To John Bul Dau, the story is all too familiar.
South Sudan is now teetering on the edge of civil war following several weeks of violence that have claimed the lives of at least a thousand people and forced another 200,000 to flee their homes.
This time, though, Dau is no longer a 12-year-old Lost Boy, the name given to the 27,000 young men forced from their villages when the northern Arab government attacked the ethnic minority population more than 20 years ago. At the time, South Sudan and Sudan were one country in the midst of a long and deadly civil war between the Arab north and the Christian south. In 2011, South Sudan became its own country. (Read "Sudan's Shaky Peace" in National Geographic magazine.)
Now a human rights activist and National Geographic explorer living in the United States, Dau knows firsthand the outcome of war—and believes that this one can be halted if other governments take bold steps.
The recent unrest occurred when South Sudanese President Salva Kiir accused former vice president Riek Machar of mounting a coup—a situation worsened by the fact the men are members of different ethnic minorities.
Rebels loyal to Machar have since been fighting against Kiir's government troops. The two sides met for talks for the first time on January 7 in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, but are still at a stalemate.
We talked to Dau—who is also president of both the John Dau Foundation and the South Sudan Institute—about his thoughts on the new conflict and how the violence has affected his work in his home country. (See pictures of South Sudan.)
What's the situation on the ground right now in South Sudan?
I've been following it every hour and staying in contact with people in Juba, the capital; my relatives and friends; and also [staff] in the Duk Lost Boys Medical Clinic. We have almost all of our staff out there, and we stay in contact with them every day. As we speak, it's still very terrible. But the area of Duk where the clinic is has been relatively peaceful.
Can you give me some background on your clinic?
When I came to the U.S. 12 years ago, I thought, I am so blessed to be in this country where people are generous. I thought it would be a good idea to give back to the Americans. The way to give back was to do something for people in South Sudan, so I came up with the idea of building a medical clinic. People in the U.S. responded positively, fund-raising started, and we started seeing people in 2007. We have treated over 111,000 people for almost everything you can think of, from eye diseases to malaria to HIV/AIDS to pneumonia to diarrhea. We have treated 600 people who were blind from cataracts and glaucoma and now can see again. It's what I call the big heart of America.
How has the recent violence and unrest in South Sudan affected you?
It has affected us so much because there are no supplies coming to the clinic, no food—it's very difficult to bring medicine because nobody can fly to the area of the clinic. Although it's relatively peaceful on the ground, the government has restricted any planes going into the area, and a state of emergency has been declared. If the war continues to go on for another two or three weeks, it's going to be very tough for us—we are running out of medicine and food.
What are you and your organization doing to help the situation in South Sudan?
We are helping internally displaced persons—not only treating them but giving them some support. We give the message loud and clear, the clinic belongs to all of you—we want to bring unity through the clinic. When you bring people together to eat and share something, they become friends—they become brothers and sisters. That's what we're trying to do: bring peace through medical services. We also need resources so we can donate food to people affected by this war. The clinic has been an icon for peace.
What needs to happen before South Sudan can be peaceful again?
These leaders should realize that killing of people will not automatically bring them to power—they are only worsening [the situation]. What needs to happen is the realization that people are people, they have parents, they have relatives. I've been calling on the U.S., the UN, the European Union, Canada, and other countries bordering South Sudan to intervene in the war, to stop it. If we can remove from power these two leaders who are fighting, I think South Sudan will be better. The only way for South Sudan to be peaceful, to be united, to be one nation, is the elimination of these leaders from power. It's a very difficult thing to say, but I have to say what I think is right.
What do you mean by elimination?
Pushing the leaders out of those positions—for example, by voting them out of office. Another way is to get the international community involved to stop them.
Does this bring back memories of your experience as a Lost Boy?
Absolutely. When I see this senseless killing, it brings back vividly what happened when I was 12 years old when my village was attacked. I thought I was going to be on my way to a complete healing, and that's how South Sudanese feel. Now those scars and wounds were again reopened.
Are you planning on going back?
I was supposed to leave for South Sudan on the 28th of December with 16 doctors, but we canceled it because I don't want to bring my good friends into harm's way. Hopefully we are going to go back soon after this terrible thing has stopped.
Do you still have family in South Sudan?
My dad and mom and brothers are in South Sudan. They are safe for now. They take it day by day. I hope it will stay that way.
What should our readers know about the situation?
Go out and read from many publications and listen to many interviews and make your own judgment. This war has no meaning to it. It's not a war about religion: 98 percent of South Sudanese are Christian. It's not about race—all people in South Sudan are African. South Sudan fought together against the oppressions by the north [Sudan], and now they are splitting themselves and fighting against each other—there's no sense and reason to fight. Your readers have to understand there's no convincing issue that people should fight over. It's a war of greed, of personal insult, and it's a war that could be stopped.
This interview has been edited and condensed.