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Lost Boys of Sudan: Searching for a Childhood - 2003-01-10

Santino Dut is looking for his older brother whom he thinks is still alive somewhere in Sudan. He doesn't know his own age but believes he is about 21. He wants to ask his brother about details of his childhood. One event seared in his memory is the day he ran from his burning village in southern Sudan.

Nearly fifteen years later, he sits in his apartment in a suburb of Washington and recalls the fragments from his life as he has so many times before. The pain is visible as he talks about the 20-year civil war in Sudan that killed millions including his parents and many of his friends.

After he left his village, he escaped the possibility of becoming a child soldier but faced a different battle of survival. He moved from one refugee camp to the next, with little protection from the violence that plagued the life of these wandering groups of children.

He explains the beginning of his odyssey. "We were playing outside. We heard the sound of the guns, and my father said, 'all of you get in here,'" Santino explains. "People are starting to run. They started shooting and I ran away with another elder person from the village. And at that time I never found them (his parents) again. And I can't really remember very well what happened because I was too young to remember what was happening. I really remember the sound of the guns and when people were running away from the village. "

Santino was part of a larger group of children called the "Lost Boys" of Sudan by international Red Cross workers who rescued them more than a decade ago.

An estimated two million people have died in the fighting or war-related famine in the conflict, which pitted the government in the predominately Muslim north against Christian and animist rebels in the south.

The "Lost Boys'" journey of survival lasted over a decade in the midst of Sudan's civil war. Like Santino, many lost their parents.

Those that survived started walking. Countless more died of starvation, thirst and gunfire along the way. Those that settled in Ethiopia faced civil war triggered by the 1991 overthrow of dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam. They fled the bloodshed only to be attacked by dive bombers back in Sudan as they searched for safe shelter.

Lion attacks also killed many of the boys, already weakened by hunger. Two years later, out of about 17-thousand, only 12-thousand of them survived a 950-kilometer walk to Kenya. About four-thousand found temporary homes at a camp in Kakuma, Kenya, a tinder-dry patch of savannah some 120 kilometers from the Sudan border.

In 2000, the United States refugee agency, UNHCR, airlifted more than two-thousand young Sudanese refugees from Kakuma for resettlement in the United States.

Jacob Abor was one of these. He remembers vividly the violence that destroyed the lives of so many who fled the Sudanese civil war.

"One of my relatives died along the way. He was shot. And that was very sad," Jacob says.

Children being used for combat is a global problem. London-based Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers estimates in 2001 about three-hundred-thousand children under the age of eighteen were combatants in more than 20 countries around the world. Some were as young as seven years old.

Analysts say a key reason children become soldiers is that they are abundant. In much of the developing world, particularly African countries afflicted by long wars, children under 18 comprise more than half the population.

Children are also cheap labor. They are usually paid nothing and survive on what they can steal. But observers say perhaps one of the most heinous reasons is that many of these children can make an easy transition from being witnesses to killing to becoming killers.

Joel Charney at Refugees International says a solution to the problem of child soldiers is not developing fast enough.

"It's not always about forced recruitment. Sometimes it is voluntary. I met a child who basically was told by his mother 'Son, I can no longer care for you any more. You are on your own,'" Mr. Charney says. "And his choice was to be a beggar or a street kid or join up with one of the armed movements, and he chose the latter because in an armed movement he gets fed."

Santino's and Jacob's story is bittersweet. While they escaped combat in their country, they still face an uphill battle settling into their lives in the United States.

Santino asks his friend and confidante John Belz, who has volunteered to help with the transition of some of the "Lost Boys," how he can better manage his money. I don't know where it all goes, he tells his friend. John shows Santino a way to budget his money through a computer program loaded on a PC donated to Santino by the local church. His monthly salary is thin.

John says the key to a better quality of life for these young men is through education that could lead to better paying jobs. But that is not always an easy goal to achieve. The high-school equivalency exam is a very difficult test for foreigners struggling with the English language.

While they do speak English, their comprehension is kind of slow," Mr. Belz says. "The tests are all timed and they have trouble completing the tests in the allotted time."

Jeff Drumtra at the U-S Committee for Refugees, which helped place some of these young men, says that while these refugees are much better off in the United States than in their war-torn country, it is still unclear what the future holds for them.

"To American eyes, they may look the same, at first glance. They are not. They each have a different personality. Some are more outgoing than others. Some have mastered the English language better than others. Some do better in school than others," Mr. Drumtra says. "Each, over time, will have their own issues and deal with them or not deal with them in their own ways. They will become less of a homogeneous population in our eyes, and they will become more like three-thousand separate individuals, each with their own different levels of needs and help. And that's where I think it is going to be interesting to watch the resettlement system in the United States. Will it be flexible enough to provide them with the assistance they need, not just in the first year, but in three or four years down the road?"

Meanwhile, Santino has hope for the future. He wants to be a priest. He shows his New Testament printed in his native Dinka Language.

In bold gold letters it says: Lekjot Yecu Kritho.

Asked about his battles ahead, Santino smiles broadly. Here sits a young man who still remembers fondly the hot summer days when he and his father fished by the lake for hours. Despite those harrowing 15 years of danger and uncertainty, he says he is full of gratitude. He says God has given him the memory of a family. He says one day he will have one of his own.