Children suffer the most in war: they are defenceless, confused at what’s going on, tossed hither and thither, injured physically and emotionally for their whole lives.
“They poured fire on us from the sky,” the personal accounts of three Sudanese “Lost Boys” is therefore unique, in substance and style.
In the epilogue, co-author Judy Bernstein, says that for the boys to speak out the whole story of the nightmare years from 1987 until 2001, when they arrived in California, and to write it down was part of their healing process.
The three boys, from the village of Juol, a few days’ walk from Wau, were related. Benson Deng and Alephonsion had the same parents; the third was the quieter Benjamin Ajak. Benson describes the origin of the word Dinka.
When an explorer first came across some of their ancestors, he asked “Who are you young men?” “Ding Kak”, they replied calling themselves by their chief’s name, according to the tradition of their people.
Alephonsion describes the night in 1987 that changed their lives, when they were between five and seven years old. “The name Lost Boys came to be when our village was attacked by fierce Arab horsemen.
We, little boys, spewed out of the blazing village like a colony of ants disturbed in their nest. We ran in different directions not knowing where we were going. We gathered some fruits for our breakfast and lunch. We, little boys, were so messy, all chaos and cries filling the dark, fiercely lightless night”.
Twenty thousand boys were driven barefoot without food or water across a thousand miles of lion and crocodile country, eating mud to stave off hunger and thirst. Some of the older boys, aged eleven, kept the lions away from the younger ones.
Some found their way across the border to Panyido in Ethiopia, from where they had to escape in 1991. Half of them died; the rest made their way towards Kakuma camp in northern Kenya. Of these 3,800 were approved for settlement in America.
Benjamin was one of the last to arrive, the actual day the Twin Towers were attacked, September 11, 2001. The project froze for three years; after that refugees from elsewhere were being given priority.
Their anecdotes, whether of their father, Deng, killing a lion; describing the bleeding man who’d been fighting all night against hyenas; their skimpy clothes and overgrown hair crawling with lice, the jiggers in their feet; or the good Samaritans they met on their trek who gave them their own food and water, are told with simplicity and immediacy, from the heart, with no hint of self-pity for their unimaginable plight.
That they make no mention of dates – they had no way of knowing anyway – gives the whole account a sense of timelessness. Nothing of “been here and done that” about this story. These and others who survived, and the ones who died – the girls too – are real heroes and their tale deserves to be told.
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