They Poured Fire on Us From the Sky:
                 The True Story of Three Lost Boys from Sudan


    

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 Benson Deng: A "Lost Boy" of Sudan Looks Back
 Middlesex School in Concord, Massachusetts 2007

Composed and pleasant, the lanky young man at the podium did not seem to be someone who could have witnessed incredible atrocities in his early life. But as he detailed in the book that he co-authored, They Poured Fire on Us from the Sky: the True Story of Three Lost Boys from Sudan, Benson Deng is a survivor of genocide - one of 27,000 young boys who fled Sudan in 1987. As part of an all-school summer reading assignment, Middlesex freshmen and sophomores read his extraordinary account and were primed to welcome him when he visited Middlesex with another of his co-authors, Judy Bernstein, on October 9, 2007.

As an introduction to Mr. Deng's address, the School viewed a segment about the "lost boys" that was produced for the television program "60 Minutes" in 2001. Amid an ongoing civil war in Sudan in the 1980s, a directive was given to kill males of any age in the southern region of the country. Escaping gunmen and burning villages, thousands of boys ran into the bush. They were forced to make the arduous trek through the desert to Ethiopia, where they lived in a refugee camp. When the Ethiopian government fell in 1991, they headed back through Sudan to Kakuma in northern Kenya. Only 12,000 boys remained by the time of their arrival in 1992.

Nearly a decade later, when the U.S. government agreed to allow a number of "lost boys" to emigrate to America, Mr. Deng, his brother Alephonsion, and his cousin Benjamin Ajak were among those chosen to go. They were settled in San Diego, California, where they eventually wrote about their amazing story of survival with the help of Ms. Bernstein. The book was published in 2005.

"When I first came to America," Mr. Deng said, "I thought I would leave everything in Africa behind and start a new life. Then I realized that everything in Africa was my life - I can't erase it from memory." Recounting his story for the Middlesex community, he explained that the conflict in Sudan actually began 50 years ago, before he was even born. When the country's second civil war started in 1983, he was too young to understand the politics of what was happening around him. One night, when he was just seven years old, he related, "I heard a loud, thundering noise and shooting. I ran outside and saw houses burning and people crying and running. I ran to the bush that night. A man told me that they were killing our people and that we needed to run away and find a safe place."

With a child's innocence, young Benson thought that he would be able to return home the next day, but instead, people advised him to keep walking. Reluctantly joining a group of people who were heading to Ethiopia, he eventually met up with two cousins, and they stayed together on the journey. He remembers waiting for canoes to carry them across the Nile, slapping at squadrons of mosquitoes until his hands became too tired to swat them anymore; he remembers crossing the desert without food or water, staggering like a drunken man as he tried to keep walking; he remembers reaching Ethiopia and starting school in the bush, learning to write using his finger as his pencil and the ground as his notebook. And he remembers having to find a new refuge when Ethiopia's own civil war began, forcing him to run to Kenya, where he lived for nine years.

Adjusting to America was a new and different challenge, Mr. Deng said. "The hardest thing was trying to understand life here," he commented. "It seems like everyone is busy, and you don't even know your neighbors." Working full time has made it difficult to attend school as he had hoped, but next year, he plans to be a full-time student and is interested in learning about computers and graphic design.

Fortunately, Mr. Deng is able to go on with his life here with the knowledge that many family members he had to leave behind 20 years ago - his mother, brothers, and sisters - have survived the conflict in Sudan. He has been able to contact them and even visited his ailing mother in Nairobi in 2005. "If there is a complete peace," he said, "I would like to go back to Sudan and see my relatives." Pulling a handmade, Sudanese instrument from behind the podium, Mr. Deng concluded his presentation with a performance on the thom, a streamlined hybrid of a guitar and a hand-held harp. He received a standing ovation.

Whether everyone in the Middlesex audience had read the book or not, all were impressed with the strength, resilience, and will to survive that drove Mr. Deng and so many other youngsters to keep going under unthinkable circumstances. At a reception following the morning Assembly, the Terry Room in Eliot Hall was filled with students eager to hear more from a remarkable survivor - one who has not just endured, but prevailed over those who would have destroyed him decades ago in Sudan.


Copyright 2005 Public Affairs Books.

Lost Boys of Sudan

 


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They Poured Fire on Us From the Sky
Alephonsion Deng a
nd Lost Boys