JUBA, Sudan (Reuters) - They left as children and teenagers, crossing the border between dry southern Sudan and Ethiopia before being transported half a world away to the green strangeness of Cuba's Isla de la Juventud.
Now more than two decades later, some of the 600 children who were sent to Cuba for education during Sudan's north-south conflict are home, speaking Spanish, dancing salsa and working to rebuild their land after Africa's longest civil war.
Among those who have returned -- the so-called "Cubans" -- are 15 doctors, including Daniel Madit, who left in 1986 aged 11. He was already a sergeant in the south's rebel army.
"We were not forced to leave, we were sent on a mission and it is not completed," he said at the end of a refresher course he was taking before starting to work in the south.
When Madit left, rebels in the mainly Christian south, supported by Marxist Ethiopia, were fighting soldiers of the mainly Muslim north in a war over ideology, resources, ethnicity and religion, that was to claim more than 2 million lives.
"As a client state of the Soviet bloc, Ethiopia had long-standing ties with Cuba. Cuba, for its part, provided support to socialist guerrilla movements and regimes in Africa," said Carol Berger, a former journalist and anthropologist now completing a doctorate at the University of Oxford.
"The SPLA (southern rebel group) was one of those movements which received basic education and military training inside Cuba. While the SPLA was never noted for having much of an ideological position, for at least the first decade of the war, Cuba was considered a loyal and generous ally," said Berger.
A north-south peace deal was finally signed in 2005. The southern Sudanese, who had been educated in Cuba but then stuck in limbo for years as their host country's economy collapsed, the rebels at home split and the war dragged on, began to return, some after years as refugees in Canada.
The homecoming has often been bittersweet.
Martha Martin Dar, an imposing woman who was sent to Cuba in 1986, returned briefly in 2005 before finally coming back for good in 2007. When she first saw her father at the airport in the south's capital Juba, a relative had to confirm who he was.
"It was difficult for us to communicate. It was like my first memory. I had forgotten him completely."
Dar, who did not fight with the rebels but lived in a refugee camp in Ethiopia before being sent to Cuba, recalled her first impressions of south Sudan's best hospital in Juba.
"There was a lack of everything, five or six children in a bed. People were on the floor," she said.
Despite the return of peace, and south Sudan's rich oil fields, the semi-autonomous region is a devastated land where even the most basic of services are lacking. Under the peace deal, the population can vote on secession in 2011, after democratic elections next year.
Fidel Castro, who retired this year, fought many Cold War proxy conflicts in Africa in the 1960s and 1970s.
Cuban forces were sent as military advisers or as fighters to Angola, where they helped beat South African forces, Algeria, Congo-Brazzaville, Guinea-Bissau, Morocco and Mozambique.
In Sudan, Castro agreed to educate selected children, many of whom were already part of the child "Red Army".
The children were seen as key to the struggle: they would use education to prevent what the rebels saw as Khartoum's centralizing influence and abuse of the south's resources.
"The (rebel) leadership proceeded to select their own children, relatives and people from their own areas," Barri Wanji, a senior member of the southern parliament, said.
Berger, who is writing a book on the "Cubans", said rebel leaders wanted to remove their children from refugee camps in Ethiopia "where conditions were appalling."
She said the children were sent in two groups: the first by sea aboard a Soviet cruise ship from the Ethiopian port of Assab in 1985, and the second by air the following year.
They were sent to a school on the Isla de la Juventud (Youth Island), off Cuba's southwest coast, where Castro had earlier been imprisoned in the 1950s.
The Sudanese rebels' charismatic leader John Garang, who died in a helicopter crash in 2005, visited them a few times.
The best two students each year were awarded a trip to Ethiopia. Madit said they would return with photographs and letters from the families.
When not in class, the children worked on fruit plantations and sometimes camped on beaches. They were among many children from Africa who were working and studying on the island.
Dar remembered the papaya, oranges and other fruit she found in Cuba and the humid warmth. She came later than the others because she was ill and had to stay behind in Ethiopia for a while. She spent two frightening weeks having medical tests in Havana, before rejoining her compatriots.
"I was upset, missing my family. I was crying for the first six months," she said. Then she found that she was good at biology and Spanish and began enjoying school more.
But she remained homesick "for the childhood I had."
When the doctors graduated, Cuba's economy was in trouble because of the collapse of the Soviet Union, but they could not go home. The southern rebel movement had split along tribal lines in 1991, leading to thousands of south-on-south deaths.
For the first time, Cuba asked the United Nations' refugee agency UNHCR to register the Sudanese as refugees. The organization did and Canada gave around half of them a new home.
Because their Cuban degrees did not meet Canadian medical requirements, Madit worked in a meat-packing factory, while Dar worked in a bank. They were among 15 doctors who wound up living in different cities in Canada.
"All was white, cold and freezing for the first time in your life," Madit said.
"There was sadness mixed in for everybody. People in the diaspora are ready to come back," Dar said.
The return of thousands of trained professionals from the diaspora in developed countries was meant to boost to the development of the south after the war. But fewer than expected have returned. Dar said many have mortgages and children and want a better education for them than the south can provide.
Their return might also be less welcome than they expect.
"They think they deserve a job right away," she said. As a resident in Juba, she understands the bitterness felt by people who stayed during the war and fear losing out to returnees.
For many of the "Cubans", the need to return overrode other concerns. Some left children and wives in far away countries.
In Canada, Madit eventually approached the Samaritan's Purse aid organization, which had operations in south Sudan.
"They were amazed when they found there were 15 of us (doctors)," he said. Refresher training in Canada and Kenya was organized, and soon the doctors were on their way home.
Today, the doctors work for the government or in government-allied agencies, or international NGOs.
Their skills are in demand in a land where under-five mortality is 13.5 percent and more women die in childbirth than anywhere else in the world, over 1 in 50.
Four children have already been named "Doctor Daniel" in honor of the doctor who delivered them.
Bona Bol was among the 91 "Cubans" he reckons have come back. A businessman, he is struggling to make a mark in a land where what little new business there is -- mostly hotels or importing -- is owned by foreigners working for quick returns, as they weigh the possibility of the peace deal collapsing.
North-south relations came under severe strain in May when fighting between the two sides in the oil-rich Abyei area killed nearly 90 people and displaced 50,000.
Nonetheless, Bol says things are improving.
"It's getting good now. I make up to 20 percent (profit)," he said.
His partner Majok Wek is doing well importing materials and food. They are convinced they are setting a precedent.
"We knew the SPLA was going to need us. Doing business is development for the country," said Bol.
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