by lyle e davis
The Skulls Tree
At night, you walk in the grass and step on something that breaks with a cracking noise. You shine your flashlight on the ground It is a smashed human skull.
Your eyes follow the flashlight beam and you see many more skulls. They seem to be smiling but are scary, with teeth missing. Some of the skulls are smaller, like children. Your eyes are full of terror. A light sweat breaks out over your body. It is midnight and very cold. You try to put the skulls out of your mind. You must try to get warm and you have no blanket or clothes. Your underwear, horrible with countless lice, is all you have. And you have miles to go . . . many miles to walk . . . barefoot. With no food. Little water.
And you must try to get some rest and precious sleep.
And you have the skulls to keep you company on this night.
In the morning, with the light of day, you see that many skulls were clustered under a huge tamarind tree. A soldier tells you, "That is a skulls tree where you can see all types of bones from a lot of people who went to rest in the cool shade and never got up to continue their journey."
This is but one of countless frightening, horrendous episodes recounted by the three Lost Boys from Sudan in a magnificent book, “They Poured Fire on Us From the Sky.”
Sudan's civil war in which two million people died, contributed to the phenomenon we know as “The Lost Boys.” Some 70,000 to 80,000 southern Sudanese would make the nearly 1,000 mile trek that would eventually take them to Ethiopia and northern Kenya to the Kakuma refugee camp. On their journey to freedom, tens of thousands, about half of the young boys, would lose their lives due to starvation, thirst, the heat, wild animals, and more guerilla attacks from militant government Muslims.
But in 1992, five years after their long march began, thousands walked into a refugee camp in Kenya. The boys that survived the long walk, most ages 6 - 16, made it to one of a few refugee camps: Dimma, Panyidou or Kakuma. Once in these camps the relief workers referred to them as Lost Boys, after the orphans in the story of Peter Pan.
All this because of a civil war from 1983 until 2005. That's when their predominantly Christian villages in southern Sudan were attacked by Islamic forces from the north. During that period of time some 2 million southern Sudanese lost their lives and another four million were displaced. Hundreds of more thousands sought refuge outside of the borders of Sudan. It is estimated that this civil war created nearly 2 million war orphans and widows in a region whose entire population was only around 12 million.
The stories these Lost Boys tell are often heartbreaking:
Alephonsion Deng: In 1989, when government troops attacked my village in southern Sudan, my peaceful world fell apart. As a boy of seven I ran barefoot and naked into the night and joined up with streams of other boys trying to escape death or slavery. We crossed a thousand miles of war-ravaged country without hope of sanctuary. Bullets replaced food, medicine, shelter and my loving parents. I lived on wild vegetables, ate mud from Mother Earth and drank urine from my own body.
We walked for five years, occasionally finding shelter at a refugee camp, only to have to leave again when it was attacked by Sudanese soldiers. Finally we made it to a camp in Kenya, where I lived for nearly a decade on a half cup of cornmeal a day and went to school. After several interviews with workers from the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, I was chosen, along with a few thousand other "lost boys," to go to the United States.
When I arrived here four years ago, I found that the skills I'd learned in order to survive in Sudan were useless. I knew how to catch a rabbit, challenge a hyena or climb a coconut palm, but I had never turned on a light, used a telephone or driven a car.
Luckily, the International Rescue Committee provided us with classes and mentors to teach us basics about computers, job interviews and Western social customs. Within a month I understood how to work most modern conveniences and started my first job as a courtesy clerk and stocker at a Ralph's grocery store in San Diego. Things like mangoes, chard and yams were familiar, but when customers asked about Cheerios, mayonnaise or Ajax, it was as though my years of learning English in the refugee camp were worthless.
I could not forget the sound of guns or the cries of women and children dropping next to me like leaves shaken off a tree in a storm. For so many years, the smell and taste of death had spread within me like poison.
Alephonsion Deng, Benson Deng, and Benjamin Ajak were relocated to the United States in 2000-2001 through the effects of the International Refugee Committee. Now in their mid-twenties and pursuing their lives in the United States, they continue to speak out on behalf of the Lost Boys. They live near San Diego, California.
John Deng James: The sound of automatic weapon fire blasting through his small hut startled the small boy awake. He called for his uncle who lay beside him, but fell silent when he felt the pool of hot blood. Terrified and confused, the child fled barefoot into the dark woods where it seemed that thousands of others were running, in all directions.
John Deng James only knew that he had to somehow escape the horrifying scene. He had no way of knowing that those first harried steps were the beginning of an epic and torturous journey. Although James and the other children eventually stopped running, they kept walking. They walked for days, then weeks, and finally, months before realizing that they would never return home or see their families again. His tranquil life of herding cattle and tending to his blind uncle in his village called Duk, had come to an end.
“When the pain in my legs became too much one of the older boys would pick me up and carry me. When I had gone days without water, I sucked liquid from the mud, and when I was so weak from hunger that I felt I could not take another step, I ate leaves or wild berries. Some children died from eating poisonous leaves, and sometimes that dirty water we had to drink caused a stomach ache and you worried that you might die. But, you know, God was with us," he says softly in near perfect English (learned at the Kenyan refugee camp).
Daniel Mabut Garang: I am Sudanese by nationality, Dinka by tribe. I was born 19 years ago in a town called Bor. Like many people in the Dinka tribe, when I was younger we depended on dairy cattle for our living. We Dinkas also cultivated crops. I lived a happy life in the countryside with my father, mother, grandfather and uncles. But when war broke out, our lives changed completely. In the early 1980s, the Arabs began bombing our countryside from their planes and killing people. They attacked us all the time. They also raided our cattle and burnt down our store when we ran away for safety. Life became very difficult for us.
When I was 6 years old, they attacked us badly. They killed my father, mother and two uncles. After this happened, I fled to the forest, where I joined other children. I didn't know which direction to take or where to go. I lived in hunger and thirst and ate only wild berries. Wild animals from the forest fed on us children of Sudan. But God kept some of us.
After one month in the forest I reached a place called Panyidu on the Ethiopia border. In Panyidu, UNHCR (the UN High Commissioner for Refugees) came to help us children of Sudan. They provided us with food, shelter, medical treatment and schooling. If they hadn't helped us, we would have died of hunger.
We stayed in Ethiopia for four years, until war broke out there too, and we had to flee again. Before we reached the Sudanese border, gunmen reached us children of Sudan at the river Gilo. They fired on us with their guns and tanks. Then we children of Sudan ran into the river and most of us children died in the river. Some ran along the river into the forest, where many still live.
Samuel Garang: Some of us crossed the river by holding a long rope that we tied from tree to tree. As we crossed, we tried hard to kick the water so that we could get to the other side. Those of us children who died that time are too many to be counted. For days, we walked, eating grass like animals, back to Sudan. Then we reached a town called Pochalla where we children lived in hunger, drinking only water until the Red Cross and UNICEF came and helped us with food and many other things we needed.
I stayed in Pochalla for 6 months. Then in 1992, Ethiopian gunmen forced us to flee again. We walked for months before reaching Kenya. During our journey to Kenya, the Red Cross dropped food and water into the forest. Without this help, we all would have died of hunger. I want to thank the Red Cross and everyone all over the world who thought of my great suffering and helped us. I thank everybody who contributed to help Sudanese children during this disaster.
When we reached Kakuma, Kenya, UNHCR took care of us children of Sudan in the camp, providing us with shelters, food, clothes and education. I lived there for eight years under the care of UNHCR.
John Deng Langbany: My first memories of my childhood start when I was about five years old in my homeland of Sudan, the day when my parents' house was burned. It was the last day I saw them. I ran with thousands of other young children in a very hard journey and we made it across the desert all the way to Ethiopia. I was small so the other children carried me there. I have many memories of my time in Ethiopia. I survived through the worst sort of life that I'd ever seen. Every day people were dying. I was living with a group of children in Panyido, Ethiopia, who had also lost their families. In Panyido, I couldn't do a lot of the things that the other children did because I was the youngest. For example, when they swam in the river I couldn't do it because the crocodiles would pick on me. I had to be scared all the time. I was good at climbing trees, but not at swimming. One day I decided to cross the river with a few of my friends who carried me across so we could get to a tree to catch some mongoose. Somebody came with a gun and he shot at us in the tree. He was an Ethiopian who hated us. We all had to jump down. We fell into the river. When I jumped into the river, I went too deep and my stomach was bleeding and I couldn't breathe. I thought I would be someone who wouldn't live anymore. It was painful. One of my friends was killed and one kid drowned in the water. They never found his body. I lived.
In 1991, when the government of Ethiopia fell apart, the new government chased us out of Panyido. We were chased to the edge of a big river that ran very fast, called Gilo. They kept shooting at us, so either you jumped in the water and they knew that you would drown because the water was way too fast, or you would be shot. I didn't know how to swim so all day I watched people being killed. There was a lot of crying. The people crossing the river had to throw all their bags away but it didn't do any good because the shooting continued. I was crying as people near me were being shot. The river was full of people. You realized later they were all dead. I needed to get across the river. I was thinking all day what I could do about it. I knew there was no one to help me. It seemed like forever. I was too little and I didn't have parents to help me cross the river and I didn't know whether my brother had already made it across or not or where he was. I remembered how the elders had shown us how to protect ourselves, so I covered myself with a person who was dead. When the shooting cooled down, I asked the boy next to me if he would try to cross the river with me. He didn't know how to swim either. I threw myself in. I don't know how, but the river was moving so fast it brought me to the other side. That's how I crossed the river that killed so many people.
I followed the other children who survived to a place called Pachala. It took three days walking by foot. We didn't have water or anything. Pachala was on the Sudan side of the border with Ethiopia. When we got there, we saw hunger like I'd never seen in my life. There was no UN, no nothing. If you found one kernel of corn you lived off that for a day or two. Water and a little corn. It was a tough life. We lived like that for two months. Then the UNHCR came in and started bringing food. Just as things got a little better with food, the enemy from Ethiopia crossed the border and the fighting began again. We had to leave Pachala. Before I could leave, one of the ladies told me to wait while everyone left so they could see if I could be carried out in a Red Cross car for the injured and the smallest children, so I stayed behind. A month after the rest of the kids had left, I was playing in the little river with the other children and the enemy came. While I was jumping in the water, I heard a sound. It was a bullet, but I didn't know what it was. When I got out of the water, the kids I was playing with were gone. I couldn't run because the bullets were all around me. I stayed flat and waited until nighttime. It was dark. I escaped from the river to the airstrip. There was also shooting at the airstrip. I stayed down. I tried to go to my house. I didn't know that the people who were living with me were all gone. When I got to my house, I accidentally kicked a can and the enemy heard me. They captured me. They took me to the place where they had a lot of people they'd captured. I stayed there for most of the night. Sometime before morning hours, I escaped under the fence.
I walked all the way to Oboth. On my way, I found one of my friends dead on the road. I had lived with him. His name was Mabil. It took me a long time to get to Oboth. On the way, there was a lot of shelling on the road. I thank God I was not killed. The shells missed me. When I got to Oboth, I met with the Sudanese people. I walked for three days to get to a place called Okila. I found the Sudanese Red Cross lady that had told me not to leave Pachala. She was still alive. I was happy. From there, we went to a place called Buma. In Buma, I found the UN and they announced that they would take the little children. At night, we were trying to sleep but some people came and shot at us. Three of my friends were killed. One was my father's brother-in-law. He was sleeping in the same bed as my brother, but my brother Aleer Gideon did not get shot. I ran into a tent but I didn't know there was a cooking fire inside. I threw myself in the fire to escape the shooting. I was burned. In the morning, after we got shot at, we left Magose to go to Kapoeta. We didn't stop there. We were with Red Cross vehicles and we went all the way to Nairus. We stayed there. There was no food for a while. The UN had to come in and give us food.
While we were in Nairus, the enemy captured Kapoeta again so the UN decided to bring us to Lokichiogio across the border into Kenya. When we came to Lokichiogio, we lived there but were still scared that something might happen again so the UN decided to bring us to Kakuma, Kenya, further in from the border. This was in 1992. In Kakuma, the native people treated us badly because they didn't know us. They were nomadic people called Turkana. They didn't know Sudanese. In 1994, I went back to Sudan. In 1995, I went to Ifo in Kenya. I lived in a refugee camp there trying to find a way to get to America. Three years later, I flew out of Nairobi to America and started high school in Rochester, Minnesota. I didn't know if I would find a good way of living anymore before I came to America. When I graduated from high school, I started community college and now I'll be going to Winona State University.
It took me a long time to realize that I have gained a lot from living with so many people in the refugee camps. Nobody can believe it that I can speak 14 different languages. It was a part of learning while going through bad things. You can go through a lot but one day things can change. With my classmates, I don't compare myself to them. I didn't have a good life when I was a young kid, but today I've learned more and I have a good life. This is a summary of my experiences but there is more to explain for each example I've given. I'm so glad I'm still alive and this is my story.
— John Deng Langbany, September 2, 2004.
Alephonsion Deng: In the days after we crossed the River Nile, water became precious. It was the dry season: the grasses were brown and the rivers dry with dust. Nearly all the animals were gone except lions, snakes and the vultures that always hovered above, waiting. If you sat in the grass to rest, they thought you were dying and they'd come down and sit close by because they were used to finding corpses in the grass.
The villages were far apart and as we walked without water and food, my vision blurred. I'd open my eyes wide, but everything surrounding me would turn red and then colorless dark with dim stars that made me dizzy. When I wanted to forget walking and sit down, someone would say, "Carry on. I can hear a cock crowing from the next village." I'd force my eyes wide open but all I could see were little boys like me, only heads and hips, staggering along.
We passed through a village one afternoon and came upon a little boy sitting under a tree crying miserably.
"Who is this little boy crying?" Kuany asked a soldier standing nearby.
"He wants to go to Ethiopia with the other boys. He has nobody to look after him."
"Where are his parents?"
"Two years ago a bomb blasted his house. Both his parents were killed but we pulled him out of the burning house and brought him to this village. He was so small he could not yet talk. He doesn't know the name of his parents or if he has brothers and sisters."
Kuany bent down to the little boy. "What is your name?"
"Monyde," he sniffled. "I come with you?"
"We can't look after him," the soldier said. "We're leaving here and he's too little to walk into the desert."
"I can go," insisted Monyde. "I want to go."
I was surprised at his boldness for such a young boy.
"He's not taken care of in this village," said the soldier. "He's always beaten by other kids who have parents. He's tried to leave with a lot of passersby, but they said he was too young to survive the journey across Ajakageer. He's been left in the world without hope of anyone caring for him."
We took Monyde with us. He was a funny, talkative little boy, happy and courageous even when the walking became bitterly hard at the day's end. He made people laugh with childish questions. He was a little comedian.
I began to suffer from pinkeye going through the desert. Walking in the hot sun made it worse. By midday we walked like sick dogs, with our steps zigzagging down the road. We could feel our bones trying to exhibit themselves to the world. Everything around us looked ugly and wild. We couldn't find happiness in ourselves, and no one could put it in us.
The only talk among us became the huge desert that lay ahead. More than halfway to Ethiopia, everyone feared and dreaded this most dangerous part of our journey, the desert of Ajakageer.
My eyes grew worse every day. At midday, when it was hottest, I sweated. My eyes burned and my skin was slippery and irritated. At night, I was desperate to have a good sleep and gain strength for the walking but I couldn't because it was cold in the desert. We used the middle of the road as our bed and all you could see was all the different colors of people's clothes lying there. My skin was crusty with dirt and sand from sleeping on the ground without a blanket and my underwear tingled with lice. At dawn, when the soldiers blew the whistle, a murmuring sound traveled all along the road. It was time to get up and walk again.
A day after we entered the Ajakageer we met with some luck. Six thousand men, going to the army training camp in Ethiopia, were being escorted by SPLA soldiers with a large water tanker. The youngest boys were selected to ride on the tanker.
That night, in the desert of Ajakageer, Benjamin and Emmanuel fell off the tanker and we had to shout loud to get the tanker to stop so they could climb back on. An hour later Monyde fell off. We shouted again but this time our weak voices from the back of the tanker were not heard by the driver, who was plunging in and out of the desert holes made by the mud during rainy seasons. The soldiers banged and banged on the cab, but the driver was drunk and he did not hear for a very long time.
Luckily Monyde was a very smart boy. He knew that surrounding him were lions and many wild animals, so he hid under the tall grass and waited. When eventually the tanker turned back, searching for him with its lights, Monyde came running from the grass.
The soldiers told him, "You are a clever and brave boy for hiding and not crying."
"Something was shaking the grass," Monyde said. "That's why I was hiding."
The soldiers lifted him up and put him in the cab with the driver.
That night I went down to sit under the tanker where the engine was still warm. The warmth felt so good to me that I fell deeply asleep. But the driver changed his plan and told everybody to prepare to leave. Everyone got up on the tanker and the driver started the engine. Emmanuel called my name to make sure I was okay and instantly knew that I was not there because I did not respond. He screamed as the driver let go of his brake and was about to pull out. The soldiers slapped on the truck cab to try to get his attention, yelling, "There is a boy down under the tanker."
They found me there snoring and a soldier poured cold water into my ear. That startled me awake and I banged my head on the axle.
When the sun came up in the morning, we saw that the tanker had stopped again in the middle of the desert to wait for the walking crowd. Everything was quiet and calm. When we started out, the driver told me not to ride on his tanker again. "I don't want anyone to die and blame me. If you want to die, die on your own, not by my truck."
My eyes were so sick that I was afraid I couldn't make the walk. I ran to the other side of the truck and tried to climb up with some other boys. A soldier struck my shoulder with his whip and I fell off. I pleaded with the driver not to leave me. He drove off anyway.
I found Kuany in the crowd that was following the truck and walked all day with the very hot sun burning the whip's welt on my back. At three in the afternoon, when I reached the place where the tanker had stopped again, all of the water had been finished. Kuany tried to find me some without success. I was too thirsty to cry. I had no saliva in my mouth or tears in my eyes.
The same soldier who had whipped me earlier that morning saw me and kindly offered me the little water he had left in his container. Kuany didn't get a single drop. That evening the driver let me back on the truck because there was a night and a half day's walk until the next village where we might find water.
In the middle of the night we ran into three lions. The driver blew the horn to scare them, but they didn't move until the soldiers fired their guns. They ran into the grass, but a few minutes later one lion jumped onto the tanker and nearly pulled a boy off.
The next morning the tanker dropped us at the village of Gumuro, with thousands of people trailing behind in the desert. Kuany arrived later with a few strong men. The soldiers escorting the walkers came with the news that twentyfive people had died of thirst that night alone. Many were those who carried peanuts and sesame in a small calabash. They died because eating this food increases thirst.
After dropping us off, the tanker returned to repeat its journey. We only spent one night in Gumuro because the local people there, who received weapons from the government, hid in the bush and shot at trespassers. Even the SPLA soldiers guarding us were afraid of them.
And so, with just one day's rest, we had to continue on foot. Eating became a big problem because of the number of people. Whenever we camped it was hard for little boys to get food. We were like gazelles among a herd of buffalo. But in this crowd there were a few good men who cared for us first. They contributed what little we ate and that kept us strong. They told us that nothing could befall us while they were around.
Monyde, who had been given a bowl of water, brought it to me so that I could drink and wash my eyes. I was so grateful for that.
At night I usually slept on the gravel road because the wet grass made my skin itch. When we were told we had to walk three more days to reach the last town in Sudan on the border of Ethiopia, I fell asleep wondering if I could make it through the rest of the desert, or if I would be one of the ones to end up under a skulls tree.
After Monyde gave me water at the river we became best friends and traveled together in the following days. I believed that he would be a good leader when he grew up because even though he was very young, I got courage from him because he never complained of any difficulties. When we became thirsty, hungry or tired from the long walking, he just kept quiet. Adults praised him for being the bravest and strongest of all the boys on our trip. I think he was.
At Pochala, after walking three days, Monyde suddenly became sick. They said it was yellow fever. Kuany did everything he could to help Monyde, but he died in only two days. He'd crossed that whole desert, even though they said he couldn't do it. He'd survived when many big people died. But we buried him just a half mile from safety. I was so sad to lose my brave friend. I knew I would never forget him.
We suffered another sadness in Pochala when the SPLA conscripted Kuany, who had been caring for us. Without our uncle, it was really not safe for us, little boys alone. Without Monyde and Kuany, I was beginning to give up hope that we could survive.
Paul Deng: “You have to urinate so that you can drink your own urine,” he says of the walk. He was seven when he began the walk. They walked for three months across Sudan, barefoot, taking care of each other. At 11, Joseph Taban was one of the elders. He tried to protect the others from wild animals. Many were shot. Many drowned. Many were eaten by crocodiles.
Zachariah Magok: “If you don't know how to swim, then you remain in that water,” he recalls. "We saw so many people who were just floating on the river.”
When the lost boys reached Kakuma, the UN knew it was an emergency of vast proportions, these emaciated children. For the boys, it was the safest they'd been in five years. Amazingly, many had carried books with them all the way from Ethiopia. Somehow the boys knew that what they now needed to survive was an education.
“They feel that education will speak on behalf of them where their parents can't,” says Sasha Chanoff, the American aid worker. “So they have a saying, it's actually a very important saying that they have, education is my mother and my father.”
For nine years, they had survived on one meal a day - wheat flour and maize – in the camp. Back in 2000, U.S. government began bringing them to America. Before they would leave, Chanoff, who taught the boys in Kenya and visits them often in America, gave them a crash course in America 101.
He knows it's not easy for them to figure out what is real and what is not. “They're hearing that people have gone to the moon,” he says. “If you're telling me people have gone to the moon, then they're seeing on TV that a horse can talk. Why is a horse talking so different from someone getting to the moon? It's hard to distinguish what is reality and what is not. Some boy saw a street sign that said, 'Dead End.' And they thought, well, if I go down there, am I going to die?”
Beginning in 2000-2001, after Sasha’s crash course in America 101, hundreds of Lost Boys were able to find asylum in the United States and the West. Eventually some 5,000-plus Lost Boys would find refuge within the borders of America, Canada and Australia. As a result, tightly knit Lost Boys’ communities sprouted up all around the United States, in places like Chicago, Atlanta, Nashville, Louisville, Memphis, Phoenix, Houston, Kansas City, Charlotte, Omaha, San Diego, and other key cities in the U.S. A few of the lost boys, like Samuel Garang, 23, who lives in California, somehow managed to work in the day and attend school at night.
"America wasn't paradise and it wasn't as easy as they told you in the camps," says Samuel, who has done the rounds of menial jobs: he's been a security guard and is now a bagger, someone who puts shoppers' groceries in their bags at supermarkets.
He won't be a bagger much longer. Samuel completed his high school diploma, went on to junior college and did well enough to be accepted at one of America's most prestigious universities, Stanford, in California.
In the past 6-7 years these Lost Boys have been completing high school and undergraduate educations as they have been working towards their U.S. citizenship as well. These young men now, mostly in their twenties and early 30s, are known to be hard-working, patriotic, very bright, resourceful, hope-filled, and desirous of returning to their country (in south Sudan) to make a difference for a new south Sudan.
Abraham Nhial: He was a 21 year old ordained minister of Sudan's Episcopal church in Kakuma when he learned he was one of the lucky lost boys who would be airlifted to America. From what he'd heard, America was a good place to go on preaching the gospel.
“I didn’t know much about America,” he said, “but one thing I like America very much because you think of others. You don't think of yourself.”
Joseph Taban continued to take care of the younger lost boys, becoming a medical assistant at the camp clinic. If he got to America, he wanted to go to medical school. Joseph said he had little hope that might actually happen.
“Maybe tomorrow something, something else may happen in which I may involve in - or innocently I may be killed,” he says referring to a fight in which eight refugees were killed.
Zachariah Magok, like hundreds of other lost boys, had been told his file was missing. He'd watched cousins and friends go to America, week after week.
One day, Joseph Taban saw his name posted on the bulletin board listing those who were chosen to go to America. He was scheduled to go to Kansas City, smack in the middle of America.
Abraham, also learned he was going to Chicago.
They had four days to pack their luggage. They took little, left less behind. Abraham was taking the Bible he’d had for 10 years, the one he carried from Ethiopia.
“I have been called a lost boy,” he says. “But I'm not lost from God. I'm lost from my parents.”
A last-minute switch sent him to Atlanta. Like the others who came before him, Abraham was greeted by volunteers from resettlement who introduced him to his new apartment. In a few months, he'd have to start paying his own rent. Eventually, like all refugees, he had to reimburse Uncle Sam for his $850 airfare.
But the good news is that Americans kept accepting them.
Chanoff, the American at the camp, helped prepare the boys for their journey. He said many of the lost boys had never been exposed to lights or to a fork or a knife or to a TV. “It's a group that's lost in time,” he said.
“Here are these boys that are products of this horrific civil war and they're coming to our heartland and they're coming to our homes,” says Chanoff. “And you know what? People are falling in love with them. They think they're the sweetest, most amazing kids in the world and they're going to be a part of America now and that is unbelievable.”
In 2001, about 3800 Lost Boys had arrived in the United States, where they are now scattered in about 38 cities, averaging about 100 per city. Halted after 9/11 for security reasons, the program restarted in 2004, but peace talks were underway in Sudan, and so other refugee crises in other countries took priority. As of 2006, the largest population of Sudanese refugees in the United States is in Omaha, Nebraska which hosts about 7,000 Sudanese people.
One wonders, “why only the Lost Boys of Sudan? What about the girls and women?” When villages were attacked, girls were raped, killed, taken as slaves to the north, or became servants or adopted children for other Sudanese families. As a result, relatively few girls made it to the refugee camps.
Before their arrival in America, the lives of the Lost Boys had been one long saga of war and suffering caused by the Islamic fundamentalists of northern Sudan who had destroyed their homes and killed their parents. The fact they came to America to escape from terror meant there would be some rude surprises ahead.
Joseph Taban arrived in Kansas City and Abraham Nial got to Atlanta four months before Sept. 11, 2001.
A Kansas City investment banker, Joey McLiney, took Joseph under his wing, even offering up his brand new car for Joseph's first driving lesson. The lesson ended with a minor crash, but with no injuries; the incident was laughed about soon afterwards.
Within a few weeks, Joseph Taban had his first full-time job in a sweltering fabric factory. He didn't mind the heat, it reminded him of home. What was a bit confusing, though, was his first paycheck.
“How can somebody handle just that small paper,” he asks, “and say, this is money?”
“He's living the American dream,” says his mentor, McLiney. “He's already got jobs, he's self-sufficient. You've taken someone literally in the stone age and dropped him into a modern civilization and said after four months you're on your own. And he is, and he's fine. It's the most remarkable thing I've ever seen.”
Joseph Taban has changed jobs again and is working for a company that makes office furniture. Nothing will keep him from his paycheck: not even a long walk at 4 a.m. to catch the first of two buses to start his workday at 6 a.m.
Joseph, however, wasn't satisfied with just one paycheck. He wanted two. So he got a night job, seating guests at one of the most exclusive steak houses in Kansas City. When he got home from his two jobs at 11 p.m., it was time to study for that medical career he's always wanted. A local doctor heard about him and came up with a book on microbiology.
As of 2003, Joseph still did not have his driver's license. Since he had hoped to start school in a few months, he might not have had time to take his test for some time.
In Atlanta, Abraham Nial was invited to be guest deacon at All Saints, one of the city’s largest Episcopal churches. Before long, he met one of Atlanta's most famous Baptists, former President Jimmy Carter, who invited Atlanta’s lost boys for a chat.
"He was moved by our word when we talked to him,” Abraham says. “He was really moved by our words.”
He believes a lost boy will some day be president of Sudan. But first, they must learn to survive in America.
After three months in America, Abraham felt he'd reached a dead end. He was still preaching at a small community center, but that didn't come with a paycheck. In a few weeks, financial help from the government would be cut off. But then he got the first paying job of his life working for the newly-formed Lost Boys Foundation, a group dedicated to raising money for the boys' education. Abraham is already in school, taking courses at a Christian college in Atlanta.
And those lost boys still stranded at the Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya? September 11 is still taking its toll on the lost boys. Relief flights bringing more lost boys from the refugee camp in Kenya had been stopped. And the recession cost some of the boys their jobs.
Several years later when the security measures had been worked out there was a peace accord . . . and there were higher priorities. So it appears those boys are still lost and, most likely, will have another long walk home. This time, one would hope, in relative safety.
After September 11, the lost boys who thought they had left a life of terror far behind found that it had followed them to America.
Abraham's boss, Mary Williams, was with him that morning. “I think they had a better grip on what happened than I did,” she said of the lost boys. “Because this is something totally foreign to me. I don't understand random acts of terrorism on that scale. They did. And they do.”
Joseph and his mentor Joey McLiney had talked about Islam before September 11. “I had talked to him about Muslims and he had given me a pretty negative response,” says McLiney. “And I wanted to tell him in the United States it's different, you need to think this way and that way. And basically on September 11, I was re-educated because it wasn't a surprise to him.”
In Atlanta, they offered to donate blood for the victims in New York, but were turned away because doctors didn't think they had any blood to spare. So they collected money - $400 in donations of $1 and $2.
“Their biggest nightmare,” says Williams, “ is that one day they might be homeless. They're terrified when they see homeless people and they don't understand why there are homeless people in America.”
Since it achieved independence from the British in 1956, Sudan has been ruled from Khartoum by a small group of predominantly Arab elites hailing principally from the Nile River valley in central Sudan. Rather than working to develop Sudan’s economy, empower people in the peripheries of the country, and pull its citizens out of poverty, these elites have hoarded wealth and power for themselves.
Southern Sudan and Darfur each belong to this historically marginalized periphery. Successive governments in Khartoum have either ignored these regions or sought to suppress them militarily. As a result, southern Sudan and Darfur are two of the poorest, most war-torn, and most underdeveloped places on Earth.
What are some of the similarities between the conflict in southern Sudan and what is happening in Darfur?
In both situations, rebel groups arose to fight for greater political control and increased access to the resources controlled by ruling elites in Khartoum. And in both situations the government in Khartoum responded by arming and training ethnically-based militias and granting them impunity to murder, rape, forcibly displace, and loot property from civilians the government accuses of supporting the rebellion.
During the civil war in southern Sudan, the government armed Arab militias called the murahaleen to attack the SPLA and the Dinka people. In Darfur, government-backed Arab militias called the janjaweed are attacking the Fur, Zaghawa, Massaleit, and other ethnic groups accused of supporting Darfurian rebels.
Another similarity is the Khartoum government’s cynical use of Sudan’s ethnic diversity as a weapon. The government uses “divide and destroy” tactics to engineer ethnic splits within rebel groups and foment increased chaos on the ground.
The ideological dimension of the conflicts also bears similarities. The ruling National Congress Party in Khartoum took power in a military coup in 1989, when it was called the National Islamic Front. Key decision makers within the ruling party espouse an extremist, racist ideology that justifies violence to reengineer Sudanese society.
The result is massive death, displacement, and destruction of livelihoods. From 1983 until 2005, the war in southern and central Sudan left more than two million people dead and drove some 4.5 million civilians from their homes. From 2003 to the present, the war in Darfur has killed at least 200,000 (possibly up to 400,000) people and driven more than 2.5 million people from their homes.
What are some of the differences between the conflict in southern Sudan and what is happening in Darfur?
One significant difference is the demographics of the victims. Southern Sudanese are overwhelmingly non-Muslim; they are either Christians or adhere to traditional belief systems. Darfurians are overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim.
In the context of this difference, analysis of the dynamics driving these conflicts has often been oversimplified. The civil war in southern Sudan has been painted as a war between the Muslim North and the Christian South. In reality, Christians are a minority in southern Sudan, and many northern Muslims – especially in the Nuba Mountains and Southern Blue Nile – fought with the SPLA against the government. In Darfur, the war is portrayed as Arabs versus non-Arabs. In reality, centuries of coexistence and intermarriage have blurred the line between Arab and non-Arab groups. A person’s sense of identity in Darfur is more political and cultural than physical, and the janjaweed are an extremist group that the Government of Sudan uses to fight its war.
Although both southerners and Darfurians experienced terrible trauma, Darfur has been spared from one of the most grotesque aspects of the war in the South: slavery. In southern Sudan, the Government of Sudan allowed the murahaleen militias to take slaves. The murahaleen raided Dinka villages in southern Sudan, kidnapped civilians, and sold them for domestic labor or field work in the north.
Does my voice make a
One of the main lessons of the conflict in Sudan is the role of citizen activism in generating international action. The international community is unlikely to act to halt genocide and crimes against humanity unless there is pressure from ordinary citizens.
In southern Sudan, the growth of a constituency of concerned Americans was the catalyst for the U.S. government’s decision to fully engage in the peace process that led to the Comprehensive Peace Agreement in 2005.
In Darfur, it is the ongoing efforts of concerned Americans that keep the plight of Darfurians on the radar of policymakers in Washington. Sudan’s conflicts have captured the attention of citizens from all walks of life, and sustained pressure is critical to ending the Darfur crisis and helping Darfurians and southern Sudanese rebuild their communities.
Where Are The Lost Boys Now?
Samuel Garang Akau became a U.S. citizen on October 18, 2006. A recent graduate from Stanford University, he left for the Sudan last November to spend three months doing an educational needs assessment for the New Sudan Education Initiative, and then return for graduate school.
Joseph Taban Rasino was working at Phoenix Box & Labels while going to school and studying pre-med. He attends Penn Valley Community College until he has his fundamentals completed. His American sponsor, Joey McLiney, a KC Investment Banker, met Joey by accident. A friend invited him to lunch where he met 20 Lost Boys. “I’ll take ‘em all,” he said. His friend said one would be sufficient. It turned out to be Joey. “We’re more a big brother than a parent,” he says. “We remain very close, he checks in with me often, usually once or twice a week.”
Very few of the Lost Boys are married. It’s a cultural thing. In their culture, marriages are arranged . . . and they often have multiple wives. Right now, most, if not all, of the Lost Boys are more interested in education.
Abraham Nhial: Now the Reverend Abraham Nhial of the Sudanese Episcopal Church of Atlanta, Georgia, he has recently completed an internship with Sunrise Sudan, an evangelical organization devoted to bringing peace and extending foregiveness by and between former enemies in both Sudan and Darfur. He is said to be a powerful, persuasive speaker. He just recently returned from a trip back to Sudan, his sixth. While there he trained new pastors and is working to raise funds for an orphanage. Earlier this month he attended a conference in Kansas City, Missouri, at which reconciliation between all parties was urged to help broker a similar peace treaty in Darfur as has happened in Sudan. Indeed, such a treaty came about in May of 2006 but hostilities still continue. The new leaders of France and Britain said recently they are prepared to go to Darfur to push for peace and will jointly push the U.N. Security Council to speed up efforts to end the humanitarian catastrophe in the Sudanese region.
Reverend Nhial is one of the few Lost Boys who has married. His Sudanese wife and 2 1/2 year old daughter are in Nairobi, awaiting the necessary immigration/security clearances before emigrating to America. He has been accepted at Trinity Seminary in Pittsburgh for his Master of Divinity degree.
He lost his mother, two sisters, two brothers and a number of cousins during the hostilities. Only his father survived. He will become a citizen this year. He has also written a book, “Lost Boy No More.”
Benjamin Ajak: Benjamin Ajak was five years old when, two decades ago, the Sudanese government-backed Murahiliin forces attacked his village and gunned down his mother and father. He was confused then, and remains puzzled today, as to why the sudden attacks took place.
“We are all people of God,” Ajak said from La Mesa, California, during an interview. “And he put us on this earth as equals. My parents were innocent and loving people who did not even follow politics,” he said. We spoke with Benjamin last Sunday. He has dropped out of San Diego City College where he was studying English so that he can devote his full time to speaking to groups. He speaks to Juvenile Halls, colleges, universities, libraries, book clubs . . . civic and service clubs. While this is how he now makes his living his passion is conveying the message so that the families and children of Darfur do not have to endure what he and his family endured.
“After they killed my mom and dad, one of the militias pointed his gun at me. But another militia intervened and told him, ‘Let him go. He’s too little. He doesn’t know what he’s doing. Maybe he’ll die on his own.’”
That recurring nightmare stirred emotions of rage and anger within him for a long time. To overcome those feelings, he and his cousins Alephonsion and Deng, also “lost boys” now living in the U.S., began to speak about their experiences at schools and community events across the country. They put their memories together in their book “They Poured Fire on Us from the Sky” to raise awareness about the ongoing genocide in Darfur.
And they call on their audiences to help them put an end to that war. “What’s going on in Darfur right now,” Ajak said, “pains me a great deal. It’s the same thing that happened to me, and it still has the same effect it had on me when I had to get out of Sudan.”
When he flew from Europe to New York to begin his new life, his flight was diverted to Newfoundland. It was September 11, 2001.
“Elimination is taking place again in Darfur. Many children are losing their childhood and are being forced out of their homes,” Ajak said. “Ask people to stop the killings and to help Darfurians return to peace; the people of Darfur are in pain. Bullets are replacing food and family. Darfurians think of their children who are already dead and of those who will die of hunger and thirst. They lost everything, but nobody is listening to them. Give them what they need so that they can return to a safe and peaceful way of life,” he implores.
You have read of many tragic events in this feature story - many sacrifices - many painful memories . . . the death of brave little Monyde, who died only a half mile from safety - the thousands of children who either starved to death or were killed and eaten by lions or crocodiles.
But perhaps no story can quite capture that absolute ferocity, the total lack of compassion and human decency, the total hatred the Islamic terrorists held for the Christian and Animist Southern Sudanese as the following story By Benson Deng:
“The adults no longer hid the subject of war from us. We heard it everywhere day and night in our huts with our parents. A few days later horsemen attacked and killed countless villagers at Warawar, just north of our vfillage. They burned the crops and nailed a baby on a fig tree like Jesus on the cross. People who knew how to read said the dot marks on the paper said, “Jesus, your God was here.”
I Want To Get Involved. What Do I Do?
Donate to the International Rescue Committee Lost Boys Education Fund (100% goes to educational expenses) :
Make check to: IRC memo line: Lost Boys Education Fund
Send to: The IRC, 5348 University Ave, Suite 205, San Diego, CA 92105
Mentoring and Tutoring: The International Rescue Committee email: Sharon.Darrough@theIRC.org
or Sudanese Refugee Network email Marilyn: email@example.com
Awareness Events or volunteering: Friends of New Americans Sharon.Darrough@theIRC.org
If you are interested in a speaker for your school, organization or book club, contact: firstname.lastname@example.org
On Tuesday, July 31st, the Hidden Valley Kiwanis Club of Escondido will welcome Benjamin Ajak, one of the three Lost Boys from Sudan who co-authored the book, “They Poured Fire on Us From the Sky,” as their guest speaker. Mr. Ajak wrote the book together with Alephonsion Deng, Benson Deng, and with Judy A. Bernstein.
Seating is limited and we need to know how many tables, chairs, and breakfasts to prepare for, so readers who are interested should RSVP with The Paper at 760.747.7119 or email at:
Admission is free, if you want breakfast it is $7.00 per person.
The Hidden Valley Kiwanis Club of Escondido meets Tuesday mornings at 7am at Cocina del Charro Restaurant,
525 North Quince, Escondido.
Photos From Hell
If a picture is worth 1000 words then the photos on this page represents a miniature novel that should shame us all for allowing situations like this to develop and to continue.
While politicians sit on their backsides and posture and offer all kinds of platitudes, in between their sips of martinis, we have people who need help, people who are being slaughtered, people who watch helplessly as their family members are murdered before their very eyes, burned alive in their huts and homes . . . forced to walk hundreds, sometimes thousands of miles to find some semblance of safety.
These were scenes from the Sudan . . . from Darfur . . . but they could be scenes from most anywhere. All that needs to happen is for people to allow it to happen. To sit idly by, thinking “this couldn’t happen here,” or, “that’s someone else’s problem,” or . . . “Darfur? That’s a long way from here. Let someone else deal with it.”
And meanwhile, children die. People starve to death. And all it takes is we, the people, to say, “No more!”
Somewhere in Khartoum, there sits a dictator and his henchmen, who care nothing about the country’s people or the rights to land or the right to live a peaceful existence.
Most of the people depicted on this page were harmless farmers, sheepherders, proud owners of cattle herds. But they had several strikes against them. They weren’t Muslim . . . they were on land that had oil, and they were unwilling to give up their traditional homes and culture. So they were slaughtered. You need to do something. Now.