The ‘Lost Boys' were the subjects of a U.S. effort to save Sudanese refugees in 2001. Now, using the documents, the survivors are trying to piece things together.
When Deng-Athoi Galuak walked into the refugee camp in Ethiopia, he was a thinned-out, raggedy kid who had survived the bombing of his village, three months of walking, two bouts of malaria, starvation and predation by wolves and lions.
Days ago, thanks to some newly available records, Galuak saw, for the first time, a 22-year-old photo of himself in that refugee camp. He was only 6 or 7.
“At first, it didn't look like me, then I looked again,” said Galuak, now 29 and living in Lilburn. “I cried.”
He thinks the image looks like his four-year-old daughter, Ajweny, named for his tribe's word for survivor. He showed it to her, but she could not grasp the epic story behind it. She is still struggling to understand why other children have a grandmother and she does not.
The photo is part of a eight-page packet sent to Galuak by a non-profit group in Arizona. The packet contains his handwritten personal history, compiled by aid workers who interviewed him and thousands of other Sudanese children who streamed into the camp without parents. The workers gathered the information in hopes of reuniting families later, and the refugees are now reclaiming these lost pieces of their childhood.
Galuak looks a little nervous in the photo. He remembers when it was taken. The camera frightened him. He didn't know what it was.
The image is the only photo of his childhood.
It is part of a different life, before he came to America, learned to work a vacuum cleaner, spent late nights studying and received a bachelor's degree in international relations. These days, he and the other children who were his companions on that journey are the stuff of books and television programmes on the heroic ‘Lost Boys of the Sudan'.
The documents became available a few months ago, after researchers scanned them into digital form and handed them to an Arizona support group for the Lost Boys. The documents can be accessed through the website lostboysreunited.org. A few hundred requests have already arrived, including a handful from Georgia.
“It really is a healing for them,” said Brenda Felldin, a board member of the Arizona group.
Chol Nyok, another of the child refugees, also received a packet. Now 31 and living in Clarkston, he said the report rekindled memories of lost loved ones, including his father and a cousin who died in the Pinyudo camp in Ethiopia.
“I was reminded of those sad days,” said Nyok, a student of international relations at Kennesaw State University. “I was very young and I didn't know what was going on.”
But Nyok was “outraged” that the packet did not include a photo of him.
“I wanted to look at myself from that younger times,” he said. “I don't even know what I looked like.”
The Lost Boys were the subjects of a U.S. effort to save 3,800 Sudanese refugees in 2001, most of them young people. Many of their families were killed during Sudan's second civil war during the mid-1980s. About 150 came to metro Atlanta.
The papers Nyok and Galuak received document lives torn apart in a stripped-down list of questions and answers.
Galuak told the worker he is from the Dinka tribe. He listed his family members and the illnesses he suffered fleeing his country, including “itching.”
One question: What happened to cause you to leave the Sudan?
“I left the Sudan because of the ongoing war and to seek education,” he responded.
What were the significant events on the way?
In the boxes provided, the worker checked off exhaustion, hunger and thirst, and “attacks by people and animals.”
“I look back at it,” Galuak said, sitting at home, “and I wonder: ‘How did that kid make it?'”
The scrawled check marks indicate that, before the exodus, he lived with his mother and father, “tended cattle,” “collected firewood” and “played.”
Rescue and later life
“I was a happy kid,” he recalled, until the bombing started. It lasted a week and left his village in flames and chaos. He remembers hearing his mother's voice yelling, “Get out, get out,” so he ran and kept running. Those were the last words he heard from his mother. His barefoot walk to Ethiopia, amid of column of 20,000 mostly young people, stretched through three months of little food, sickness and night-time attacks by wild beasts.
“There were times I did not want to walk anymore. I wanted to lay down and die,” he said. “Some kids did that.”
Galuak spent four years in the refugee camp, separated from most of his family and holding out little hope for the future. That camp was attacked during Ethiopian civil unrest in 1991, and the group fled again, ending up in another camp in Kenya, where he stayed for 10 years before the U.S. rescue effort took him to Boston. He was about 19 by then.
Galuak, who had loved education from the time when he learned to write in the dirt of the Ethiopian camp, started taking lessons from a tutor. That was followed by evening classes and a high school equivalency test.
Now 6-foot-2 inches and 180 pounds (81.6 kg), he received his bachelor's degree from the University of Massachusetts at Boston, then moved to Atlanta to escape Boston's cold weather.
He is pursuing a master's degree in international affairs at North Georgia College and State University, and preparing an application to pursue a doctorate degree at the University of London.
For all his travels, he has never been far from the troubles in the Sudan, a place still riven by civil unrest. He hopes to serve as a diplomat or international liaison for the United Nations, or become an elected official in Sudan. He plans to vote for the secession of southern Sudan in January referendum. Refugees can vote at a handful of American sites.
He looks at the packet again and again. Some Lost Boys are using the information to find relatives. Galuak knows two of his brothers made it out safely; one is in Boston and another in Australia. He has gone back to Sudan twice to find others, only to be led by rumour after rumour to village after village, to no avail.
“When I look at their names, I want to see them,” he said. “But they are not here.” — © 2010 Cox Newspapers/New York Times News Service