International media running the story Photo:herenthere
International media running the story of the three who almost made it

As the world continues to mourn the 298 victims killed when the Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 crashed in Ukraine this week, three South Sudanese who were supposed to board the flight are still stranded in Amsterdam waiting to be deported back to South Sudan via Kenya after being prevented from boarding.

The three, believed to have been ‘awarded’ academic sponsorships by PETRONAS, a Malaysian oil and gas company, arrived Amsterdam from Juba, South Sudan via Kenya a day earlier but were prevented from boarding the connecting flight to Kuala Lumpur after airport staff, in coordination with PETRONAS Education Sponsorship Unit, noticed some ‘suspicious irregularities’ and inconsistencies that prompted an investigation into their academic sponsorship claims and reasons for visiting Malaysia.

The sponsorship program demands that applicants meet a strict set of conditions, but experience has shown that through the unregulated and corrupt practices of the governments like the one in South Sudan, some of those who finally arrive Kuala Lumpa have not seen or do not remember how the inside of a classroom looks like.

Students have to be between 17-23 years of age, with a ‘good command of written and spoken’ English, and (not compulsory but helpful), an understanding that phrases like ‘my father is a minister’ do not work beyond the borders of South Sudan.

Last year, the sponsors together with the airlines decided to cross examine all student-visa bearers especially from South Sudan, Nigeria, and Libya before entering Malaysia – a move that has saved them hundreds of thousands of dollars, but still continue to rob the countries (and those qualified) of opportunities.

Saakam has now gathered that two of the three are half-siblings, sons of a late general and relatives of a senior official in the ministry of Education in South Sudan. The third is a 50-something year old on-and-off SPLA soldier and long time bodyguard of the late general and father of the other two. The last time the ex-combatant went to school was in 1987 when he was ordered to pick up and evacuate the children of this boss during an attack by enemies forces in Torit – a garrison town under the command of the general.

This is not the first time sponsored academic opportunities have become victim to the shame-deficient and numbingly corrupt officials of the government of South Sudan.

Deng Gatbel an affected citizen said, “Our officials do not give chances to citizens in a better way. Many have applied for sponsorships announce by the same government but they take nobody but their sons and their cousins to study those courses abroad. Our leaders like good things only for themselves these are golden chances but they can be easily corrupted.” [quote Gurtong]

PETRONAS has disassociated itself from the three and KLM, the airlines that got them to the Netherlands, has been slapped with a small fine. Preparations are under-way to safely return the three to South Sudan.

PETRONAS is expected to review the program at the end of the year and make a decision based on the findings whether to renew the program or explore other alternatives.

Under the academic sponsorship, South Sudan can specialize in seven areas which include chemical engineering, civil engineering, Tech- Petroleum geosciences, Tech- information and communications technology and others.

Had they boarded MH17, they would have been the 299th,300th and 301st passengers – the only Africans and South Sudanese on the list.