Master's student Paul Wel hopes to use agriculture and forestry to help bring peace to a country that has seen more conflict than stability during his lifetime.

Paul Wel had been handing out food to Sudanese refugees when he spotted the boy, crouched by a motionless woman. Looking closer, Wel realized that the child was “sucking on the breast of a dead mother.” He picked up the boy and delivered him to a nearby feeding centre, where he left him to the staff and to fate.

It was 1985, the year of the Live Aid fundraiser for famine relief in next-door Ethiopia. “The world was shocked with images of hungry people,” recalls Wel, seated in his living room in Hamilton, Ont.  But even as eyes in Canada and around the world were locked on Ethiopia, his homeland of Sudan was racked with needs of its own.

That year, he had returned to Sudan after completing undergraduate studies in agronomy in Egypt. Now, a quarter-century later and half a world away at U of G, he’s picked up those studies, having begun a master’s degree in the capacity development and extension (CDE) program in 2009. Working with Prof. Helen Hambly, School of Environmental Design and Rural Development (SEDRD), Wel is studying how to use agroforestry to improve food security and the environment.

But there’s a bigger goal for the long-time aid worker and self-described political activist. He hopes to use agriculture and forestry to help bring peace to a country that has seen more conflict than stability during his 51 years ─ and one that will be watching an independence referendum, scheduled for early 2011 in south Sudan, with both anticipation and apprehension. “The biggest battlefield is between your two ears, not in Waterloo or Trafalgar or world wars, but in the mind of a human being,” says Wel. “War is started in the mind.”

He was still a preteen when his family moved from Juba in southern Sudan to the capital, Khartoum, to escape the country’s first civil war. Begun in 1955, that conflict pitted north Sudan ─ largely Arab and Muslim ─ against the predominantly Christian, animist south.

That fighting had already come too close for Wel. He was only seven years old when he and his brother escaped death. They’d been playing with friends when government soldiers started shooting. “This is one of the scenes I will never forget ─ my colleagues killed, my brother and I behind a well, hiding.”

Looking back, he says that experience set him on his life’s path. “As a child, I thought I should make a difference. From then, I said to myself as a child, this is not bearable, why kill people?”

After the fighting ended in 1972, the family returned home to Juba. Wel’s uncle, Abel Alier, was instrumental in negotiating the peace agreement. Formerly Sudanese vice-president and first president of the high executive council of south Sudan, Alier now sits on the Permanent Court of International Arbitration in The Hague and is considered Sudan’s most prominent lawyer.

Peace lasted for just over a decade, long enough for Paul Wel to grow up and head to Egypt’s Alexandria University. When war resumed in 1983, he found himself in the middle of conflict again. By the time it ended in 2005, it had become Africa’s longest-running civil war, with about two million people killed and more than four million southerners forced from their homes.

During the next two decades, the agronomist would become an activist, aid worker and negotiator. Wel spent two decades with the Adventist Development and Relief Agency (ADRA), the global humanitarian arm of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, distributing food and other supplies in central and western Sudan.

What he saw there was bad enough. But it was in the Darfur region that he witnessed what one journalist described as “visions from hell.” War begun there in 2003 led to numerous casualties and refugees before a ceasefire earlier this year between the Sudanese government and the main rebel group.

Wel spent 18 months in Darfur during 2004 and 2005, working with a German non-governmental organization in refugee camps. “I was shocked by the level of violence, atrocity. Children raped. Women killed. Villages burned to the ground.”

He also served there as a BBC interpreter; besides English, he speaks Arabic and his mother tongue, Dinka. His languages and conflict negotiation skills ─ plus his relatively neutral status as a southerner ─ helped when he led a negotiating team to secure the release of 14 ADRA workers being held by the rebel forces.

The negotiators were flown to Chad and then into Darfur. Bound and blindfolded, they were loaded into a truck for the journey to a rebel base in the mountains. It took two days before the rebels released the hostages, who flew back through Chad with Wel to southern Sudan. “They would have been killed if they’d remained.”

He still recalls the fear he felt even as the team argued with the rebels over their demands for money. But disguising his feelings was part of the job. In a reference letter early last year for Wel’s application to U of G, Gerald Lewis, director of World Vision International, hinted at that challenge when he wrote: “Paul’s steady demeanour suits him well to leading and managing programs in complex, turbulent or even hostile environments.”

Something else was simmering inside Wel by then. While he was in Darfur, his family had become refugees themselves. His wife, Alwel Deng Agogok, had been arrested in 2003. Although she was Christian, she had an Islamic name, and the government had accused her of blasphemy. After her release, she fled to Egypt with their three teenage children ─ Lual, Awar and Ayak. In late 2004, they arrived in Canada as political refugees and found their way to Hamilton, where a relative was already living.

“A strange, far, cold country” is how Paul Wel describes his own impression of his family’s new home. He finally joined them in 2008 in a reunion at Toronto’s Pearson International Airport that he recalls as “full of tears.”

Looking to pursue his interest in NGOs and development, he learned through a friend about the CDE graduate program at Guelph. Last year, he began studying with Hambly, who has worked in development communications with international agencies in Africa and elsewhere.

Recalling his application to the program, the SEDRD professor says Wel was worried he had been out of school for too long. But she thought his more than two decades’ experience in development work made him an ideal candidate. “Paul has challenged our program to address capacity development and extension in fragile, conflict-prone conditions. He has shown remarkable tenacity in his return to studies. He effectively analyzes agricultural systems, while incorporating the realities of how women and children experience the worst conditions of hunger, anger and violence.”

Wel hopes to use farming and forestry to restore the ravaged environment in south Sudan. Despite its poverty and conflict, he says the region has numerous resources, including oil and water and fertile soils. “It could be one of Africa’s richest countries. It could become an African breadbasket,” he says, adding that he expects the results of the January referendum to usher in a new country in Africa.

With new-found prosperity and food security should come peace ─ or at least that’s his hope.

Wel actually visited Sudan earlier this year as an ambassador for Generations for Peace, an organization that aims to bring youth together through sport. Its patron is Jordan’s Prince Faisal Al Hussein, who provided a letter to ensure Wel’s safe passage in and out of the country.

During the visit, he met again the orphaned child he rescued in 1985. Today that boy, Abdullah Adra, has a home and family of his own and is working with the World Food Program. Recalling their meeting, Wel smiles and says: “I saved his life.”