At Eckerd, Lost Boy chronicles his escape from war in Sudan

09/16/10 By Dawn Morgan Elliott
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In the 1980’s and 90’s, violence in Southern Sudan made orphans of over 20,000 children, mostly male, who walked hundreds of miles in search of safety. These children came to be called the Lost Boys.

Many of these Lost Boys, now grown men, found refuge in American education, and at least two have returned to their native country to build schools for the next generation.

Lost Boy Gabriel Bol Deng and American author Dave Eggers recently visited Eckerd College as part of its series, The Plight and Promise of Africa.

The Plight and Promise of Africa is a 2010 Eckerd College Initiative aimed to raise awareness about the issues facing Africa. Part of the initiative requires all first-year students to read Dave Eggers’ 2006 book What is the What.

The novel chronicles the real life journey of Valentino Achak Deng, one of over 20,000 young men, known as the Lost Boys, who were orphaned by the civil war in Sudan in the 1980’s and 90’s.

Last week 1200 Eckerd students and community members came out for the conversation between Eggers and Deng.

Dave Eggers: "It took four long years and I almost gave up the process many times in between and I didn’t think I would do it right or do it justice. But all that time you hope that at the other end of the process, that you’ll meet a lot of people who are listening, will read that story, will live inside Valentino’s skin for a while and see the world through his eyes."

Due to a family emergency, Deng was unable to attend and sent his friend and fellow Lost Boy Gabriel Bol Deng as his replacement. Eggers asked Deng about his childhood memories of when violence first came to his village in Southern Sudan.

GBD: "I remember vividly. At about 3 p.m. in 1987 I was about 15 miles from the village. I got attacked. First thing I heard was the sound of a gun, so I was surprised. I looked around and I saw the militia men on their horses and some were carrying guns. As a young boy I thought this is the danger that my father warned me about. He told me there was war going on in the country, but we didn’t know when it would reach the village. But when you see people on the horses with guns, that is a sign of danger."

GDB: “Before I head home, I saw smoke from the village. I ran for 20 minutes. I met people on the way, two men running away from the burning village. They tried to convince me not to go because I would be killed. But because I was so anxious, needing to inform my dad what had happened. But one of the men went to bend down to grab hold of me, and put me on his back, but he was shot in front of me. The bullets narrowly missed me on either side as I tried to roll over. What I did was to play dead, pretended that I was a dead child.”

Both Valentino Achak Deng and Gabriel Bol Deng spent months walking across the desert into Ethiopia hoping to find something better than the violence they had left behind in Sudan.

GBD: “If I go to Ethiopia, was to get good food. And then there’s no more shooting. It give me hope to work hard and cross the desert.”

DE: "But thousands died along the way."

GBD: "Yes."

DE: "And when you finally reached Ethiopia and you also spent time at Dimma, a different refugee camp, about the same size, 80,000 people. When you finally crossed the border, and they said, here we finally are in Ethiopia, and you’ve had these ideas. 800 miles in Valentino’s case, over many months. When you’re finally told this is what you’ve been walking for, of course it’s not banquet tables and accommodations. It was really just an open field."

After many injuries and malnutrition, Gabriel Bol Deng thought about suicide as he was confined to his bed in the refugee camp.

GBD: “At that time I thought I was waiting for my death on the bed. But my parents appear in dream. My dad talked to me, scolding me. That because I was hopeless, I was not going to overcome the mountain. And in the dream, they told me to imagine to be the most happiest child in the world. At the end of the dream, they said we love you more than you will ever know. But before you come home, you need to be resilient and be happy.

"They preach that a small percent of your life, 10 percent, you can’t control. And all of you in this room, you control 90% of your life."

Within a year of the dream, Gabriel was up and healthy, playing soccer with his friends at the camp. But then he faced more upheaval.

DE: "Just when there was a degree of stability, it was Menjusto was ruling Ethiopia at the time, gets overthrown in ‘91, and the regime change forced out the Sudanese."

GBD: "The camp was attacked from all directions. The only passage way was a small way to Southern Sudan. We ran, we arrived about 8 a.m. What I saw that morning was unbelievable. The enemy was shooting, and everyone women and babies, were jumping into the water. You will see more people than water."

There were so many people, Deng said, that as many tried to swim across the river to safety, many drowned as they became entangled in the crowd.

Deng’s escape lead him to the Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya. This time he wasn’t expecting to find anything at the camp, and he wasn’t disappointed. There was little food or shelter to be found there.

GBD: "I began to question myself more. What is the purpose of my life? Running from this camp, running from the war."

He lived at Kakuma for more than a decade. Shelters were built, and the children went to makeshift schools. It was here that Gabriel Bol Deng met and befriended Valentino Achak Deng.

DE: "When you started going to school and joining clubs, you were in the drama club, writing plays, did you have an expectation that you would go home? Hope that family still alive?"

DBG: "Yes I still had hope peace would come to Sudan. Actually the drama club or the school, for me this was really where you bonded more. Also, part of the club is to skip hunger. If you are home, you feel the hunger in your stomach. But if you go and practice, in drama or debating club, then you forget."

In 2000, Deng received his papers to resettle in the United States. He thought that leaving Africa would prolong his return to his home village and family, but he reasoned he could do more for his community by getting an education than by staying in the camp.

Deng left that winter for snowy Syracuse, New York. Working minimum wage jobs, he pursued his Bachelor’s in Mathematics and Philosophy. Currently he’s working on his Master’s thesis.

Valentino Achak Deng was sent to Atlanta where he also pursued higher education. Both men started nonprofit organizations that are building schools in Southern Sudan.

GBD: "Education is the root cause of the problem. Had our fathers known how to read and write, they would not have been cheated by the British giving the power to the Northern elite.

"To have an education is not easy. But in order to achieve something, you have to make sacrifices. Part of Shakespeare is Hamlet. Hamlet is me and he is you. Shakespeare was like my father because he taught Hamlet you have to question. When you have a problem, don’t just act carelessly. That life is about choice. To make good choices you need to formulate good questions and ask yourself good questions. And the good question will lead you to the right answer. And that is what Hamlet is trying to do."

Hope for Ariang

Eckerd College’s Initiative

Eggers’ bio

Rebuilding Hope Sudan

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