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
Cherie Parker is a Minneapolis-based freelance journalist.
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