A life on the run
'Before his national championship, he fled a far-off war'
His only way to safety was to run. The shooting started one morning when Guor Majak was sitting in his grade school classroom in southern Sudan. It wasn't the first time, or the last, that the building was the target of enemy fire, but this time school officials were particularly alarmed. Majak and his fellow students fled. They followed their teacher on foot for a mile and a half, leaving in an instant so rushed there was no time to bring anything along.
'We left the school, and we ran out to outside the town without my parents,' Majak says. 'All the kids ran together with the teacher and just went in the woods.'
After a day or two, the teacher left to find their families. The kids waited, with nothing to eat and nothing to cover them from the mosquitoes that swarmed in the stifling air. Eventually their parents would be located, but even then it was too dangerous to return.
'We stayed four days in the woods,' Majak remembers.
Majak has been running his whole life. Running from gunfire. Running from war. Running from his homeland, first by escaping to Egypt and eventually moving to the United States. Now, almost 13 years since the day he fled from his school, he is living a life that was practically unimaginable back then.
Majak, 19, has learned to navigate daily life in New Hampshire, attending school, working at the Hannaford supermarket and becoming a standout athlete on the Concord High School track team. He plans to graduate this spring and attend college in the fall. Last week, he was crowned the nation's two-mile indoor champion, the culmination of his high school career.
'It's translated, running from the war to the running for success,'Majak said in an interview last week. 'I used to run to run away from someone, but now I run for this sport.'
A wartime boyhood
Majak was born in Bentiu, an oil production center along the Upper White Nile River, about 500 miles southwest of Khartoum, Sudan's capital. The region is home to mostly dark-skinned Christians, as well as the followers of a variety of African religions - minorities in a country that is 70 percent Muslim. It had been peaceful for about a decade - until 1983, when the South rebelled against the institution of Islamic Sharia law by President Jaafar Numeiri. Sharia is a Muslim code of behavior that comes with harsh penalties for transgressions. It also creates a two-tiered society in which Muslims have more legal rights than non-believers.
By the time Majak was born in 1985, war was around every corner and under the cover of every nightfall. Southern insurgents had organized into battalions led by the Sudan People's Liberation Army, and the war would rage for two decades and claim about 2 million lives.
Majak lived in the south only until the age of 7, but he can still recall being forced from his home four or five times a month and getting rushed from school at the sound of guns.
'The war came at night, and we would run out of town. Then we would come back to the town, maybe in the next day or two,'Majak said. 'Sometimes our house got burned down, and then we'd come and build it again.'
Everyone, of every age, saw someone killed. Repeatedly the enemy troops would shoot toward the city and force the inhabitants to flee the safety of their homes or schools. That's how Majak's half-brother ended up dead: He was shot to death as he ran out into the street to escape enemy troops.
'It's hard for me to describe in detail all of what happened,' Majak said. 'I saw a sibling die, get killed, in front of me. It's very tough.
'The war was all around,' he said.
Escape to the North
Such danger was eventually the impetus for Majak's move to Khartoum, where his uncle Marial lived. His parents remained in Bentiu, but Guor's father hoped to give his youngest son the opportunity to leave the South and pursue his studies. There were fewer signs of the insurgency there, though living among so many Muslims was not without hazards.
'You can't walk outside at night,' Majak said. 'Say around 9 o'clock or 10 o'clock, you can't get service from the Arab people there. You can't go to a store or do something. You might get beat in the road, or have a car run over you.'
Or you could be killed. One night, a friend of Majak left school, walked to a bus stop and was taken captive, never to be heard from again.
'They just killed him. They never found his body. He just disappeared,' Majak said. 'No one ever found him, and that's happened to many people there.'
The difficulties of being a Christian in Khartoum weren't limited to violence, however. Work was hard to find and health care was unavailable to the unemployed. After seven years, Majak and his uncle decided to desert their homeland and head north to Egypt. They landed in Cairo two years before Majak's mandatory Sudanese military service was set to begin.
Two years later, Majak and his uncle were on the move again, this time to the United States. They settled in Laconia in July 2001, living with Marial's sister-in-law, who had left Sudan earlier.
Majak started classes at Laconia High School that fall, but without knowing a word of English, the adjustment was difficult. Five months later, Marial found work in Concord, and so the pair moved again. This time Majak had a much easier time making friends.
Majak entered Concord High and was placed in the English as a Second Language program. He studied with other Africans and students from around the globe. The atmosphere was welcoming, and he was soon comfortable enough to try new things. The first of those was outdoor track.
Running, for fun
When phys ed teacher Eric Brown suggested he try out for the track team, Majak thought he was joking. He had planned to play soccer in the fall, having watched that sport in Sudan, and thought people who ran for sport were 'using their body for no reason.' But he gave it a shot, and within three days of his first practice, the 5-foot-11 newcomer with the lean, athletic body was running the anchor leg of the varsity 4x800-meter relay.
By his own admission, he had no strategy or technical skill: 'I didn't have a clue what I was doing. Just get the baton and run,' he said.
He was quick, though, and the rest would come.
Four years later, Majak won the state cross country championship. He broke New Hampshire's best-ever two-mile mark and won the national title in that event.
'The hard work I put into running and school is the same that I did in getting out and learning English,' Majak said. 'I put a lot of hard work in to speak with people, and to go to school, and to learn, and to read.'
Coach Rusty Cofrin compares Majak to basketball star Matt Bonner because of the way he lifts those around him. But the greatest impact of his track career may be the opportunities it has afforded him. In the fall he will likely attend college - the University of New Hampshire is among the schools he is considering - to continue running and learning.
'I want to help. That's my goal. I want to get a good education and be able to help some others - my parents, some other people,' he said. 'There are a lot of people out there that need help. And someone like me, I can do that. If I can achieve it, I will, and will help others.
'My living is fine'
With most of Sudan - including the South - currently under a shaky ceasefire, Majak is able to talk to his parents about three times a week and sends them a portion of the money he earns working in the produce department at Hannaford's on Fort Eddy Road.
When he first arrived and was helping to support himself and his uncle, he worked close to 30 hours a week on top of track and school, but he's since cut back to about half that, per order of Cofrin and a few other families who have housed him since his uncle moved to Florida in 2003, hoping to find work and warm weather.
Majak lived with classmate Steven Ford's family, then with Cofrin and now with classmate Pete Samuels and his parents. He's become part of each family for several months, and his hosts have picked up most of the costs of his daily life.
The arrangement allows him to continue sending money to Sudan. Someday he'd like to give back more, and though he plans to visit his homeland as he gets older, he wants to remain in America. That's where he's comfortable now.
At school last week, Majak strode confidently through the halls, politely acknowledging acquaintances and commanding the authority of senior soon to graduate.
He's made friends at Concord High and beyond, and Samuels says he couldn't ask for a more gracious person with whom to live.
'He's really easy to become friends with,' said Paul Ahern of Londonderry, a running rival turned friend.
'He's so grateful for everything he has here, because he may not have had those opportunities where he used to live.'
Having a foot in two cultures is complicated but worth it, Majak says.
'I'm proud of myself now,' he said. 'My living is fine. I'm comfortable with people, I have great people taking care of me here in Concord, but the matter of the fact is that looking back and seeing where I came from, it distracts me from my school and from my running.
'But I know everything is going to be fine.'
By DAVE D'ONOFRIO