Lopez Lomong competes in the men’s 5,000 meter final in London on August 11th. So…what’s the big deal? Although he’ll be wearing a U.S. singlet and competing for the country he has lived in since age 16, the South Sudan native’s life could have taken an entirely different course — one including a rather violent and premature ending.
Lomong, who grew up in a rural Sudanese village, was 6 years old when a group of soldiers stormed a church service he was attending with his family and snatched him away to become a child soldier. He recently related his story to World Vision Ireland:
All around me, other soldiers herded boys and girls and teenagers toward the trucks while yelling for everyone to speed up.
I turned around. My mother and father were off of the ground, chasing after me. Tears ran down their faces. They were not alone. All across our church, parents chased their children, weeping and wailing.
“Please do not take our children,” they begged.
One especially giant soldier swung back around toward our crying parents. He waved his gun in the air and screamed, “One more step closer and we will open fire!”
According to a report in CNN’s African Voices, Lomong was then transferred to a prison where he began military training alongside other children, many of whom he would later watch die. He and three other “trainees” eventually managed to escape through a hole in a fence, make the three day journey to Kenya (he was 6!), and seek shelter in a refugee camp. After 10 years in Kenya, Lomong was adopted by an American family as part of a “Lost Boy” resettlement program and began a new life in upstate New York, where he took up running. He became a U.S. citizen in 2007, and so far has two Olympic games under his belt — he even had the honor of carrying the U.S. flag in the 2008 opening ceremonies in Beijing.
Pretty surreal. Unfortunately, there are thousands of South Sudanese children still waiting for their own storybook ending.
According to South Africa’s News24, the UN officially named the Sudan People’s Liberation Army, the principal military in what is now South Sudan, a blacklisted military in 2003 in order to discourage them from “recruiting” (abducting) child soldiers. Although the SPLA has subsequently freed 3,000 child soldiers since 2005, an estimated 2,000 children still remain among the ranks of the various militias that it has formally absorbed. Perhaps a good start at reducing the prevalence of child soldiers, but even those freed from military service still face a rather problematic future.
As the International Press Service points out, it’s one thing to release child soldiers, and another thing entirely to rehabilitate them. They must be issued new clothing to help them leave their military identity behind. They have to participate in therapy sessions. They face uncertain reunions with their families. Perhaps most importantly, they have to find some sort of reason to leave the army behind for good. Aside from those abducted as children, many young men turn to the military as the only way to provide for themselves and their families in isolated rural communities that don’t present many other viable options.
Enter Lopez Lomong, whose success as an Olympic athlete hasn’t made him forget his homeland or the thousands of boys ages 12-18 who still face a reality very different from his own rather miraculous one. He has consequently established the Lopez Lomong Foundation, which includes a 4 South Sudan initiative that focuses on improving access to water, healthcare and nutrition for residents of South Sudan. Lomong’s foundation and organizations like UNICEF are also working to provide access to education and job training so that former boy soldiers have a fair chance at starting a new life and don’t return to the military out of financial desperation. As Lomong told CNN:
We need to be able to go back and give these people education, clean water, nutrition, medicine…To live, to see another day, to think there is someone out there in the world caring for them so they can be able to pursue their dream.
With luck, maybe one of the young men affected by Lomong’s efforts will also have the opportunity to be a flag bearer in an Olympic opening ceremony — this time, hopefully, for South Sudan.
Here’s to Lopez Lomong’s work in South Sudan! Good luck in London!
Photo Credit: familymwr via Flickr