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2 Painful Odysseys End With a Happy Reunion

A Sudanese father is taken from his home, beaten and left paralyzed. After coming to the U.S., he eventually reunites with the family he lost.

June 29, 2003|Sharon Cohen | Associated Press Writer

INDIANOLA, Iowa — So many years had passed, he knew that he would not recognize his youngest son.

It was in the middle of the night long ago when John Lodu was whisked away at gunpoint from his home in the Sudan, thousands of miles from here. It happened so fast, there was no time for goodbyes.

Robert was just 3 at the time, a little boy who clung to his mother.

Ladu, then 7, was the quiet son. Sobe, 10, was the talkative one.

And there were Lodu's shy 13-year-old twin girls, Nancy and Poni.

Two painful odysseys followed.

John Lodu's family ended up in the unforgiving world of a refugee camp in Africa, living among a desolate sprawl of grass-and-mud huts, surviving on handouts of cornmeal, rice and beans.

Lodu himself endured a brutal beating in Sudan just days after his seizure; his spine was crushed, leaving him paralyzed. After a risky escape and the kindness of many strangers, he eventually made it -- in a wheelchair -- to America.

For years, his family didn't know that. They didn't even know if he was alive.

And John Lodu didn't know how they were. But he began to develop a plan.

He would find his children.

He didn't know where to look or how he'd pay for a 10,000-mile journey, then navigate a wheelchair in remote eastern Africa, to places without paved roads or any roads at all.

But after nearly eight years of separation, he knew one thing: He wanted to be a father once again.

He explained it simply: "I cannot live without my kids."

*

The knock on his door came one terrifying night early in 1992.

He says Army officers in Juba, in southern Sudan, ordered him to come with them for questioning.

"There's no way in the world you can say no," he said.

Sudan has been mired in a civil war for two decades, pitting the Islamic north against the largely non-Muslim south. An estimated 2 million people have died, mostly from famine and disease.

At the time Lodu was taken, there was a rebel uprising in Juba.

Then an accountant and an activist in the Episcopal church, Lodu insisted that he had nothing to do with the rebellion. His interrogators asked about church meetings -- he said they were about religion, not politics.

"I'm not a soldier," he protested.

The officers didn't believe him, Lodu says, and forced his feet into scalding water. He gingerly removes a sock to reveal fleshy pink scars on his ebony skin.

Later, he says, his interrogators tied a plastic bag around his head, nearly suffocating him.

He says they warned him: " 'If you tell the truth, we'll release you. If not, you won't see your family.' ... They say this is a journey without return."

More torture followed and after he was kicked and struck on his back with rifle butts, he could not get up. He screamed from the burning pain in his spine -- and he had no feeling in his legs.

"I didn't know about paralysis," he said. "I was thinking: What was wrong?"

Lodu was transferred to a military hospital in Khartoum, the Sudanese capital, where, finally, he saw a friendly face: He knew one of the doctors, an Army colonel who had been at the University of Juba.

Lodu says he remained there about two years, while the doctor secretly planned his escape. One day after visiting an outside clinic, the doctor handed him a passport and a train ticket for Cairo and put him in a taxi.

Lodu had no money, no food, not even shoes. He couldn't walk. But he had an unswerving faith that he would "find a good Samaritan."

As it turned out, there were many.

In Egypt, a Sudanese student took him in. A Dutch clergyman at an Episcopal church befriended him, arranging medical care. He had his first operation.

Lodu held out hope that he would walk again. Instead, he received his first wheelchair.

"That," he said, "is how I start my life again."

Returning to Sudan wasn't possible, he says; he feared that he'd be killed there. He was even afraid that contacting his family would endanger them.

He was resigned to a fate beyond his control.

"I was already helpless," he said. "If I die, that's fine. If I survive, that's fine.... I didn't dream of my future."

*

Lodu had a wheelchair, but little independence.

With some effort, the Dutch clergyman managed to find Lodu's daughter, Nancy, in Sudan and she agreed to move to Egypt to help care for him. Lodu is not certain how this was arranged, but he suspects that it was through a network of ministers.

Three years had passed and Lodu was delighted to see her and desperate for news of his family: Nancy reported that they had moved to the countryside, near the Uganda border.

Lodu yearned to see them, but he says, as a disabled man, it would be hard -- maybe impossible -- to get proper medical care and find work in Africa to support a family.

"I could not help myself," he said, "so how would I be able to help them?"

He had read about America in schoolbooks and heard stories that disabled people can work and earn a living there. He decided that would be best for his family.

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