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