Of Messages and Flags

Tonight in the opening ceremonies of the Olympics, the flag of the United States will be carried by one of the nation’s newest citizens, Lopez Lomong. Lomong has only been a US citizen for 13 months, having immigrated as child from the Sudan where he was one of the “lost boys”, a forced migration of children caused by war and the persecution of christians and their communities in that nation.

The irony is that China is one of the biggest supporters of the Darfur government which is at the least merely turning a blind eye toward the persecutions, but whom many believe is actively supporting the attackers.

Mia Farrow, an leading critic of Beijing’s support of the Darfur government said of the choice of Lomong as flag bearer:

“‘It appears that U.S. Olympic athletes have a far better sense of the Olympic spirit than the USOC or the Olympic host,’ Farrow said. ‘By choosing Lopez Lomong, U.S. athletes are sending a powerful message. They want the world to remember the anguished people of Sudan.’

Lomong, 23, spent 10 years in a Kenyan refugee camp after fleeing southern Sudan during a civil war and becoming separated from his parents. As one of thousands of Sudan’s Lost Boys, he relocated to the United States and became a citizen in July 2007.

China is a major investor in Sudan’s oil industry and sells arms to the government. Those interests, critics say, motivate China to protect Sudan from international pressure to end the conflict in Darfur, where international experts estimate that at least 200,000 people have died and 2.5 million have been displaced.

Lomong is not from Darfur, but after qualifying for the U.S. team last month, he told the Chicago Tribune, ‘I need to send the message as an athlete from Sudan. I am worried about the kids who are dying in Darfur, kids who don’t have the dream they could be good athletes or Olympians or doctors, because they will be running away from their village, separated from their families.'”

Read the full article here.

The Washington Post has coverage of the same story and adds this background about how he came to the States:

“During a Sunday morning Mass 17 years ago, the 6-year-old Lomong, along with about 100 other children, was taken at gunpoint from his parents, driven away blindfolded in a truck and dumped in a cramped, windowless, one-room prison full of boys. There, they were fed millet full of barely visible sand, which prevented proper digestion, and, within days, gradually led to the death of boy after boy.

“They would go to sleep and never stand up again. ‘Tomorrow will be my day,’ ” Lomong said. “But I had three angels.” They were slightly older boys who told him to eat just enough of the death gruel to stay alive, but not enough to kill himself. After three weeks, the older trio discovered a hole in a fence. At midnight, crawling while guards talked, stopping when they fell silent, then crawling until they were outside the compound, the four boys began to run. “That is where my race started,” Lomong said.

Despite one boy holding each of his hands as they fled, Lomong nonetheless battered his legs on so many trees and thorns “that’s why they still look like such a mess . . . We ran for three days and nights. They would hide me in a cave while two of them went to get water. They would fetch some back for me in a big leaf.”

When the four boys fell asleep at night, they made sure to keep their bodies pointed in the same direction that they had been running “so that we did not run back in the wrong direction toward the guards or run in circles,” Lomong said. Finally, they were arrested at the Kenyan border — penniless, unable to speak the local Swahili — and taken to a refugee camp.

The details of his life in the refugee camp and of his journey to the United States are in the article here.

The article ends with the account of how he was selected:

“Not long ago, Lomong told a half-dozen track teammates, “I would like to be the one carrying the flag.” As a member of Team Darfur, he knew it would spread information about the misery in Sudan and China’s role as economic facilitator of the ruling regime.

“My [track] teammates spread the word.”

When Cheek was denied his visa, the idea of Lomong carrying the flag had already been making the rounds among U.S. athletes. We’ll no doubt learn the details of his election eventually. For now, nobody is giving details for fear of politicizing the Olympics even more. And Lomong, wisely, only says he wants to inspire other children, including those with challenges to overcome in China, while being a “good ambassador” for the United States.

“It will be great tonight,” Lomong said. “I can’t wait.”

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