The Common Good
April 2005

The Lost Boys Of Sudan

by Mark Bixler | April 2005

The young refugees had come through almost unthinkable terrors to a strange, strange land.

In 2001, airplanes landed around the United States to deliver some of the 3,800 refugees known as the Lost Boys of Sudan to their new lives. They began their journeys in the late 1980s, when war in southern Sudan forced thousands of young boys away from homes and families. Several thousand of the Lost Boys wandered for months in search of safety. Many died of hunger, disease, or animal attacks, but survivors came of age relying on one another, forging a brotherhood.

In 1991, after about four years in camps in Ethiopia, more than 200,000 Sudanese refugees fled back toward Sudan to escape Ethiopia’s civil war. Daniel Khoch, Peter Anyang, Marko Ayii, and Jacob Magot were among them.

After two days of walking, Daniel, Peter, Marko, and other Lost Boys from the Dimma refugee camp, ranging in age from 7 to 12 years old, came to the banks of the Gilo River, which divides Ethiopia and Sudan, swollen after days of heavy rain. Daniel remembers hundreds of boys on the banks of an overflowing river, crying: "They needed help, but there was nobody to help." He talks about wading into the river, arms flailing, trying to swim, aware even in the chaos of crossing that the current was sucking under one of his friends. He remembers two other friends who were "cut into pieces" by a crocodile that pulled their bodies below water that was "full of blood," but Daniel somehow made it across the river, to the other side, back to Sudan.

The Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) directed Daniel and thousands of minors with him to stop at a place called Pakok. They dug foxholes, built small huts, and settled in for five months. Human-rights organizations accused the SPLA of using the unaccompanied minors as bait to secure donated food - some went to the boys, the rest to the rebel army. After another camp for the minors sprung up in the Sudanese town of Nasir, the International Committee of the Red Cross moved in to provide food and protection. By the end of 1991, the ICRC counted 10,000 boys at Pochalla, 2,000 in Pakok, and 2,000 in Nasir.

In early 1992, about 10,000 unaccompanied boys evacuated Pochalla in advance of an attack by the Sudanese government. Human Rights Watch/Africa notes that "some relief workers suspected that part of the government motivation for the Pochalla attack was to kill or capture large groups of the minors, whom the Sudanese government viewed as combatants or at least a military reserve force."

Jacob and the other refugees left Pochalla on foot, walking through marshes and desert on the way to the southern Sudanese city of Kapoeta. Red Cross workers had heard accounts of boys starving to death and dying of thirst and disease on their walks to Ethiopia, four or five years earlier. They were determined to avoid a repeat of those deadly marches. The Red Cross set up water tanks and medical stations along the route and ferried the sickest and frailest in ambulances. In response, the government expelled the Red Cross in March 1992, but not before it also helped shepherd unaccompanied minors from other camps toward Kapoeta.

Daniel and the other boys from Dimma left their ragged camp at Pakok and flowed south. The march took several days. On the second or third night, Daniel and the other boys put empty sacks and leaves on the ground and laid down to rest. A few hours later, the sound of gunfire jolted them awake. Daniel leaped up and joined a crush of boys running in the darkness in panic and confusion. Suddenly he became aware of a sharp pain in his right foot. He reached down, felt the sticky pool of blood around his ankle, and realized he had been shot. In the morning, an SPLA commander "came with many SPLA soldiers so that he can investigate," Daniel wrote later, but "very unfortunately, he didn’t find those who are responsible for the cowardly attack."

On May 28, 1992, the Sudanese military unexpectedly captured nearby Kapoeta. Tens of thousands of refugees were forced to move again. Nearly all the unaccompanied minors surged across the border into Kenya. In a final indignity, the Sudanese air force bombed the column of refugees as it streamed south.

CROSSING AN international border had some advantages. In the eyes of the United Nations, it made them refugees, as opposed to "internally displaced people." As such, they were entitled to protection from the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, the primary organization that cares for refugees around the globe. By June 1993, UNHCR had directed 28,000 Sudanese refugees to a camp at Kakuma, on the broiling tabletop plain of northwestern Kenya. It was a sprawling camp with a population in 1993 that included 10,500 unaccompanied minors who would later be known as the Lost Boys. Kakuma would be their home for the next nine years, a final destination after nearly a thousand miles of wandering, from homes across southern Sudan through forest and marshes and desert, into Ethiopia and back again, across a river to a wasteland of chronic violence and, finally, to this bleak Kenyan camp prone to sandstorms and flash floods and year-round temperatures near 100 degrees.

Many lived in sections of Kakuma with others from the same part of Sudan. Daniel and Marko lived next door to each other. They each had three roommates. Peter lived nearby. Most often the boys ate once a day, a meal of maize, beans, sorghum, or corn that they crushed and sometimes mixed with water and cooked over heated stones or wood. Despite the spartan meals, here, finally, was a place without constant threat of attack, sanctuary from a war that ground up life like a tornado skipping from place to place.

Years later, one of the young southern Sudanese who had been in Kakuma invoked the experience of past decades to explain a vision that gave the minors hope. He believed, as many did, that they would one day play a critical role in rebuilding their homeland: "We were uneducated, so it was the people in the north who were running the government, the business, the universities." In Kakuma, they believed, they could equip themselves with an education that they would one day need to reconstruct their shattered country.

Yet life remained rough for the boys from southern Sudan. A psychologist who specialized in treating children for the effects of war described the unaccompanied minors as "one of the most traumatized groups of children I have ever met." She said many were "haunted by flashbacks from the long trail of terror, physical suffering, and loss. The most common manifestation was sound: piercing aural memories that sprang back without warning." The boys "could vividly hear" the sound of "screaming from suffering, frightened adults or friends."

Years later, after Peter was resettled near Atlanta, he would recall trying to fend off memories of terror. Occasionally, he said, he would stand alone after school in Kakuma, smoking, trying to stop his mind from grappling with questions about his family. Were his parents alive? Would he see them again? Sometimes, he said, a cigarette helped take his mind off of it.

In 2000 and 2001 the United States opened its doors to many of the Lost Boys. Never before had the United States opened its doors to refugees such as these, young people unaccompanied by parents and unfamiliar with everyday life in the modern world. In July 2001, Jacob, Peter, Daniel, and Marko arrived in the United States, headed for Atlanta.

As they waited in the airport for a connecting flight that would deliver them to Atlanta, a polite woman struck up a conversation. She offered them some chocolate. Jacob had heard of chocolate but had never tasted it. He put a bite into his mouth, swallowed, and then felt light-headed and faint. His stomach roiled. The woman asked where they were coming from and where they were going. Were they students? They had gotten that question a few times already, though a growing number of Americans seemed to know something about them. In comparison to most refugees, the Lost Boys of Sudan were acquiring a kind of celebrity status in the spring of 2001.

A segment on the CBS program 60 Minutes II featured Lost Boy Abraham Yel Nhial, a deacon. Correspondent Bob Simon called him "Abraham the Preacher Man." "From what he’s heard, America is a good place to go on preaching the gospel," Simon said. "He hopes to get there." Abraham showed Simon the Bible he had carried since Ethiopia. "I have been called a Lost Boy, but I am not lost from God," he said. "I am lost from my parents." Most of the Sudanese refugees were Christians.

About 500 of the 3,800 Lost Boys brought to the United States were under 18. The federal government put them with foster families. Many were terrified to learn that, having arrived in an unfamiliar world, they would live apart from the "brothers" who had been with them for the last dozen years. One of the minors noted that, in American homes, "everybody disappears into their rooms" at night. "Being alone," he said, "makes me think about what’s going on in Sudan." For an April 1, 2001, New York Times Magazine article about a group of Lost Boys in North Dakota, writer Sara Corbett interviewed one set of foster parents in Fargo - "a smiling, earnest couple named Wayne and Carol Reitz." At night, Carol Reitz said, the family "occasionally heard mournful singing coming from his bedroom, but bound by politeness and maybe a hint of fear, they left him undisturbed."

In Atlanta, Dee Clement, a former exercise physiologist, was bouncing from apartment to apartment to offer company and advice to the young men from southern Sudan.

For the past few years, Dee had volunteered with refugees from Afghanistan, Bosnia, and Iraq, a commitment that meant frequent trips to Clarkston, the town just northeast of downtown Atlanta where nearly one in three people is a refugee. She was there one afternoon, having just delivered clothes to a few women from Congo, when she bumped into a resettlement-agency caseworker she knew. The caseworker told her about two refugees from southern Sudan he had just left in their apartment. These guys have nothing, the caseworker said. Nothing.

The caseworker suggested Dee visit them, and there she was, a few minutes later, knocking on their door. She found them inside in white shoes with red stripes and gray sweatshirts that said "USRP" (for United States Refugee Program). Dee introduced herself, told them she was there to help and that she would return with something for them. Their apartment had no furniture - the resettlement agency had not yet supplied it - and she raced home and called neighbors to say, in a tone of breathless urgency, as if her house were in flames at that very moment: "I need clothes and shoes right now!"

She returned to the apartment later with donated clothes, collected from neighbors in a ritzy Atlanta neighborhood. Volunteers like Dee would field dozens of questions from the young men about the mysteries of everyday life: What could be done about a cordless phone that did not work? How did one get rid of roaches in the kitchen? There were larger questions, too: Why did people drive everywhere in Atlanta? Why were there so few Americans on the sidewalks? The volunteers eventually would talk about whether and how the refugees could pursue their education, but there was a more immediate concern. Before the refugees could talk seriously about going to school, they had to figure out how to pay the rent. Like so many refugees who came before them, they had to find jobs.

Mark Bixler is a reporter for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. This article is excerpted from his new book, The Lost Boys of Sudan: An American Story of the Refugee Experience (University of Georgia Press, www.lostboysbook.com). Portions of the book proceeds will go to help the Lost Boys pursue their education and to the refugee orientation program of Jubilee Partners, a Christian service community in Comer, Georgia.

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