Exodus of 'the Lost Boys of Sudan'
By Susan Vreeland
June 13, 2005
They Poured Fire on Us From the Sky:The True Story of Three Lost
Boys From Sudan
According to an African proverb, "When two elephants fight, it is the grass that gets trampled." Nothing validates this truth more than the experience of the Lost Boys of Sudan, the thousands of youths who have fled their villages during the long, ongoing Sudanese civil war. Some 3,800 have been settled in the United States.
Under the guidance of Judy Bernstein, volunteer mentor for the San Diego International Rescue Committee, Benson and Alephonsion Deng and their cousin Benjamin Ajak, all younger than 7 at the time their Dinka village was attacked, narrate their experiences in "They Poured Fire on Us From the Sky," a moving, beautifully written account, by turns raw and tender.
At the instruction of their parents, they fled the attacks "like ants spewing from the nest." Benson Deng says, "I ran from the fireballs, bullets and screams into the dark where the hyena and lion and scorpion slithered and prowled." Losing their childhood, their parents, their happy and peaceful agrarian life, they began their horrendous thousand-mile trek across Sudan to an Ethiopian refugee camp. Later forced out by gunfire, they fled back across Sudan and finally to Kenya, sometimes in a trail of hundreds, other times alone. They escaped from armed camps and lions and faced hunger so severe it blackened their vision, yet they summoned the spirit to continue.
Here is Ajak, for example, describing how, at age 5, he prepared to cross the Ajakageer Desert. This was a place where if a boy fell down or closed his eyes to rest under a tree, he might never get up: "I made myself strong like an elder. I made my heart strong. I told myself I was going to make it."
When Alephonsion (Alepho) Deng urged another to gather grain that had fallen on the ground and to eat it, the younger boy replied, "I am not a hen." Desperate to motivate him, Alepho said, "You are not in your mama's house anymore . This is the situation . If you want to die, just go ahead and die. I don't care. We will all die. No problem." But his next sentence is, "I did care."
If at times the book reads like one boy is telling his story, that's not so far wrong. When separated and with hostile strangers, it was every boy for himself, but when together, Benson, Alepho, Benjamin and their half-brothers ate, breathed, walked, hoped and occasionally laughed as one. Alepho says, "Family had become so precious to me. Without it, I was like a tree alone in a desert." Brotherhood is raised to new heights of self-sacrifice when the decision to stay behind with a sick or injured brother could mean death to both.
There were small victories - discovering a way to avoid chiggers - and big ones, like their miraculous reunion after five years of slim hope that other boys were alive. Little tragedies, like fire damage to a pair of red shorts, the only thing Benson had from his father, had huge emotional consequences.
One can hardly imagine such an account being pleasurable to read, but when considered as a tribute to their character, it is compelling. In language elegant with understatement and metaphor, Benson speaks of "the wail and the woe" of crossing the wicked Gilo River, dodging gunfire and ferocious crocodiles. "Thousands of people flowed into the river and disappeared, like water poured into the sand of Sahara." And again, "War determined to fling us into the wind like moths . I could feel the sorrow in the trees." Perhaps such imagery has its source in the oral traditions of their tribal life.
Their yearning for education was so keen that in a Kenyan refugee camp they chose rudimentary schooling over a chance to earn money for food. Arriving weak, sick and famished, with only one month until end-of-term exams, Alepho ignored advice to wait until next term and "didn't do anything except study." His pent-up hunger to learn resulted in scores of 98% in English, 100% in math, 90% in Kiswahili and 90% in science, ranking him second among 150 boys. In America, they hoped for "good healthcare, good food, good security, a good life with good people to live with and good education. America was the land of many gorgeous goods," Benson says.
Although the experiences themselves deliver an indictment, the account is remarkably without condemnation or self-pity, and the boys exhibit an underlying innocence and purity. One aspect of the story in "They Poured Fire on Us From the Sky" remains for us to deduce: the effect of its telling on the three young men themselves. The tone of the ending suggests that while excruciating to relive it to write about it, the process has been if not healing, then at least therapeutic. One would hope.