Below are some articles I've written that I hope you enjoy.
Here’s a story that I enjoyed doing about one of the legends of Appalachian mountain music.
So long, hard times
- © copyright -
Saturday, June 22, 2002
By Robert Remington
High in the remote hills of Appalachia, near Coeburn, Virginia, one of the hottest musical acts in America is playing to an adoring crowd at the homestead on which he was raised, not far from the family graveyard where he will one day be buried, in an above-ground crypt with a banjo carved into his headstone.
With a haunting voice, Ralph Stanley steps up to a microphone and sings O Death, the unearthly a capella song on the soundtrack to the movie O Brother, Where Art Thou? that, earlier this year, won him a Grammy Award at the age of 75:
“Well, what is this that I can’t see / with ice cold hands takin’ hold of me? / Well, I am death, none can excel / I’ll open the door to heaven or hell.”
His chilling rendition of this old-time mountain song, in which a dying man pleads with death to “spare me over to another year,” hushes the crowd, which is mesmerized by Stanley’s voice. It is a voice once described by the bluegrass artist Ricky Skaggs as epitomizing “the lonesomeness, the hardness, the poverty and the faith of Appalachia,” and it has earned Stanley accolades as the personification of a vanishing sound that was the foundation of country music.
Afterward, Stanley walks to a chair in the corner of the stage with a slight limp, the result of a broken leg from falling off the back of truck a decade ago. The crowd cheers, unconcerned that Stanley has read the lyrics from a sheet of paper to assist his ageing memory. To them, the fact that a hobbling, and occasionally forgetful, old man is enjoying this much success late in life is sweet justice.
In the mid ’50s, the careers of traditional artists like Stanley were almost killed by rock ‘n’ roll. Many packed up their banjos and mandolins and sought regular employment. Stanley and other traditionalists such as Bill Monroe stuck it out, always in the shadow of the younger, slicker country artists of the Nashville music establishment.
Stanley became an icon in the niche market of bluegrass and a hero among musicians, one of the last authentic figures of traditional American country music. Bob Dylan professed that performing with Stanley on the 1997 album Clinch Mountain Country, Ralph Stanley & Friends was “the highlight of my life.” The country singer Hal Ketchum, in the liner notes to the same album, says, “Singing with Ralph Stanley is like painting with Picasso.”
But Stanley remained mostly unknown to a broad audience until the release of O Brother, starring George Clooney, John Turturro and Tim Blake Nelson as three escapees from a chain gang posing as a group of backwoods musicians called the Soggy Bottom Boys. With little mainstream radio airplay, the O Brother soundtrack has sold almost six million copies and spawned the “Down From the Mountain” tour, which played to sellout crowds earlier this year and hits the road for a second leg of 41 shows beginning June 25 in Louisville, Kentucky.
The concert, which arrives in Toronto on July 3 and in Ottawa on July 5, features performances of songs from, but not limited to, the soundtrack. The lineup includes some of the top names in country and bluegrass, including Skaggs, The Del McCoury Band, Alison Krauss, Emmylou Harris, Patty Loveless, The Whites and The Nashville Bluegrass Band.
Of course, Stanley’s rendition of “O Death” is the showstopper. A man whose struggles in the largely unlucrative world of bluegrass once inspired him to write a banjo instrumental titled “Hard Times,” Stanley is thrilled that the music he loves is now getting wider exposure.
“The hard times, that was back in the Fifties, about the time Elvis Presley came along. It was hard times for people like me and Carter [his late brother] and all ‘old time’ or country music. It just about put us all out of business,” Stanley says in an interview. And then he cracks a smile.
“It just about took over — just like this old-time music is doing right now. O Brother, Where Art Thou? has done more for this old-time music than anything that could have happened.”
- – -
On this spring evening in Virginia, Stanley, backed by his Clinch Mountain Boys, performs for about an hour before ambling over to a table to sign autographs and meet his fans, who call him “Dr. Ralph.” (An honorary doctorate in music was bestowed on him by a Tennessee college in 1976.) They have trekked 16 kilometres from Coeburn, a small coal-mining centre, up the Dr. Ralph Stanley Highway — a narrow, winding road that passes by his house — for Dr. Ralph Stanley‘s Annual Memorial Bluegrass Festival, launched 32 years ago to honour the memory of his brother and musical partner, Carter Stanley, who drank himself to death in 1966, at the age of 41, after being diagnosed with cancer.
“I guess I’d say we’ve recorded more than any two or three groups,” says Stanley, sitting in the trailer that serves as his dressing room at the Hills of Home Park, the site near the graveyard where the festival is held each year on the U.S. Memorial Day weekend. Famous for songs such as “The Lonesome River,” “Rank Strangers,” “Angel Band,” and “The Darkest Hour is Just Before Dawn,” Stanley has recorded more than 170 albums in his career, which began in 1946, when he and Carter began singing on a radio station in nearby Bristol, Va. “Carter was the best singer I ever sung with. Him and me together made it just fine. I’ve had a lot of good singers, but he was the head of the stream.”
Although Carter was the main songwriter and lead singer, it’s Ralph’s raw tenor — a voice that sounded like that of an old man, even when he was young — that gave the Stanley Brothers their distinctive sound. But deferring to his deceased brother is typical of Ralph Stanley, a shy man who, over the years, has disappointed dozens of interviewers with less-than loquacious responses to their questions.
He values the respect of his peers, especially the young musicians he’s worked with in recent years, such as Dylan. “I appreciate the words that they said more than you’ll ever know,” says Stanley. “They all done wonderful singing with me and I wouldn’t trade it for nothing.” But he demurs on the subject of his own talent. “It’s a voice that the man up above gave me,” he says. “He gave me my voice. He gave me my everything and without Him I would be nothing.”
There is a distinct lament to Stanley’s voice, as there is in the voices of many singers from the hills of southwestern Virginia. “It’s mountain music at its purest,” says George Shuffler, who helped develop the Stanley Brothers sound by performing with them for years. “They sing their feelings, their hopes, their tragedies, their romances, the whole nine yards.”
Much of the music revolves around the themes of family, Jesus, drinking and murder, subjects Ralph Stanley knows well. He was born in Dickenson County, a few kilometres from where he lives today, in a lumber and coal-mining area where a labyrinth of ridges and valleys and jungle-thick woods once made a perfect hideout for moonshiners.
“Around here, a man works on a farm, or it’s timber and coal mining and that’s about it,” says Jim Brewer, a truck driver and musician from the nearby hills of eastern Kentucky who has been a fan of the Stanley Brothers since he was a teenager. “My own father, talk about an old mountain man. He pulled his own teeth, never took so much as an Aspirin all his life. That’s the way it is with folks around here. They are a tough, proud people.”
In the Depression, poverty and isolation often led to tragedy. “There’s always been a lot of murder and a lot of heartache,” Stanley is quoted as saying in the book In the Country of Country: A Journey to the Roots of American Music by Nicholas Dawidoff.
Stanley has had more than his share of both. In the early ’70s, several years after Carter’s death, Ralph Stanley found Roy Lee Centers, a singer he considered close to being his brother’s equal. One night after a festival near Jackson, Centers went to a party and got a ride home from a drunk he’d been in an argument with. The man reportedly drove Centers up a back road, told him, “I’m going to silence that beautiful voice forever,” and shot him in the mouth, killing the 29-year-old singer in front of Centers’s 10-year-old son.
“That was another shock for me. He was the closet thing to Carter I ever had,” says Stanley, himself never much of a drinker.
But, if liquor and killing abounded in the hills where he grew up, so did religion. More than a half-dozen Baptist churches can be found along the road from Coeburn to Stanley’s house, many of them from stricter sects. Stanley was raised in the Primitive Baptist church, but only baptized two years ago, when a premonition moved him to seek redemption.
“I dreamed one night I was out walking and met a preacher,” he told his fan club’s newsletter editor, Jeffrey Fox. “I didn’t know his name. He reached down and shook hands, gave me a cold handshake. I went on a little further and met another preacher. His name was Landon Colley. He’s the one who preached at my mother’s funeral and at Carter’s funeral. That stayed with me, a vision, you know. I couldn’t sleep, it hit me so hard.”
At 4:30 a.m. he phoned a local minister and was baptized that afternoon in the nearby Clinch River, becoming a member of the Slate Creek Primitive Baptist Church of Buchanan County, Va., which, incidentally, allows no musical instruments inside for accompaniment.
Religion is such a powerful force in the area that festivals typically run Thursday night through Saturday, even when there is a Monday holiday, as with Stanley’s Memorial Day weekend gathering. Sunday performances, even of gospel music, are taboo.
“That would be singing for money,” says Brewer. “It’s just not done.”
Brewer hails from a multi-generation musical family — his father sang with the Carter Family in the 1920s. He occasionally sings with his son Gary, a popular bluegrass performer who’s among a dozen acts hired to play at Stanley’s festival. The weekend bill consists of strict bluegrass traditionalists, including Jimmy Martin, Melvin Goins, Karl Shifflet, Charlie Waller and Larry Sparks. The only relative newcomer invited by Stanley is Gillian Welch, the Los Angeles-raised singer-songwriter whose material sounds straight out of the repertoire of the Carter Family.
“I’m a traditionalist myself,” says Stanley. “They call [my music] bluegrass, but they call a lot of stuff bluegrass and I don’t know what it is. That’s why I quit calling my music bluegrass. I call my music old-time country music.”
“Ralph Stanley is the only authentic mountain singer we’ve got left around here,” says Larry Cordle, a Nashville-based singer-songwriter who wrote Murder on Music Row, the 2001 Country Music Association Song of the Year that laments how Nashville record executives killed traditional country music with pop influences. “I’d rather hear him clear his throat than listen to a lot of other people sing.”
- – -
After the show, a large group of fans walk over to the little cemetery where Carter Stanley is buried, passing through a gate over which is written, “Let Me Rest on a Peaceful Mountain.” The Stanley Brothers’ music emanates softly from a speaker at the gravesites.
The graveyard is located on the highest point of Smith Ridge, named for their grandfather. Carter and Ralph Stanley were raised on this land by their banjo-playing mother and a father, also a singer, who scratched out a living by operating a portable sawmill and raising corn and tobacco before leaving the family when Ralph was 13. It was his father who passed on to him traditional Appalachian mountain songs such as “A Man of Constant Sorrow.” “I don’t know who wrote it, but my daddy was the first one I ever heard sing it. I hear there’s a lot of claims on it now,” Stanley said of the song, which recurs throughout the O Brother soundtrack.
Next to Carter’s grave is the plot Ralph has picked out for himself. Also chiselled into the above-ground vaults where the brothers will rest side by side are doves, a reference to “The White Dove.” It is one of a host of Stanley Brothers songs written between 1946 and Carter’s death in 1966 that stand as classics of American traditional music.
Still performing 150 days a year, Stanley says
he has no plans for retirement, as long as he gets “spared over to
another year.” “I haven’t set a time. It’s just according to my health
and so forth. When I get to thinking I can’t do my job well, I’m ready
to go home.”
Written from northern Uganda early in 2008. Thanks to my driver and translator, Dusman Okee, whose local knowledge was invaluable.
Uganda’s road to recovery long and bumpy
- © copyright -
Friday, February 1, 2008
By Robert Remington
On April 20, 1995, the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) entered the trading centre of Atiak and, after an intense offensive, defeated the Ugandan army stationed there.
Hundreds of men, women, students and young children were then rounded up by the LRA and marched a short distance into the bush until they reached a river. There, they were separated into two groups according to their age and sex. After being lectured for their alleged collaboration with the government, the LRA commander in charge ordered his soldiers to open fire three times on a group of about 300 civilian men and boys as women and young children witnessed the horror.
The LRA commander then turned to the women and children and told them to applaud the LRA’s work. Before leaving, youth were selectively rounded up and forced to join the LRA to serve as the next generation of combatants and sexual slaves.
- From field note No. 4 of the Justice and Reconciliation Project compiled by the Gulu NGO Forum, April 2007
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There have been no major attacks by the Lord’s Resistance Army in northern Uganda for 18 months. Yet, the war is not over for many of the 1.5 million displaced people who suffered a 21-year reign of terror by the brutal LRA leader, Joseph Kony.
They continue to huddle in refugee camps like Palenga, on the outskirts of this commercial centre of 80,000 people 100 kilometres from the Sudan border, fearful of returning to their villages. With the capacity of the local government in tatters, reconstruction efforts have fallen to relief agencies. Among them are Calgary-based groups like CAWST and Ssubi, just two of the 150 registered non-government organizations (NGOs) from around the world that are operating in Gulu.
Although life appears to be returning to normal in this bustling commercial centre, aid workers and local leaders say it will take several generations for the scars of war to heal.
The scars are deepest for those who were the most vulnerable. In any conflict, it is the children who suffer the most. And for the past two decades, Gulu may have been the toughest place in the world to be a child.
“We have a saying. You can take a child out of a war, but how do you take the war out of a child?” says Frank Velthuizen of War Child Holland, which uses music, drama and play to help war-affected children adjust to normal life.
Many of the children here have forgotten how to play. Abducted and forced to become rebel child soldiers and sexual slaves for LRA commanders, hundreds have grown up in the bush. Thousands more who were forced to flee their homes to escape the conflict have known no life other than the grim hardship of refugee camps.
One toddler at SOS Children’s Village, a local care centre, breaks into tears as I gently approach with a camera. He is the offspring of a rebel soldier and a young woman who escaped the Atiak massacre as a child.
Throughout the displaced persons camps and aid centres, the reaction of most children is quite the opposite. They swarm around the visiting mizungo, or white-skinned person, and happily mug for the camera. They are impish and point and giggle. Considering what they have been through, it is amazing they can laugh at all.
At Palenga camp, which houses 19,000 displaced persons 30 kilometres south of Gulu, head teacher Angie Openie runs a school built by Ssubi, a small Calgary foundation. She tells of one student, a 15-year-old boy named Olam, whose parents were killed in the conflict. He is now the head of a family of younger brothers and sisters and by necessity dropped out of school.
“He told me, ‘If I study, we will starve to death,’ ” says Openie. “There are many child-headed families in the camp, beginning from as young as 12, even nine. Many drop out of school. It is really tough for a child to look after a family and go to school. They are afraid to return to the villages. They think the war will come again.”
Like his cousin Alice Auma Lakwena, a self-professed spirit medium who formed an anti-government movement called the Holy Spirit Mobile Forces in the 1980s, Joseph Kony felt he, too, had divine spirits calling on him to overthrow the government. Believing he was ordered by God through the Holy Spirit to rule Uganda by his interpretation of the Ten Commandments, Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army, formed in 1987, became merciless in its bloodletting.
An estimated 25,000 male children were abducted and forced to serve as his soldiers, many of whom were made to return to their villages and kill their parents and relatives. At least 7,000 young girls were also abducted and forced to become “wives” of Lord’s Resistance Army commanders, according to UNICEF.
It is believed 80 per cent of Kony’s army were children. Many grew up in LRA camps in the bush, living there for 10 years or more. They, in turn, fathered or gave birth to more children in remote army camps, who ended up being abandoned or orphaned as their fathers were killed or their mothers died of AIDS.
Kony’s men abducted most of their child recruits at night, forcing fearful children to leave their villages and walk at night to the safety of bigger towns like Gulu to sleep. In 2003, with a dwindling supply of potential child soldiers in small villages, LRA rebels came into a Gulu school and brazenly abducted a group of children at 9 a.m. Other children were abducted at night from boarding schools.
Today, with a ceasefire in place, former child soldiers and child wives have returned home. Traumatized and incapable of reintegrating into normal schools, about 680 attend the Laroo Boarding Primary School for War Affected Children in Gulu, opened in 2006.
“When they arrived, they were very fearful. Most of them would not even want to be in school because they know that is where they were abducted,” says Rev. Ocheng Vincent Ocen, the director of the Gulu school district, whose uncle has a carpet and flooring business in Calgary.
In Palenga camp, where most of the population are children, 120 youngsters attend the one-room school opened in August through the financing and sweat of Ssubi, which means “hope” in the local language. Founded by Calgary’s Ellie Siebens with Ugandan-Calgarian Philip Ndugga and his wife, Tracy, Ssubi also provides small micro-finance loans enabling local women to start businesses and sponsors’ children to attend school.
“Ellie has a mother’s heart. She comes here and sees the children and she cries,” says Dusman Okee, Ssubi’s field director in Uganda.
Spurred by the plight of Gulu’s children, Siebens felt compelled to help.
“I have everything I need and they have nothing,” Siebens says. “People in Calgary ask me why I don’t buy a better car. I don’t need another car.”
The Ssubi Foundation built the school at Palenga camp in one month, unheard of in a region where some NGOs run around in white Land Rovers looking busy, but achieve little in tangible results.
It’s an issue that bothers Norbert Mao, a former Ugandan MP and chairman of the Gulu district council.
“Some NGOs, they are just following the money. They are like scavengers. When they hear that a country has announced aid to northern Uganda, they use their leverage power and lobbying capacity to feast on the money. When the money is over, they disappear.
“They are used to distributing food to displaced people. They are used to distributing tarpaulins to shelter people from the rain. Now, all of a sudden, we have the need to renovate schools. We have the need to renovate health centres. Some of the relief organizations are not equipped to do that. The reconstruction NGOs are still welcome. The relief NGOs, I don’t think we need them in large numbers.”
Mao, an aspiring Ugandan presidential hopeful for the opposition Democratic Party, is one of the few Ugandan leaders who has the ear of Kony, who is in hiding in neighbouring Congo.
“I wouldn’t say he trusts me, but he phones me often,” says Mao, who last heard from Kony on Dec. 29.
The Ugandan government had threatened to hunt down Kony at his hideout in eastern Congo by Thursday unless he comes back to the negotiating table at peace talks in Juba, the capital of south Sudan. The peace talks have been stalled for six months.
According to Mao, Kony fears an international force will be dispatched to root him and his 200 core supporters out of his camp in Congo.
“He said he fears the British and the Americans want to declare war on him. He also says he doesn’t want to be hanged like Saddam Hussein.”
In 2005, the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant against Kony for crimes against humanity, including sexual enslavement, rape, mutilation and abduction of girls. Others in his command were also indicted, including Kony’s second-in-command, Vincent Otti, who led the massacre at Atiak, launched to punish the locals for not supporting the Lord’s Resistance Army.
Kony had Otti killed in October and reportedly refused to allow his body to be buried for three days. Otti was the main LRA backer of the peace talks.
Mao says there is a desire in northern Uganda to deal with Kony locally, which is in part the reason for the stalled Juba talks.
“We really don’t see any role for the ICC, except an advisory role,” say Mao. “We really think that those who have been silent and ignored our suffering for so long have no right to come and lecture us now on justice.”
He believes Kony and other senior LRA commanders should face a Ugandan tribunal and should also be made to face the traditional justice of the Acholi people to whom Kony belongs.
Traditional Acholi justice includes a form of apology and reconciliation known as “mato oput,” where the perpetrator takes responsibility for his crimes. Mato oput is a type of confession ceremony that includes the guilty person breaking eggs with his feet as part of a cleansing ritual.
Mato oput is occurring throughout Acholi lands in northern Uganda as former child soldiers return home. Most have been forgiven for their actions because they were taken away at gunpoint and threatened with death if they did not join the LRA.
“They are accepted because it is not their fault that they should be abducted. Their life is distorted. Most of them are not happy people,” says Openie.
Mao says the biggest challenge facing northern Uganda is getting people to leave camps like Palenga and return home.
“The majority are still very anxious. Many of them feel the war may restart, especially since there is no signature in Juba.”
In the Gulu region, Mao estimates that 65,000 of 350,000 displaced persons have returned home. The demobilization of former combatants also remains a huge issue in Gulu, where poverty and the proliferation of guns force many ex-rebels to form roving bands of thugs.
“These are men who don’t have the skills for peace,” says Mao. “They have the skills for conflict. Many of these ex-combatants became soldiers at the age of nine. They grew up to be almost 30. The only thing they know is how to rob and steal and kill. So, the period of adjustment needs to be given time. It will take time for them to realize that a normal society has no use for their kinds of lawless skills.”
Grace Aciro, Mao’s assistant, tells of one former child soldier who came to Mao’s office looking for help. The rebel soldier met his wife in the bush, where they had four children. Now back home, jobless and evicted by his landlord for defaulting on his rent, he’s looking for someone to sponsor his children so they can go to school. Aciro hopes Ssubi or some organization will help.
“He was so desperate. It really affected me,” says Aciro. “He wants his children to go to school. Himself, he knows his life is over. He has no future. He has lost hope.”
The situation is perhaps even more grim for girls who were abducted as sex slaves for LRA rebels or raped by members of the Ugandan army.
War Child Canada, part of the international War Child network, is working in Gulu to help formerly abducted girls get legal redress against their captors. Local police, plagued by inadequate resources and high fuel costs, often ask for payment to investigate rape and abduction cases. The girls or their families are also asked to pay for medical exams they cannot afford.
Cases are usually resolved by compensation rather than incarceration. Amnesty International documented one case where the uncle of a girl accepted $30 from her abuser.
According to Amnesty International, the Ugandan government “is failing in its international and domestic legal obligations relating to the protection of women and girls, and their right to access justice in northern Uganda.”
Ugandans are incredibly soft spoken, polite and friendly. In the nightmarish traffic of Kampala, the capital, there is no road rage. It is difficult to find a more benign people, or to imagine that their country, where some of the ashes of Mahatma Gandhi were spread at the source of the Nile River near Jinja, is capable of such brutality.
Yet, the main image of Uganda is one of Idi Amin, Joseph Kony, and repressive presidents like Milton Obote and Tito Okello, all of whom were northern Ugandans. This is especially troubling to Mao, a secretariat of the World Bank and a 2003 recipient of Yale University’s World Fellows program for emerging world leaders.
“I believe that my job is to represent the new face of northern Uganda,” he says, siting in his office in Gulu.
“The face of northern Uganda that most people have in mind is the face of Idi Amin, Obote, Tito Okello and so on. That is the face which the the majority of people in foreign countries have in their mind. They think nothing good can come out of northern Uganda. It is my intention to change that.”
Although my words will never capture her spirit, goodness and professionalism, I’d like to share some of the things I’ve written about my friend and colleague, Michelle Lang, who was killed by a roadside bomb in Afghanistan while on assignment for Canwest News Service on Dec. 30, 2009.
The following are in the order they appeared in the Calgary Herald.
- copyright - Calgary Herald
Thu Dec 31 2009
Whatever follows will not be good enough to honour the memory of Michelle Lang. I’ll try and get through it, somehow, because it is what we do.
I’ve cried Afghan tears before, at the funerals of fallen Calgary soldiers Capt. Nichola Goddard and Cpl. Nathan Hornburg, but it was never like this. Hell, I can barely see the keyboard through the tears.
There are many people in our newsroom who were closer to Michelle than I, but she was a confidante and valued colleague, and I loved her as friend and as the dedicated professional that she exemplified every day. I often told her she worked too hard. She retorted that she was too early in her career to be as lazy as me.
We shared desk space together — “podmates,” we would say — and it hurts so much to see the area next to me so empty now. On Michelle’s cluttered desk is a notepad, and among the scribbles is written “pastoral care — grief counselling,” probably for a story idea on a subject that many of us here seem so desperately in need of today.
As we got the horrible confirmation Wednesday from Lorne Motley, our editor-in-chief, stunned colleagues hugged and cried. We had heard the rumours earlier in the day, that Michelle had been killed by a roadside bomb en route to do a story on reconstruction efforts. She was outside the safe confines of Kandahar Airfield, and my first thought was that I wished it was me rather than her. All I ever wanted to be was a foreign correspondent. But Michelle was young, Afghanistan was a better “career move” for her, and off she went with commitment, although not without some trepidation.
We talked about it a bit, but not at length. Michelle told me that her mom was scared about her Afghanistan assignment. She also told me of the day not long ago when she filled out the Department of National Defence forms regarding next of kin, which made her feel nervous. I encouraged her, even envied her, but told her that if anything bad happened to her over there, I would be “very upset.”
Upset doesn’t begin to describe it. Like most everyone in our sad newsroom, I’m numb and haven’t stopped sobbing all day. I cannot grasp that Michelle, one of the nicest people I have ever known, is gone.
I’m thinking about some of the ski days we had and of the pub night we organized for her just before her departure for Afghanistan. The plan was to buy her a First World War army helmet at a military surplus store and have everybody sign it, but I never got around to it, so instead I bought her a plate of nachos. At least I got to say a feeble goodbye, and her last e-mail to me was a thank you for organizing the evening. I was going to send her an e-mail in Afghanistan the other day, but never got around to it, too stupidly caught up in my own little world.
One of the hardest things Wednesday was talking to my former colleague, Robin Summerfield, a talented, witty writer who was one of Michelle’s best buddies. Because it was mostly emotional blubber, I asked her to send me a few thoughts.
“I admired her tenacity and fearlessness as a reporter,” Robin wrote. “It was always a comfort seeing her across the newsroom, sitting at her desk, furiously working the phone. She could be tough, when she had to be. Her desk was messy, complete with her special filing system: a tower of papers, reports and press releases. Michelle said she knew exactly where everything was filed.”
Michelle e-mailed Robin on Christmas Eve, saying she had just reported on the death of Canadian soldier Lt. Andrew Nuttall of Victoria.
“So sad. Have to do the ramp ceremony today,” Michelle wrote. “I hope I don’t cry. Will be hard.”
Today, it is hard for us, Michelle. You won the highest accolade your profession can bestow, a National Newspaper Award for your coverage of health care. It was inevitable that it would come your way, and it hurts to wonder where you would have gone and the things you might have done. Your are remembered, loved, and will remain an inspiration in a newsroom where you are respected and adored.
- copyright - Calgary Herald
Sat Jan 9 2010
In what has been a very grim week in the newsroom, some of us managed our first real laugh the other day as we huddled around Michelle’s cubicle, which I shared with her for six years.
“For God’s sake, Lang, keep your crap on your side of the desk,” I muttered, looking at the touching collection of flowers that has overtaken the entire space. Those in earshot chuckled with glee. The grief counsellors tell us this is part of the healing process.
Michelle Lang was always apologizing for her clutter. Notebooks, papers, reports, newspapers, press releases, her water bottle, purse and the unending detritus that journalists hoard were forever creeping into my half of the pod. It was a bit like living with a big dog that jumps onto the bed at night, muscling out the humans for space.
It has now been nine days since we got the devastating news of Michelle’s death, killed by a roadside bomb in Afghanistan along with four Canadian soldiers on the outskirts of Kandahar. In that time, I’ve wondered about reader fatigue and if there is too much Michelle on our pages. My concern lasted about a minute.
Forgive us our public grief, but for those of us at this newspaper, there can never be too much Michelle. One of the principle elements of journalism is proximity of time and place. It is why we devote so much effort to stories like the seven Strathcona-Tweedsmuir students killed in an avalanche in 2003. The closer to home, the bigger the story, and Michelle is as close as it gets for us. She is family.
Another driving principle of journalism is that of historic firsts. Michelle, the first Canadian journalist killed in Afghanistan, has become to me much like Capt. Nichola Goddard of Calgary, who became Canada’s first female combat fatality when she was killed in Afghanistan in 2003. Both are sadly etched in history.
These are among the reasons why you will see the full-page memorial tribute in today’s paper, which is also running in every Canwest daily, and why there will be much more to come from her funeral next week in Vancouver and any planned memorial in Calgary.
The coverage of Michelle’s death also reminds us, and hopefully our readers, of all 138 Canadian soldiers killed in Afghanistan. Many of us here were eager to learn as much as we could of the young men who died with Michelle — Sgt. George Miok, 28, and Cpl. Zachery McCormack, 21, both of Edmonton; Sgt. Kirk Taylor, 28, of Yarmouth N.S.; and Pte. Garrett Chidley, 21, of Cambridge, Ont.
We grieved for them and their families, but it would be dishonest not to admit that we were overwhelmingly more consumed by the death of our beloved colleague, age 34, a talented, beautiful bride-to-be. We feel compelled to tell you about her professionalism, her goodness, her clutter, and of the many little things that people have done to help us through the darkness.
Earlier this week, four of Michelle’s closest colleagues were coming home from her repatriation ceremony in Trenton when a soldier overheard them talking and bought them a drink. He slipped away before they could thank him.
We could fill the paper telling you about similar expressions of support. It would be much more rewarding to us than writing about public policy issues, but the paper must go on. In the daily news business, it is not possible to shut down the paper to take time to grieve.
Our editor has told us repeatedly how proud he is that we have managed to type through the tears during this crisis. It is nice to be thought of this way, but what we do is hardly as noble as the work of soldiers who strap on body armour and patrol the same soil where their comrades have been killed.
Eventually, we will turn the page. For now, allow us our moment. On Monday, many of us will be in Vancouver for Michelle’s funeral. Tuesday’s paper will come out, as it always does. In other circumstances, Michelle would have been the one staying here late, making it so.
-copyright- The Calgary Herald
Tue Jan 12 2010
Three years before Michelle Lang was born, her parents travelled through Afghanistan, a place few westerners ventured or even knew existed, back in 1972.
Art and Sandra Lang had been in Europe, as was the ritual of so many young Canadians in those days, when, finding themselves in Turkey, they decided to keep going.
They took off in a VW bus and journeyed through Iran, into Afghanistan and through the Khyber Pass into Pakistan, destination India. It was a far less dangerous adventure than their daughter would embark upon 37 years later.
“You couldn’t do it today,” Art Lang said Sunday evening at the family home, which the Langs graciously opened to some of Michelle’s closest friends and colleagues from the Calgary Herald. Wine was poured, cheese was nibbled, hugs were given.
Journalists are supposed to be good with words, but it is difficult to know what to say in such a setting, and I never properly told Art and Sandra what an honour it was to finally meet the parents who had raised such a wonderful daughter.
On Monday, Art spoke publicly for the first time about Michelle — “our baby, our daughter, our shining star” — who was killed by an improvised explosive device along with four Canadian soldiers on the outskirts of Kandahar city on Dec. 30.
“Michelle was always interested in this country,” he said as a slide show played behind him of photos that he took nearly four decades ago. Among the pictures was one of a group of Afghan children — “just normal people enjoying themselves when tragedy after tragedy showed up and war followed war.”
Michelle Lang, the first Canadian journalist killed in Afghanistan, wanted so much to tell the story of the Afghan people that her parents encountered. Her death, which to most of us at the Calgary Herald still does not feel quite real, ended a brilliant and promising young career of a good person — “almost too sweet to be a reporter,” as one of her friends told the service.
“I hope for all of us that this is not a futile effort,” her father said. “Let us hope that there will be such an outcome. That would be a tribute to her and we will feel that her death and all the other deaths were not in vain.”
At the end of the service, the Langs chose to play the Beatles song, Michelle, after which she was named. Everybody in our row hung our heads and sobbed. After 12 days of utter grief, our colleague’s casket was wheeled away, and we collapsed in each other’s arms.
Among those who spoke was Michelle’s fiance, Michael Louie. They were to be married in July.
Sarah Noble, one of Michelle’s oldest friends, was to speak at their wedding. Instead, she eulogized her Monday, calling it tragic and unfair.
Also speaking was Robin Summerfield, a former Herald writer who was among Michelle’s close circle of female friends — a group of dedicated journalists, several of them National Newspaper Award winners, all of them young and pretty, drawn together in Calgary because each was from somewhere else.
Having them around me was like going to work every day in a real-life episode of Sex and the City, and it was touching to see them united with Michelle one last time. Robin, Colette Derworiz, Gwendolyn Richards, Renata D’Aliesio, Kelly Cryderman — the latter two also did stints in Afghanistan — along with Calgary native Sherri Zickefoose and those of us privileged to be on the periphery.
“I knew immediately that this was a woman worth knowing,” Summerfield said. “I felt like she was family.”
Through nearly two hours, friends and family paid tribute to Lang, “the rarest of breeds,” as Herald editor-in-chief Lorne Motley told the crowd.
Sweet, fabulous, caring, kind, unswervingly fair in her profession, humble despite winning awards and with a perfect balance in her personal and professional life — the accolades are so perfect they almost seem fake. But I can tell you, they are not. Michelle Lang inspired many people.
For me, New Year’s Day was particularly difficult, just three days after Michelle’s death. I made a resolution, one that I must try and keep, for a change.
It was not a resolution for 2010, but a resolution for life — that I would try from that day forward to be as good a journalist and as good a person as Michelle Lang.
Robert Remington is a Herald editorial writer
I took up an interest in hunting some years ago, inspired by the passion of my friend,
biologist Dr. Lee Foote, and his awesome gumbo.
U of Alberta professor says: ‘Let us prey’: Hunting as a green activity:
Biologist guts a deer in his yard to teach the value of the kill
Monday, November 12, 2001
By Robert Remington
Dr. Lee Foote, a biologist and associate professor at the University of Alberta, recently invited students to his backyard for a class on how to field dress a deer. Among them were vegetarians and anti-hunters who prefer ramen noodles to venison.
“I think I opened some eyes, some minds and maybe even some mouths,” said Dr. Foote, a hunter. He had vegans up to their elbows in viscera as he demonstrated the traditional aboriginal uses of animal parts — the bladder as a water carrying bag, the fat for rendering candles, the hooves for rattles, smoked brains for tanning the hide, the teeth for jewellery, the stomach lining as a boiling bag — and how to properly butcher the animal to get choice cuts of meat, including the heart and liver.
Relating the kill to the aboriginal way of life poses a challenge to hunting abhorrents, who almost universally embrace native traditions as touchstones of environmentalism. In Dr. Foote’s Edmonton yard — a typical, predator-free, fenced environment of grass and tall trees that humans have developed to mimic our safe ancestral homeland — students were challenged to confront the bloody reality of their existence.
“There is no such thing as a non-consumer,” says Dr. Foote. “We all burn fossil fuels. We wear cotton and eat vegetables that have eliminated animals in perpetuity from the environments on which they are grown. The reality is that we all swim through a soup of mortality as we move through our lives. We kill bugs and animals with our cars. We destroy living creatures every day. It all comes at a cost.”
Dr. Foote, who makes a mean venison gumbo, is one of the thousands of Canadians who will take to the woods during this hunting season to kill a deer. By the time the season is over, more than a quarter million deer will die, their entrails spilled on the ground for ravens and coyotes to scavenge, their bones left to calcify in the woods. This, says Dr. Foote, is a beautiful thing.
“To most people geographically or generationally isolated from eating wild-killed meat, these activities seem barbaric, heartless and uncivilized. When uncivilized becomes a pejorative, it speaks volumes about how far cultures have drifted from a natural way of living,” he wrote in a recent essay, The Irreducibility of Hunting.
Animal rights activists, of course, greet this all with scorn. John Livingstone, a naturalist and author of the Governor General’s Award-winning Rogue Primate, calls hunting “gratuitous, ergo evil.” He once likened it to child molesting.
“If you want to demonize anything you associate it with the most heinous behaviour,” says Dr. Foote, who has been challenged to debates on campus by anti-hunting professors, ethicists and philosophers. To him, hunting is a “green activity” full of symbolism and native traditions that is less damaging to the environment than the hordes of weekend recreational enthusiasts whose year-round activities leave a far greater environmental footprint than those of hunters, whose activities are limited to two months of the year. Besides, he says, wild meat simply tastes better.
“I’m a little bit scared of the antibodies and growth hormones that cattle invariably get,” he said. It’s a misconception that wild game is lower in cholesterol, but, he says, it does have less fat. “In cattle, the fat marbles in intermuscular fibres. Elk and deer layer it, so you can trim it and get it down very lean.”
It’s enough to make a vegan vomit, but for the millions of Canadians who eat meat but deny the kill, listening to people like Dr. Foote makes you want to get a rifle and take responsibility for the death of your meal rather than leaving the messy business to somebody else. Dr. Foote believes his lifestyle is on the verge of a renaissance to rival the fly-fishing boom. “All it’s going to take is one good movie by Robert Redford and we’ll see yuppies heading into the woods in their SUVs to bag a deer,” he says.
National statistics, however, indicate he may be one of a dying breed. A 1996 Environment Canada survey, which tracked nature activities since 1981, showed drastic declines in those hunting. In Ontario, the number of hunters declined by 35% from 486,000 to 314,000; in Alberta by 55% from 186,000 to 84,000; in New Brunswick by 31% from from 115,000 to 79,000. Recent federal gun registration laws have likely been a further disincentive.
The figures, however, do not account for the dramatic rise in hunting from the early 1960s to the 1980s, when the number of hunters grew at almost twice the rate of the Canadian population.
“We may be just a blip in time and are in fact at the same levels as before,” says Dr. Foote.
To the anti-hunters he debates, most will concede that hunting strictly for food is defensible. But Dr. Foote also argues on behalf of trophy hunting, an activity animal rights activists regard as little more than murder.
“It’s often much harder to kill a mature animal than the young. I will usually take the first legal animal I encounter but I respect those hunters who establish their own set of rules, who set degrees of difficulty for themselves. Delay of gratification is usually considered an admirable trait in society and what most people don’t realize is that for every successful hunt, there are many unsuccessful hunts.”
To Dr. Foote, killing one’s own food is much more admirable than buying it in a store. It’s also safer.
According to U.S. National Safety Council statistics, people are more than 20 times more likely to die in a car accident than while hunting. Hunting is also safer than fishing, swimming, tennis, even golf. Football, the most dangerous outdoor activity, requires almost 2,200 emergency room treatments per 100,000 participants, according to NSC statistics. Baseball is second with 2,089. Fishing is at 141, tennis 119.7, golf 104.4 and swimming 93.3. Hunting required only eight emergency room treatments per 100,000.
Dr. Foote explains part of the opposition to hunting as neotenous behaviour, the genetical predisposition humans and chimps have to creatures with big round eyes and adorable facial features — the same visual trigger that motivates us to protect our infants.
He also has a secret weapon to sway the debate — his venison curry. At one potluck dinner with fellow academics and vegetarian students, he placed the following disclaimer next to his steaming dish:
“This animal, like its ancestors and
progeny, was produced locally. The meat herein was produced as a result
of free genetic exchange (no artificial insemination). The animal was
not castrated, or forced onto a synchronized breeding schedule. She
lived to maturity (4 1/2 years) and reproduced at least once, but most
likely had three sets of twins. The meat contains no antibiotics,
synthetic steroids, artificial growth hormones or insecticide residues.
Its production required no landclearing, fencing, fertilizing or
feedlots. Her life did not contribute to the destruction of associated
fauna and flora. No manure was collected or spread on erosion-prone
pastures to produce (or as a result of) its growth. This animal was not
confined, transported or kept in crowded conditions at any point in its
life. The lean, unmarbled meat was not wrapped in plastic and Styrofoam
packaging. No nitrates or sulfites were applied to prevent
discolouration. No fossil fuels were used for specialized refrigerator
transport or cold-storage ageing. Associated inedible parts were not
reconstituted into cattle meal or dog food. Inedible parts were fed to
indigenous fauna (most likely coyotes, magpies and ravens). Her bones
provided calcium to the aspen grove where she was feeding. Substantial
calories were metabolized by the hunter over several days to secure this
meat. She died quickly, and honourably. Before, as well as after, her
death she was treated with reverence and respect. Allowing my
participation in a natural cycle was this animal’s gift to me. The
energy that flowed from sun to plant to deer now also flows through me.
This meal does offer reflection, natural continuity, appreciation,
health, hope, and tangible renewal of life. Let us prey.”
I wrote this story during Kenya’s tribal violence of early 2008. Taking a break from bogged-down negotiations at a luxury hotel between feuding politicians, I ventured into Nairobi’s Kibera slum, where some of the worst violence had taken place. There, I found a community clinging to hope and met a remarkable woman on a crusade for peace.
Inside Kibera there is hope; Africa’s second largest slum tries to turn its back on violence that erupted after the disputed Kenya election
– copyright – Calgary Herald
Friday, February 8, 2008
By Robert Remington
One week after he was treated for a machete wound to the head, Zuberi Mije sits in an unlit room in his tin-roofed shack in the Kibera slum and smiles.
”I am feeling much better,” he says to nurse Lucia Buyanza, who treated his cut. “I am so thankful."
After checking on her patient,
Buyanza steps outside into the sunlight, where a small garden manages
to grow alongside Mije’s mud hut in Kibera, the second-largest slum in
Africa behind Soweto in Johannesburg.
”You see this,” she says, touching a small shrub. “Even in a place like this, it is possible to grow flowers.”
The scene of some of the worst violence in Kenya’s ongoing
post-election crisis, the sprawling Kibera slum, home to more than one
million people, saw neighbour turn against neighbour after a Dec. 27
election that international observers say was rigged in favour of
President Mwai Kibaki.
The disputed election unleashed pent-up tribal divisions over
land, wealth and power dating from colonial rule. More than 1,000 have
been killed in ethnic and tribal clashes, most of it directed at
Kibaki’s tribe, the Kikuyu, who dominate politics and much of Kenya’s
Looting and riots erupted after calls for anti-government demonstrations by the Orange Democratic Movement party of Raila Odinga, a member of the Luo tribe, who narrowly lost the disputed election and who has a Luo stronghold in Kibera.
Buyanza, who grew up in Kibera and works in a clinic on the edge
of the slum, treated people like Mije for machete cuts to the head and
legs. Others came in with poison-tipped arrows in their abdomens.
”It was very bad,” says Buyanza, who at the height of the crisis
walked to the clinic every day from her home inside Kibera.
While most people cowered inside their tiny shacks, Buyanza walked the deserted street to the clinic, sticking close to the roadside ditch so she could dive into it for cover should violence erupt.
”I was very scared.”
Buyanza, 34, is among a group of young community leaders who are organizing a peace march through Kibera on Sunday.
Other peace initiatives have also sprung up in the slum.
Artist Solomon Muhandi, 31, has painted hundreds of messages all
over the Kibera, on curbs, speed bumps and on the rusty corrugated metal
walls of houses and businesses in the sprawling shantytown. His
graffiti reads “Peace Wanted Alive,” “Keep Peace” and “Kenya Needs
Buyanza says people are weary of the violence.
“They feel they are being used. We are burning our own houses and
nobody is coming to help us, and at the end of the day, it is my
neighbour who is crying,” she says.
On Wednesday, Kiberians refused to heed the latest ODM call for
demonstrations, opting instead to return to work and send their children
Buyanza says people in Kibera feel abandoned by the country’s
leaders, who have been huddled all week in a heavily guarded Nairobi
hotel for mediation talks headed by former UN secretary general Kofi
”Politicians are talking and drinking fancy teas and having
lunches at the hotel. They should come down here, but they are saying
they don’t have the security to come to us. Where is the security for
the common man when they are killed? They need to come to us. We are not
that violent. We are their people.”
If there is hope for Kibera and for Kenya, it lies not with the
feuding Odinga and Kibaki and the perpetuated tribal cronyism of Kenyan
politics, but with people like Buyanza and others like her.
”People do not want this to continue,” says James Bundi, 25, a
Kibera community youth worker who is also involved in organizing the
peace march. As the community turned against itself, he says Kiberians
came to realize they need to take care of each other because nobody else
was going to look after them.
”In Kibera, we know that we need each other, Bundi said. “The
politicians do not come here to help us. The city does not even come
here to spray for disease. So, we must stick together.”
Indeed, the sense of community in Kibera is strong. You can feel it as you walk along the railway line made famous from a scene in the movie The Constant Gardener. You can feel it in the narrow winding mud alleys, where children run up to you and people wave and reach out to shake your hand.
”Thanks for coming to Kibera,” says one shop owner. “You are welcome in this place.”
After weeks of bloodshed, life is now returning to normal in the slum. People are selling food, clothes and radios. Parents are beginning to send their children back to school.
Most people in Nairobi are afraid to come to Kibera, and its international reputation is one of AIDS, violence, disease and despair.
“The media is going to where there is violence, but they are forgetting there are areas of Kibera that have not been touched,” says Buyanza, whose name means “full of joy.”
“It would be good to show the nation that not all the slum area is bad.”
Among the community projects developed in Kibera is a public toilet that converts human waste to methane gas for fuel to power lights and heaters. At Buyanza’s Catholic Church, currently under construction, the round roof drains into a rainwater collection system.
- – -
Kibera sprang up after the First World War as a temporary settlement established by the British colonial government for Nubian soldiers from Sudan, who had been part of the King’s African Rifles. Plots were allotted to soldiers as a reward for service on land that was then a forest on the outskirts of Nairobi.
The name Kibera comes from “kibra,” a Nubian word for forest, but there is no forest in Kibera anymore — just dust and mud and the stench from latrines and rotting garbage.
The slum today is a collection of numerous villages, many split along tribal lines.
Tired of being used as political pawns, Buyanza, Bundi and other second-generation Kibera community leaders are using faith to reach out to the young, unemployed youth who make up the majority of those taking part in the violence.
“We have been having talks with other youths to avoid being used by politicians to fuel violence,” she wrote in a recent e-mail to a friend.
“We youth are having serious prayer meetings in the evening to seek God’s forgiveness and see each other as children of one mother Kenya. There are banners of peace that have been prepared and so on Sunday we shall walk with them around the villages to show solidarity and peace in Kibera.
“I know it is the politicians who are using the young people to kill other innocent Kenyans. We have refused to be used and that is why we are engaging ourselves in this activity of prayer, because we have been born in simplicity and our lives have been guided by virtues that uphold humanity.
“We are sitting on a time bomb, and that’s why the violence must be stopped. Justice and peace must prevail, but the leaders are dragging their feet.”
Although Buyanza is Catholic, she credits her peace activism to a non-denominational Ismaili Muslim organization.
“I took my nurse’s training at the Aga Khan school. It is unlike other nursing schools because they teach you that you can be things like a nurse leader, or a nurse politician, or a nurse journalist. I have chosen to be a nurse leader.”
On the narrow pathway that serves as a dividing line in Kibera between Kikuyu and Luo areas, Buyanza points to a building that was burned in the recent rioting. “This was the war zone,” she says as we walk past other burned-out buildings.
Many Kiberians, says Bundi, realize the violence is a result of what historian Martin Meredith and others refer to as the “Big Man” politics of Africa — where elected leaders grab entitlement for themselves, their families and their tribes.
Few, however, know how to change it.
Yet, this much, says Buyanza, is certain: “They are wasting the nation.”
This was written from Kenya during the tribal violence of 2008.
Calgary’s Lost Boys not yet home; Kenyan crisis puts another roadblock in front of two determined refugee doctors
The Calgary Herald
Sunday, February 17, 2008
By Robert Remington
In a rural hospital outside Nairobi, not far from a place called Banana Hill, ex-Calgarians Jacob Maker and Moses Gak Rech have encountered yet another obstacle on their long journey home.
It has taken them 24 years to come this far. As two of the so-called “Lost Boys” of Sudan, they have faced starvation, disease and militia death squads on a global odyssey that has seen them go from refugee camps in Ethiopia to a meat-packing plant in Brooks and eventually to Calgary, where they studied medicine in pursuit of their dream of becoming doctors.
Maker and Rech are now attempting to complete their medical internships so they can return home to Sudan. But tribal conflicts in Kenya’s ongoing political crisis have again stalled them in their amazing quest.
The chief medical officer at the Nazareth Hospital here had to flee last month, leaving Maker and Rech uncertain when they will be able to complete their training.
Nazareth is in an area controlled by Kikuyu,
the nation’s politically dominant tribal group, who back President Mwai
Kibaki. The chief medical officer at the hospital is a member of the Luo
tribe and backs opposition leader Raila Odinga.
The hospital is surrounded by a wall with a gate, where I ask the two to pause for a photo. On the street, people stare.
"We cannot stay here. It is not not safe," says Rech, motioning me to move inside the grounds of the hospital.
More than 1,000 people have been killed and 300,000 displaced in fighting between the two groups after Odinga accused Kibaki of stealing the election in a rigged vote Dec. 27.
As mediation efforts continue in Nairobi under former UN secretary general Kofi Annan, Maker and Rech are left with little to do in a hospital that is operating at half capacity because people are afraid to risk travelling through rival tribal areas.
In addition to the chief medical officer, several clinical support staff, also Luo, were forced to leave.
“We hope he can come back, but we’ll just have to wait,” Maker says.
For the two ex-Calgary Lost Boys, the crisis in Kenya is but one more chapter in an extraordinary struggle that is one of the most epic stories of our time.
Separated from their families in the mid-1980s and barely in their teens, Maker and Rech were among thousands of children who marched for months across the bush and deserts of southern Sudan, facing starvation, dehydration, wild animals and cholera to escape a brutal, 22-year civil war between the Muslim north and the Christian and animist south. The war killed two million people.
For the boys to stay alive, they also had to elude militia from the north charged with carrying out a Herod’s-like decree that any south Sudan boys be killed in an effort to deplete the south’s supply of future rebel soldiers.
Eventually Maker and Rech made their way to refugee camps in Ethiopia, only to be trained as child soldiers to fight the enemy they had fled.
In 1985, with Sudan mired in one of the bloodiest wars of the 20th century, south Sudanese rebel leader John Garang ordered 600 child soldiers to put down their guns. Among them were Maker and Rech.
Deemed too young to be sent to the front lines, the boys, all under 15, were ordered by Garang to instead pick up pencils. Packed on a Soviet ship, they were sent to Cuba for an education and told to return one day to rebuild their homeland.
Cast into the unknown, without contact from relatives and a homeland they would come to miss, they became known as the Lost Boys of Sudan.
For more than 20 years, the Lost Boys struggled to get an education, first in Cuba and then in Canada, the United States and Australia. Maker and Rech were among a core group of 15 Cuban-trained medical students who eventually made their way to Calgary, where the Christian aid organization Samaritan’s Purse had arranged for them to further their medical education at the University of Calgary.
Rech also worked for two years packing meat at a slaughterhouse in Brooks, one of hundreds of Sudanese refugees to work in the community east of Calgary.
Samaritan’s Purse then helped place the aspiring doctors in five hospitals in Kenya for internships, where their incredible dream of returning home is finally being realized.
In October, the first three of the Calgary-trained doctors returned to Sudan, including Daniel Madit Duop, who initially approached Samaritan’s Purse on behalf of the group. Maker, 36, and Rech, 39, are among 10 yet to complete their internships.
Sitting in the sparse doctor’s lounge at the Nazareth Hospital, set in rolling hills amid banana and tea plantations, the two interns tell a story similar to the hundreds of other Lost Boys who have now become near legends.
“In 1984, I was in Grade 6,” says Maker. “In the month of October, an insurgency was going on about eight miles away.
I left in a group of seven close friends, all boys. Some were older than me, in secondary school. It took me almost a year to reach Ethiopia. We would journey for 24 hours, maybe stop for one hour to sleep. There were floods in May of 1985. It was very difficult.” Maker and his six friends met up with a group of about 115 other students. About 15 like him were still in primary school. Most had either lost their parents or been sent away to escape the fighting.
Maker remembers saying goodbye to his father.
“He was so scared, but he said to go and find some people who are going to school and finish your studies. When you leave for the bush there are no studies. You don’t know where to stay. Some people were having psychological issues.” Similar small groups of refugees were forming throughout south Sudan, heading for camps in Ethiopia. Eventually, Maker’s group formed up with 300 more, and then more still. He travelled with what would become a diaspora of 1,500 people heading north and east for the Ethiopian border. Other larger refugee groups were also forming throughout the country.
Those who marched across Sudan in the mid-1980s were strafed by government planes, attacked by lions and hyenas and gunned down by militia.
In Maker’s group, half died. Those who were not killed in the fighting succumbed to dehydration.
“They could not find water to drink. There was a lot of thirst.” Maker and his six young friends were initially rejected by one of the larger groups because they were so young.
“The seven of us were very small. The others wanted us to go back. The group was saying it is very far, there were a lot of issues. You will not be able to eat for a couple of days. you won’t be able to find water, so it’s not good to come with us. I said, ‘If you can do it, we can do it.’ ” The larger group turned the seven boys over to the local police, but Maker talked the authorities into letting them go, promising they would return home. Instead, Maker and his six friends continued to follow about a kilometre behind the others.
“It was just living hour by hour,” he recalls. “The road was completely blocked by militia. They had control of all the borders so they knew where people were coming and they could ambush them. Many people died.” A tragedy then struck that would haunt Maker for years. His group of seven had a chance to hitch a ride on a truck, but Maker refused to board it. The truck hit a landmine. All six of his friends were killed. Maker was only 12.
“I didn’t get in. I had fears for some reason. I don’t know why. It hit me hard. I was so depressed because, you know, I had all this guilt. If I had accepted the idea of going home, those in my group might not have died.” According to international aid organizations, the Lost Boys were among the most traumatized children of war they had ever seen.
Rech’s story is nearly identical. His trek across Sudan took two months but was nonetheless harrowing. In May of 1984, at age 15, he fled to Ethiopia, avoiding militia groups that were intercepting and killing people.
By the time Rech and Maker arrived in Ethiopia, they were half starved, but their nightmare was far from over. In camps holding up to 10,000 people, diarrheal diseases claimed more lives.
After a year in the refugee camps, the south Sudanese rebel group, the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), sent Maker and Rech for training as child soldiers.
“It was for self-defence more than anything. In the camps, you never knew where the enemy was going to strike,” said Maker.
They trained as soldiers for six months before Garang intervened.
The Sudan People’s Liberation Movement, the political arm of the SPLA, struck a deal with Cuba to have the boys sent away to the a free education system on the Soviet-backed Caribbean island. Cuban advisers arrived in Ethiopia and, for two months, the boys received elementary Spanish instruction, before leaving for Cuba.
Rech and Maker both went through the Cuban system to earn medical degrees. With the Soviet empire in economic disarray after the end of Cold War, Cuba sent the boys to other countries. Many nations refused to accept the Sudanese refugees, who had no legal documents proving their nationalities. Canada was among the few countries that accepted them.
Rech was sent to Ottawa in 1998. Maker followed in 2000, arriving in Windsor. With virtually no English, they took whatever jobs they could get. Rech worked in a fibre optics assembly plant. Maker ended up in a Leamington, Ont., factory that made packing boxes for tomatoes and later got a job in Windsor making pistons on a General Motors assembly line.
Both were desperate for news of their relatives back home.
Maker, working through the Red Cross, discovered his parents had died. Rech discovered he, too, was an orphan, but both had siblings in Sudan.
The day he landed in Canada, Maker phoned one of his brothers in Khartoum, the northern capital of Sudan. Maker learned his brother had no choice but to join the northern army after being captured.
“He had never been in school. He ran away one year after me. All healthy young men, the government picked them up and sent them to training camp.” Maker’s brother was made to fight against his own people in the south for 10 years.
“To survive, you have to get a job somehow and the only job he could do was join the military. He had no skills,” Maker said.
Rech learned that his brother was also in Khartoum and that his two sisters were living in refugee camps, one in Sudan and the other on the Kenya side of the Sudanese border.
Rather than using the money they earned in Canada to further their education, Rech and Maker sent whatever they could spare to support their siblings back home.
“I told my brother to leave the army, that I had money to support him,” Maker said.
Neither has seen his siblings since the two left home 24 years ago.
Rech, laid off from his job in Ottawa, went to Brooks, where he worked at Lakeside Packers.
“I was so desperate. I needed to do something, so when that opportunity came I had to take it.” In 2005, all the Lost Boys who had studied medicine in Cuba were contacted by Duop, who had arranged for them through Samaritan’s Purse to upgrade their medical degrees in Calgary. After years of menial jobs, they had forgotten much of what they had learned.
Maker arrived in Calgary on Jan. 1, 2006.
“I knew it was very cold, but when I learned of the program I said, no, I can do this,” he said.
Now working as interns in Kenya, Maker and Rech are one step from returning home. Rech travelled with Duop to Juba, Sudan, in October for a homecoming, where the doctors were received by the south Sudanese president. Maker had no visa and had to stay behind.
“It was very emotional,” Rech said. “Daniel, he wept.” Duop, in a message posted on a U of C faculty of medicine weblog in November, told of being reunited with his father.
“It was the most difficult moment for me. I recognized my father, but when I compared this very old man in front of me to the 47-year-old man that I left as a child, it broke my heart. To see my father like that was very difficult. Not because I hadn’t expected him to be old, but because I hadn’t had the chance to see him become old. Dear friends, I’m embarrassed to say that I cried like a little boy.” In an e-mail last month sent from Sudan to John Clayton, the Samaritan’s Purse projects director who organized the Sudanese-Canadian physicians reintegration program, Duop, now 35, wrote of performing his first successful emergency C-section in Sudan.
According to Jeff Adams, the Samaritan’s Purse Calgary communications director, the procedure was an emotional moment for Duop, who had seen his mother die in childbirth while on the trail to Ethiopia.
“My patient was a 13-year-old girl with term pregnancy, more than 24 hours of unsuccessful labour, due to CPD (cephalopelvic disproportion, where the baby is too big for a vaginal delivery). She had a healthy baby girl. They are going home tomorrow,” Duop wrote.
“Today I also successfully resuscitated an infant who was born through C-section and with very minimum cardiac activity. I praised the Lord for these two blessing of the beginning of my medical career in my country. Amen.” Rech recently received word from Scott Shannon, a U.S.
doctor working for Samaritan’s Purse in Kenya to help place the doctors in Sudan, that he may be accepted at a missionary hospital in the town of Duk, in his home state.
On an Internet message board last year, a man in Duk wrote to those on the outside about a memorial to south Sudanese war heroes.
“Hundreds and thousands of mieth ke Hol lost their lives in the battlefield, fighting and dying without any hesitation while the wild beasts fed on the human flesh of the dead. My brothers and sisters, what could we do to commemorate our heroes and heroines who have fallen asleep for the common good of our community?” After 24 years abroad, Rech and Maker admit it will be difficult to return to a broken medical system in an impoverished country with a lack of modern equipment and scarcity of medicine.
But return they must, they say, as their way of saying thanks to Canada.
“When we left we knew our mission, to get an education and come back, says Maker. “We didn’t forget that. We always thought one day we would come back help people of our nation.
“So many people have helped me to get where I am. People all over the world, especially people from Canada who have invested a lot in us not only financially, but psychologically and spiritually. We will pay back by doing good things on the ground in Sudan. It is difficult in a place like Sudan, but these are our people. We will go there and help them.”