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Taban smiles!

Nine former Sudanese child soldiers have found a temporary home on the farm of the Kenyan running legend, Kip Keino

2004-02-05

by Robert Hartmann

Eldoret, Kenya. They are nine children and youth between the ages of 10 and 19. Their homeland is the south of the Sudan, where, following a civil war between the Arab north and the primarily Christian south, which broke out in 1983, recent peace talks have led to a so-far happy end, albeit fragile. There has been a truce since September, and these young people also hope anxiously for a good future in the end. They hope to finally be able to return to their parents and siblings. “My mother is dead, but my father is alive,“ said the 16-year-old Abdul, who is considered to be intellectually brilliant. He has not seen his village for seven years. Seven of them were child soldiers for longer than a third of their lives. They were between nine and eleven when they picked up their weapons. At the beginning it was like an adventure playground. "But then you go into your first battle, and next to you your friend dies.“ When the topic comes up he often just says, “It was tough. Too tough.“

For the past eight months, the little group has been living on the Kazi-Mingi-Farm ("Much Work") of the Kenyan running legend Kipchoge Keino (Gold medalist 1500 m Mexico City 1968) in the northwest of the East African country. Under the direction of UNESCO, 3000 Sudanese child soldiers were taken to safe camps and later out of the country, and Keino did not say no when they asked if he had a place for them to stay. He gave them a roof over their heads, he gave them clothing, fed them and sent them to a primary school. The now call him "Daddy". He is their new father. “For them, it is a paradise here,“ he says. But he spoke the sentence so that one could well hear his inner reserve. For there is no Garden of Eve, not even here, where 150 cows give more milk than the nine from the neighbouring country ever dreamed of. The last milk they had received in the war zone was from their mothers. Their daily fare was lumpy cornmeal and beans, with water. It must seem for them like they were catapulted from the Stone Ages in to the 21st century.

The world athletics organisation, IAAF, has set up a permanent high-altitude training camp for young runners on Keinos farm. Africas extremes have been brought together here through the munificence of the 67 year-old Keino, who is also a member of the International Olympic Committee since 2000. That was demonstrated one morning when Abdul suddenly arrived in an “official“ Sudanese tracksuit. “Official“ means from the north, which is in power. The national outfit is a present from Abduls three-year older countryman, Ahmed Ismael, a young Moslem. There are good chances that he will someday be world champion in the 800m, so great is his running talent. He is living on the Kazi-Mingi-Farm in preparation for the Olympic Games in Athens. Ismael and the nine have become close friends here on neutral ground. “He gave us t-shirts, running shoes, and even a camera.“ The Kataris are already after Ismael with their Pedro-dollars. All he would have to do is change nationalities, and he could quickly become a wealthy man. But he still says, “ I do not want to.“

It is said that the cradle of humanity lies only a few hundred kilometres to the north, at Lake Turkana. It is a freak of human nature that the most talented runners come from this area of the world. Four of the Sudanese youth have caught the fever from their peers, the talented runners from Kenya, Uganda and Eritrea, who live in the new IAAF hostel just 300 meters away and already realise that they are stand out from the rest. But the Sudanese youth run the ca. 8 kilometres from the farm to the doors of the city Eldoret and back almost daily, just for themselves. They have neither ordinary watches nor stopwatches. The farm workers say that the quartet returns every time totally exhausted, gasping for air on the lawn. The oldest one is Jacob. "No," he answers the question if he knows how long the course is. We give him a stopwatch, they all clap, and two days later they know that they ran 70 minutes. “We wish,“ Jacob says, “we had some instructions for our training.“ So far they have set the basis, albeit somewhat monotone, but have done nothing wrong.

There are no social workers looking after them--that would be a luxury. The young American couple who were involved in the child soldier programme of the UNESCO and who were responsible for moving the nine to Eldoret stopped by for a week. They reported that the boys would not let anyone touch them for a week. Strangers were enemies. But at some point the American made a great discovery and yelled over to his wife:

"Taban smiles".

The most recent school reports for the young Sudanese, says Keino, were “shockingly good.“ Their local schoolmates are 10 and 11 years old. The nine have learned English and Swahili, the East African trade language, very quickly. The American couple said that the nine had one great wish: education, learning, school. In their homeland, for the past 20 years, the greatest education that 300,000 youth received was third grade.

We are sitting on a turned over log in the middle of the best climate in the world, 2100 meters above sea level, and at the end of the conversation, and nostalgic Abdul says simply, “Thank you for the conversation.“

He has already come a long way.


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