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Sudan survivor brings his story to Holderness Central

Achier Mou, one of the “lost boys” of the Sudan who were separated from their families during the African nation’s long and bloody civil war, shared his story of survival with students at the Holderness Central School Monday. (Brendan Berube) (click for larger version)
February 08, 2011
HOLDERNESS — It's one thing to read about tragic events like the long and bloody civil war that plagued the African nation of Sudan for nearly 20 years in a book or magazine, but quite another to hear about those events first-hand from someone who lived through them.

Earlier this week, a special visitor helped students at the Holderness Central School lift the Sudanese war out of the pages of their textbooks by putting a human face on it with the moving story of how he escaped from, and triumphed over, its devastating effects.

Born and raised in a small village in southern Sudan, Achier Mou was forced to flee from his homeland at the age of five, when he returned home from tending to his family's cattle in the fields (one of the responsibilities that he said all Sudanese boys are brought up with) to find that militia recruited by the corrupt and oppressive Sudanese government to put down a rebellion in the southern part of the country had attacked his village and burned the only home he had ever known to ashes.

Separated from his mother and two older brothers, whose fate he did not know at the time, and left with "no places to hide," Mou joined up with a group of fellow refugees who decided to travel across southern Sudan to neighboring Ethiopia.

Left without much in the way of possessions and able to carry only what provisions they could bear and still move quickly if necessary, Mou said he and the other survivors were forced to travel by night in order to keep out of sight of the government's roving militia units and the wild animals roaming the countryside.

If you were able to eat a meal large enough to fill your stomach during the journey, you were doing well, he said, explaining that the for the most part, the refugees learned to subsist on empty or only partially full stomachs.

Left with no shoes during the long trek, Mou also vividly recalls the painful blisters that formed on the bottoms of his feet.

Asked by one of the middle school students listening to his presentation Monday whether his band of survivors had lost anyone along the way, Mou said that one member of the group did fall behind, and was hopefully taken in by a sympathetic family (something that he said happened frequently, particularly with the younger boys).

"'Cause we were cute," the good natured Mou added with a chuckle.

Eventually, he said, the group arrived at a refugee camp in Ethiopia, where they joined 16,000 other children who had been separated from their families during the war.

After living at the camp in Ethiopia for four years, Mou and his fellow Sudanese refugees once again fell victim to political turmoil when they were told to leave the country after the Ethiopian government was overthrown.

Mou fled to Kenya, where he spent the next nine years learning English and furthering his education at a UN refugee camp until, in 2000, a bishop from Boston who had visited the camp persuaded the U.S. government to open its doors to some of the "Lost Boys" of the Sudan. Mou himself was able to immigrate to New England in 2001, shortly before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks forced a halt to the program. In the years since, he earned a Bachelor's degree from Tufts University in Boston, and is currently working toward a Master's degree in Global Health that he hopes to use one day in the service of his home country.

Mou never lost hope that he would one day find his long lost family, and returned to Sudan after the war ended, in 2006, to search for them. Although his efforts proved unsuccessful the first time, he visited the country again in 2007, a trip that culminated in a joyous reunion with his mother and brothers.

Now in his late 20's, Mou hopes to return to Sudan permanently once his education is complete, and has been heavily involved in efforts to bring relief to his long suffering people as a board member of the Sudan Development Foundation (SUDEF), an organization founded in 2009 by Abraham Awolich that works to break the cycle of poverty in southern Sudan and make the region self sufficient by raising funds for clinics, microfinancing, and sustainable development.

Mou also helped make Sudanese history last month by helping southern Sudanese refugees living in the Northeast register to vote on a referendum to separate from the rest of the country and form an independent government.

Voicing his hope that more people will step up and help SUDEF in its efforts to re-build and re-invigorate southern Sudan — "it can only go far if all of us chip in," he said — Mou challenged the students at Holderness Central to make a difference in their own way by joining the Peace Corps or other relief organizations once they finish their education.

"It's a good way to gain some experience and a different perspective," he said.

The students who heard Mou's story said his presentation brought the impact of the Sudanese war home to them in a way that no textbook could have.

Aurora Desmarais said that after hearing stories about Sudan and reading about what an emotional experience it was for so many, she found it interesting to hear that Mou "had a different side of the story" — that for him, it was purely a matter of survival, and that he never really had a chance to get emotional about what happened to him.

Hearing from someone who lived through the events in Sudan "really hits on a deeper level," said Jake Rossner.

Hearing Mou's story, he said, made him realize that "people can actually do something to help."

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