And there are only 300 doctors and 20 trained midwives to care for eight million people. Riek says that is why he returned home.

"Those are big challenges, but we are very prepared," added Riek. "We are committed. We are passionate. We will do our best to make sure that the people get the services they expect. Because those are the reasons we went to war."

Mou Ambrose Thiik is the son of a prominent politician who was frequently jailed for his opposition to the government in Khartoum. Thiik recalls that he used to leave his boarding school on weekends and travel one day each way to visit his father in prison.

Thiik went to Egypt and Europe to study as his family fled into exile and became a successful economist and businessman in Germany.

When the north and the south signed the peace agreement he returned home with his wife and young son. He now works on developing governance and civic intuitions for the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung Foundation in Juba.

"The major priorities at the moment are to set the governance right," said Thiik. "It's very important because that will set up a good foundation for the democratic system we would like to have in southern Sudan. The other is to engage in the physical infrastructure because we have a vast country which really needs a lot of capital."

Thiik's foundation conducts training sessions and workshops for trade unions, civic groups and public officials. He says the diaspora could contribute a great deal to reconstruction in southern Sudan.

"The diaspora can play a very big and a very pivotal role in making a change and quickly for the people here because those in the diaspora have skills and that's the commodity that we lack so much in southern Sudan," added Thiik.

Demobilization chief William Deng agrees.

"We [diaspora members] can actually become a good agent of change to change lifestyle, to bring development," noted Deng. "We will not even finish it. We will have to leave it for many generations to come to complete, but we can be the foundation."

They call on members of the southern Sudanese diaspora to consider returning, or if they cannot come back, to invest in businesses and schools in order to boost jobs and the economy.