A new documentary, DUK COUNTY, about a humanitarian expedition to South Sudan to restore preventable blindness will premiere at Mountainfilm in Telluride this May. Jordan Campbell first shared this story with us in December 2011 from the remote Duk Lost Boys Clinic in South Sudan. His dispatch chronicled a five-day medical mission to treat cataract and trachoma blindness—rampant throughout the war-torn country. In this follow-up post, Campbell, a Marmot Ambassador Athlete, recounts the mission, the devastating flash of inter-tribal violence just days after the team’s departure, and how John Dau, founder of the Duk Lost Boy’s Clinic and a National Geographic Emerging Explorer, is trying to create peace in the new South Sudan.
The Duk Lost Boys Clinic, South Sudan
Everyone at the clinic was euphoric. Our two superstar eye-surgeons—Dr. Geoff Tabin and Dr. Alan Crandall—along with the assistance of our entire medical support team, had already performed more than 200 successful cataract and trachoma surgeries, elevating those needlessly suffering from blindness back into a life with sight. Perhaps most gratifying for all of us was to know that John Dau, one of the original “Lost Boys of Sudan,” and the visionary for the Duk Lost Boys Clinic, had finally realized his dream of bringing eye care to this under-served region of South Sudan, where untreated blindness affects tens of thousands.
Each morning was charged with hope and optimism: men, women, and children from the indigenous tribes surrounding Duk County gathered in the waiting area outside the clinic’s entrance. Some had journeyed blindly for days led by family members, for their chance to see once again. By 8 a.m., Tabin and Crandall began their back-to-back cataract surgeries, flanked by our medical support team, who screened and prepped each patient in assembly-line fashion. With limited medical training, I led dozens of frail and elderly patients into the clinic where I carefully squeezed drops of liquid into their eyes to dilate their pupils. Dr. Roger Furlong—another top-notch ophthalmologist and social entrepreneur—managed the flow of patients in the clinic’s dark hallway and administered a local anesthesia to “block” their optic nerve. Ace Kvale, a renowned adventure photographer, escorted them into the sterilized surgical room—painstakingly prepared by Julie Crandall, the team’s chief ophthalmic assistant—where they were led onto Tabin or Alan Crandall’s operating tables.
Back outside, in the wilting heat of the afternoon hours, Ace and I administered antibiotic drops into the eyes of patients who had just completed their cataract surgery. Among the multitudes awaiting their drops, I encountered a man with an advanced case of Leprosy. It was shocking to see the disease up close for the first time. His ten fingers were severely disfigured—useless digits. But it was his years of occluded cataract blindness, like so many others in the developing world, which had rendered him a burden on his family. I carefully pulled back his bandages and peered through the clear, synthetic lens he had received just an hour before. As I watched my drops splash the surface of his cornea, I saw his strength and vulnerability—and the promise of a new life—all in the same moment.
Late at night, Tabin collaborated with Dr. Lloyd Williams in the dimly lit surgical rooms performing trachoma surgeries, where they demonstrated their indefatigable ‘doctor gene’ which seemingly allowed them to work without food, sleep or water. In the nearby communication room, I blurrily pecked away on my dispatch for National Geographic Adventure. Only the screen of my laptop illuminated the dark space, which was soon covered with exotic insects from every phyla imaginable. I brushed them away and took cover as small fruit bats descended from the clinic’s attic, chasing them over my head in a dogfight for their next meal.
Duk Payuel, South Sudan
The following afternoon, after our team had met with our very last patient, I made tracks out of the clinic compound and headed toward the village of Duk Payuel, just minutes away. In 1987, mercenaries sent by the Northern Sudanese Army forced Dau and hundreds of other young boys to flee Duk County (and much of what would become South Sudan) with their lives. The boys swelled into tens of thousands and in a desperate mass exodus they reached Ethiopia and later Northern Kenya. Aptly branded the “Lost Boys of Sudan,” they scratched out their existence in refugee camps for more than a decade. Their epic journey across the country’s parched and unforgiving landscape—a heroic chapter in Dau’s remarkable life—remains one of the greatest survival stories of all time.
Near the edge of the village, I passed two men swaggering beat-up AK-47 semi-automatic rifles—hired local militia to guard the thousands of long-horned African cows owned by the wealthier villagers. Despite South Sudan’s 2011 independence from the North, which marked an end to the country’s 40-year civil conflict, there remains a looming concern. In the fog of war, thousands of AK-47’s have fallen into the hands of South Sudan’s warring ethnic tribes. Deadly flashpoints of violence over cattle, land, and water erupt without warning. In 2009, nearly 300 tribesmen were killed over cattle in a massacre in Duk Padiet—just 20 miles to the north of the Duk Payuel.
As I arrived in the village, dozens of smoldering cow dung fires wafted smoke across the thatched roofs of the mud-constructed huts, tukuls, creating an ethereal haze around me. I soon found Tabin and Ace pacing the village core, following-up on the locals we had treated just days before. Through the misty air, we caught a glimpse of the “blind Leper” who at once spotted Tabin’s bright red shirt and enthusiastically waved us over, mangled fingers and all. Through his miraculous cataract surgery, this man was transformed. He was no longer a biblical example of South Sudan’s darkness and suffering; he had reclaimed his life with many prosperous years ahead. As the smoke from the dung fires grew thicker, Tabin, Ace, and I began our trek back to the Lost Boys Clinic. Among the tall grasses and the setting orange sun, a deep sense of satisfaction surged through our veins. This was why we came to South Sudan.
Inter-tribal Violence Strikes
Just days after our arrival back the United States in January 2012, a devastating flash of inter-tribal violence erupted in southeast Jonglei state, in the town of Pibor, just 100 miles southeast from the village of Duk Payuel. The BBC, CNN and other news agencies, confirmed that at least 3,000 people were killed during the massacre—including hundreds of women and children. Most of Pibor was burned to the ground and thousands of cattle were stolen. UN Peacekeeping forces and South Sudan police were sent to stabilize the region, but the massacre resulted in one of the worst outbreaks of ethnic violence South Sudan had ever experienced. Just days later, the cycle of revenge spread back into Duk County and 86 people were killed—including at least one of our patients.
John Dau’s Vision for Peace
South Sudan’s descent into tribal conflict, in the country’s still tenuous new independence, might have derailed the peace process temporarily, but for Dau, it only strengthened his resolve to bring lasting peace to the region. Dau hosted another eye camp at the Duk Lost Boys Clinic the following year—this time to bring together the blind members from the warring tribes of Jonglei state, using eye-care as a platform to engender peace and reconciliation.
Under Dau’s leadership—and with plenty of armed guards—Dr. Crandall and key members of our 2011 medical team, worked for seven days on many of the feuding tribes that were at the center of the conflict during the Pibor massacre. But Dau’s vision for peace in South Sudan through his dream of universal eye-care was unflinching; in total, the team performed 181 cataract surgeries and 46 trachoma surgeries on Dinka, Nuer, and Murle tribespeople—a humble but real start to help quell the cycle of revenge. John Dau’s Lost Boys Clinic, in the heart of Duk County, is a not only a place for miracles, it is also a touchstone for peace in the world’s newest country.
For more information about John Dau’s work in South Sudan please visit www.johndaufoundation.org and www.southsudaninstitute.org.
For more information about Tabin and Crandall’s international eye care programs, please visit www.cureblindness.org or www.moraneyecenter.org. View Jordan Campbell’s photography, writing and film work at www.jordancampbell.com.