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'I can face whatever comes next'

Sudan | The journey of a Lost Boy from Ethiopia to Fargo

Issue: "Space: Dawn of Discovery," Aug. 13, 2005

The first time John Garang visited Lost Boys was in Finyido refugee camp in Ethiopia in 1988, wrote Akol Maker after Mr. Garang's July 30 death. He addressed 16,000 Lost Boys, encouraging them not to join the rebels but rather go to school. Here are his notes:

He said he would not be able to make the tough decisions of liberation if he never went to school. Lack of education is darker than the night, he added. Since you managed to escape Sudan and the UN is helping you go to school, take the paper and pen and I will take gun to fight, Mr. Garang said. Lastly, he mentioned Christianity is more powerful than important statements he had just said. He said, Pray before doing anything and God will be with you. He said, Christianity is our foundation, and he encouraged Lost Boys to take a Christian name as their first name, which Lost Boys did.

In huts at the camp, Dr. John told us he was hungry, he needed food. Boys were in disbelief. How could this big leader ask for dirty boiled corn from boys? He sat on the floor and ate maize and asked everybody to share with him.

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Who knows where you get this food? he asked after finishing. Many boys said UN. He denied it. He said God's work is in different formats from time to time. He fed 5,000 people with five bread loaves and two fish during the work of Jesus. This time He is feeding through UN.

In Sudan in the 1980s, the Muslim government in the north began to persecute Christians, first by denying them human rights and then by enslaving, torturing, and killing them. Rebel forces banded together to fight back, but the bloodshed only worsened. To escape the genocide, over 12,000 young boys walked out of the country to seek safety in Ethiopia. In August 1987, I was 10 years old when I became one of the Lost Boys of Sudan.

Our first journey took us through deserts and mountains into Ethiopia. We walked for many months with bloody feet. Many boys died from starvation, dehydration, and disease, and from attacks from hostile tribes and wild animals. We finally reached Ethiopia in the spring of 1988.

The Ethiopians did not want to be responsible for scores of starving children. We still lived like animals in the wild with mosquitoes, spiders, scorpions, and snakes tormenting us. As we huddled under the few trees for shelter, bird droppings fell on us and in our food and water, and starvation and disease claimed many lives. Without tools to dig graves, we simply piled the bodies outside our camp. The smell from the rotting corpses attracted flies, vultures, and jackals.

We tried to encourage each other by singing and praying, and three months later, our "angel" appeared: a white woman in a white Toyota. Stepping from the vehicle, she exclaimed, "My God! My God!" and burst into tears. She stared at the starving, naked children, the dead bodies, and the vultures feeding on the carcasses. The woman only stayed about 10 minutes, taking pictures and talking rapidly on her radio. Later, we learned she worked for the United Nations office in Addis Ababa.

After a few days, the UN trucks arrived. Workers cooked porridge and distributed food, clothing, cooking utensils, blankets, and bath soap. We could not believe what was happening. We kept asking, Are these mine? Can I take them with me? Will I use them and bring them back, or do I get to keep them? After all our hardship, we were finally able to smile again. Health workers arrived to bury the bodies and bring us medicine. In April 1988, the UN workers brought tools, so we could cut trees and grass to build our own huts. We felt proud of our homes, even though most of the roofs leaked and some collapsed. During our second year, some older Sudanese boys arrived who were able to teach us Arabic, mathematics, and a little English.

Life was good until April 1991 when a new dictator took power in Ethiopia. He sent the army to drive out the refugees, so we had to return to Sudan. We walked for seven days to Gilo, where the chief gave us one boat to cross the river. By afternoon, many boys were still waiting when the Ethiopian ground troops found us and began shooting. Those on the shore had no other choice but to jump into the river full of crocodiles as the troops continued to shoot from the bank. More than 2,000 boys died that day. The rest of us reached Pochalla in three days. In June, UN staff and the International Committee of the Red Cross came to help us, but we were not safe yet.

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