A Sudanese refugee offers a message of hope as he tells Americans about
his turbulent childhood in his war-torn homeland. The 27-year-old was one of thousands of so-called
"lost boys" of Sudan who have settled in the United States.
in the 1980s was embroiled in a civil war fueled by religious and
racial divisions, and a struggle for oil resources. Arab Muslims in
the north controlled the government in Khartoum and a separatist
movement in the south found support among black Sudanese who are
Christians and animists.
Alephonsion Deng, a southern Sudanese
who was five or six years old at the time, struggled to make sense of
the destruction. An air raid killed his best friend, a young girl, and
her family. He asked his mother, "Why?"
"Back then, I remember
I called the airplane, the 'bird'," said Deng. "I said, 'Why is this
bird coming and dropping the fire to the village?' And so my mom would
say, 'It's because they don't like us. We have a lot of cows, a lot of
goats and a lot of crops. They don't. And so because of that, they
are unhappy and they are jealous.'"
Bombers and raiders would
later return. And in the chaos of one raid, the villagers fled in
panic and Deng, his brothers and cousins were separated from their
families. They became part of the 20,000 or more so-called "lost boys"
who traveled from town-to-town in search of food and safety.
Deng says they moved in groups, sometimes helped by adults and sometimes on their own.
"There was a group that went to Ethiopia and then a group that went to Uganda, a group that went to Kenya," he said.
Some would find refuge, only to flee again because of renewed violence.
died along the way. Survivors faced a series of horrors, including
armed attacks, encounters with wild animals and bandits, and long days
and nights without food or water.
"I can't really tell you
exactly why I survived, but I know I had the quest to live," said
Deng. "And so even during the journey when we were walking and I would
see a boy left behind, a boy had just given up, he had been walking for
days. He was tired, he was exhausted, he was weak, he was hungry or he
was sick. And he just chose to lay under a tree, and he was left
there. Seeing all those things allowed me to say, 'I don't want to die
like that boy.'"
Deng says that during the long journey, there
were some who were cruel and others who offered help - older children
who cared for younger ones, and villagers, teachers and rebel soldiers
who gave assistance.
He finally found safety and got an
education at a refugee camp in Kenya, before coming to the United
States in 2001. He was one of 3,800 "lost boys" who were resettled in
Deng lives in San Diego, California with his
brother and several cousins. They often speak about their experiences
at schools, to human rights groups and religious organizations.
years of fighting left hundreds of thousands of people dead in southern
Sudan, mostly from famine and disease, before the government in
Khartoum and rebel forces signed a peace agreement in 2005. The south
was given partial autonomy and a share of oil resources, and a
referendum was set for 2011 to determine whether the south will secede
from the country.
Deng says Americans are baffled that the
world did so little in response to the suffering and that they are
inspired by the accounts of survival.
"They are inspired, they
are inspired to go out and make a difference too," he said. "They say,
'You know what, we have it best here in America and we can't let other
people, children, suffer in Africa or anywhere in the world. We can
make a difference.' And particularly, the young people are so excited
to make a difference nowadays."
Alephonsion Deng, his brother
Benson and cousin, Benjamin Ajak, have written about their experiences
with coauthor Judy Bernstein in a book called They Poured Fire on Us
From the Sky. Bernstein says the book, which was published in 2005,
tells the story of war honestly through the eyes of children.
think that it's a real testament to the human spirit and the spirit of
these boys, their ability to maintain their humanity and their dignity
and their humor under these incredibly difficult situations," he said.
says he owes a debt to the United Nations, which provided him, his
brothers and cousins with food and education in a Kenyan refugee camp.
He says he was also inspired by Christian missionaries, who compared
his journey to the exodus of ancient Israelites from Egypt. Deng says
that image resonated with him and helped cultivate a faith that still
He also thanks his adopted country, and says he
is adapting to life in America. "This is my new country," said Deng.
"And so I'm taking things slowly and learning slowly. I'm coming
along. I'm coming a long way."
Deng visited Sudan for two
months this year and says he saw people who are still suffering,
especially women maimed by war. He says many were rape victims and
that some are despondent over the loss of their children or families.
also worries about those caught in a separate conflict in the Darfur
region of western Sudan. Hundreds of thousands have been killed and
millions left homeless in that conflict, which grew out of a different
separatist movement. International organizations say most of the
killings have been at the hands of Janjaweed militias with ties to the
government. Sudanese official deny links to the militias.