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


 

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Memoir review: ' They Poured Fire on Us From the Sky' by Benson Deng, Alephonsion Deng and Benjamin Ajak

Reviewed By Cherie Parker
Special To The Star Tribune
Published June 5, 2005


As the war crimes and genocides of modern history add up, place names where atrocities occurred become shorthand for denoting the horror of a country turning itself inside out with murderous hate. Cambodia, Bosnia and Rwanda are all such places. Now Sudan, with its decades of ethno-religious violence, is entering the world lexicon. But even before the current crisis in the country's Darfur region prompted concern from the world community, humanitarian abuses created what aid organizations came to call the Lost Boys of Sudan. An estimated 20,000 young boys, many from the Dinka and Nuer tribes, were displaced by war and spent the late 1980s and early '90s trekking hundreds of miles across Africa for refuge.

In 2001, the United States began a plan to settle nearly 4,000 Lost Boys in the United States. Born in pastoral villages and raised amid violence and privation with little adult guidance, the boys who came to the United States required help to overcome the culture shock of entering a world where food came shrink-wrapped. When Judy Bernstein agreed to mentor a group of boys -- now young men --in San Diego she encouraged them to write down their experiences. Overwhelmed by the sensitivity with which Benson Deng, his brother Alephonsion (Alepho) Deng and their cousin Benjamin Ajak describe their lives so far, Bernstein helped them create a book from their essays.

"They Poured Fire on Us From the Sky" is the culmination of their efforts. Told chronologically and alternating between the three points of view, the book is at once an important addition to the contemporary dialog on world affairs and a surprisingly lyrical account of coming of age under adverse conditions. All from the Dinka tribe of southern Sudan, the three writers each begin with tales of a life before war destroyed their families and villages. These folkloric memories -- replete with lions and circumcision rituals -- describe a world centuries removed from the high-tech industrialization of Western society. But the years of war also have bestowed wisdom, and simple observations of childhood are seen now through different eyes.

Alepho Deng writes of playing with his pet monkey: "He knocked me down. I got up and shoved him away as hard as I could. He fell against the tree, hit his head, collapsed, and lay still. I don't know why I did that, pushed him so hard. I felt so sorry. One moment we were playing, the next he was lying on the ground. I missed that monkey for a long time and learned that life can end in a careless moment."

Much of the writing in "They Poured Fire on Us From the Sky" is lovely and unusual, likely a result of the multilingual educations the three received in the refugee camps. In one of his most traumatic survival stories, Benson Deng writes: "I have many bad memories that I will never erase from my brain, but witnessing how the River Gilo gulped Sudanese underneath to their deathbed will always prevail."

Certainly these three have vital stories to tell that can help readers understand events in Sudan on a human level. But "They Poured Fire on Us From the Sky" is no mere historical document; it is a wise and sophisticated examination of the arbitrary cruelties and joys of being alive.

Cherie Parker is a Minneapolis-based freelance journalist.


© Copyright 2005 Star Tribune. All rights reserved.


 


Copyright 2005 Public Affairs Books.

Lost Boys of Sudan

 


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They Poured Fire on Us From the Sky
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