If Kakuma refugee camp is celebrated for anything, it is for its famous camps of "Lost Boys." Named after the Peter Pan troupe, the orphaned boys who arrived in Kakuma beginning nine years ago have told their story on prime-time news shows, to airline periodicals, and to Life magazine.
But celebrity does not a get-out-of-jail-free pass make. Ernest Maluak is 22 years old and a Lost Boy member still. He fled Sudan at age 9 following an attack on his village in southern Sudan. He never saw his family again, and spent four years wandering the hills of eastern Sudan and Ethiopia. Along the way crocodiles attacked and killed some of the boys he traveled with as they made river crossings. Others died of starvation. Gathered by UN officials in Ethiopia, he and thousands of other orphaned boys arrived at Kakuma's compound for unaccompanied minors in 1992.
This particular compound topped out several years ago at 16,000 orphans. The boys, now young men, have all lived together for years. Currently the youngest in the compound is 17. They are a far cry from Peter Pan's motley band. Mud huts sleep 2-5 boys each and, even with a surprise visit from a reporter, are orderly and cleanly swept. The "head boy" assigns chores and each hut takes turns with shared meal preparation.
"I am the head boy," explained Ernest with a broad grin, "but I am supported by the village leaders." Six organized "villages" in Kakuma look after the boys and involve them in church and other activities. But there has never been other adult supervision within the Lost Boys compound. Mostly they call themselves "brothers" and look after each other, straightening one another's shirts as they talk and correcting English.
A carefully written sign on one hut reads, "Happy New Year. We should therefore continue seeking God's protection and guidance so that we may live longer to see our dreams coming true."
Most of their dreams no longer include finding relatives. They assume they are dead or lost for good. Most are glad to be out of Sudan and its war. But coming of age presents new challenges. After secondary school, there is little to do. "We are just only staying," explained Ernest. He worked in his own school for a time after finishing, but has found no other jobs.
The U.S. State Department has approved more than 3,000 Lost Boys for resettlement in the United States. Others will be resettled in Canada. The oldest of the boys may be the last to go, and there are no guarantees they will go at all. For all of them, adjustment in the West is problematic. Many have never tasted cold food or lived with electricity or anything resembling the developed world. Most have painful war memories to shed. Every Sunday the UN flies up to 94 of the young men out of Kakuma to Nairobi, Kenya's capital, where they are processed for passage overseas. It is a long road most of them yearn for. But it has its own pitfalls. In June two newly resettled young men were robbed and murdered in New York City. In Kakuma the news was shocking to most of the boys, who thought they had left the nightmares behind them.