Lam, a well-dressed man with an infectious smile and fuller frame than his lanky countrymen, himself came to America in 1995 from Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya—one of a generation that grew up with war and who became known as the “Lost Boys”. A U.S.-sponsored program helped relocate these youth, who were caught in the crossfire of the Second Sudanese Civil War, an accumulation of decades of grievances lodged against the north by an oppressed south.
For almost two centuries, an Arab-Muslim northern Sudan, benefactors of the British occupation that lasted until 1956, held dominion over the predominately black-Christian south. Rather than incorporating the south into the fabric of Sudan, a succession of dictators in Khartoum enslaved southerners and suppressed civil rights and economic development. A series of isolated conflicts between the north and rebel groups in the south beginning in 1955 had by 1983 culminated in a full-fledged civil war and uniform rebel movement: the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army (SPLA).
Communities faced not just massacres carried out by mercenary Baggara Arabs from the north, but also from SPLA troops settling ethnic scores. Children were forced to flee from their homes and roam the bush of Sudan in groups of hundreds as they made their way to the sanctuary of refugee camps in Ethiopia and Kenya. American religious organizations, citing reports coming out of these camps, pushed to have the children—the “Lost Boys”— brought to the U.S. Their stories of escaping death at every corner from lions to militias on horseback became mythologized in 1990s pop culture.
Lam grew up in the U.S. and studied computer science at Lipscomb University, in Nashville, Tennessee. In 2005, he returned to the soon to be independent nation of South Sudan, along with thousands of others in the Sudanese diaspora. After half a century of constant war, punctuated with tenuous ceasefires, Sudan had finally reached an agreement with the south. The U.S.-backed 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) not only ended the war, but also paved the way for South Sudanese statehood. Fifty years of rebel fighting culminated in the realization of independence, and prospects for stability were stronger than ever before.
But when a political dispute between President Salva Kiir, a Dinka, and Vice-President Riek Machar, a Nuer, escalated into all-out ethnic warfare with Dinka government forces targeting and killing ethnic Nuer civilians in December 2013, Lam was forced into exile in Nairobi. Since then he has represented Riek’s rebel forces in negotiations with regional diplomats. And with the August 2015 peace talks in Addis Ababa fast approaching, Lam and his colleagues are busier than ever. The international community has grown weary of short-lived ceasefires and has set an August 17 deadline, with an inked agreement, the first of its kind, drafted by the mediating board to be the center of debate.
Gideon Thoar, ROSS’s director, emerges from the other side of the space, which doubles as his personal office and conference room. Thoar clears his staff from the area and sets about reciting his story. His tailored suit and Nuer facial scarring, now a painted target for government forces, lend him a distinct gravitas only a man with his past could command.