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.
Sudan 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.
Thousands 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 American cities.
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.
Twenty one 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.
"I 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.
Deng 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 sustains him.
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.
Deng 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.