From the mouths of children
Benson Deng's early years were lived in a Dinka village in Sudan as close to tribal tradition as is possible in the contemporary world. His father, a respected cattle owner, had five wives. Little Benson was expected to graze the smaller livestock, and his biggest worry was the occasional lion attack. Raids by the Muslim horsemen from the north were also a tradition. In the 1980s that threat suddenly became more deadly, as the country's northern government savaged the non-Muslim south. Benson's mother told him, My son, the world is ending. And so it did. Benson survived, barely, only by joining an epic trek nearly unimaginable to Americans: 20,000 boys, some as young as five, many barefoot, walked 1,000 miles to flee the civil war that destroyed their villages and killed or scattered their families. Benson was seven years old. Those of the Lost Boys who lived about half ultimately ended up in Kenyan refugee camps, their plight receiving international publicity. Now we have a rare first-hand account of their struggles from Benson, his brother Alephonsion Deng and their cousin Benjamin Ajak, with assistance from their American mentor Judy A. Bernstein. The Dengs and Ajak, educated at the Kenyan camp and currently living in the United States, were smart and lucky. Tiny children when they fled, they quickly figured out the value of banding together for mutual protection with relatives from their extended families met along the road. They formed substitute families of little boys who cared for each other finding food, nursing illnesses, dodging dangers. In lucid, sometimes lovely writing, the boys tell of hunger, exhaustion, fear and loss all struggles that no child should have to bear. Benson, the oldest of the three, is particularly eloquent at explaining this horror through the words of his village childhood: Leopards were chasing us into the jaws of the lion. As the news from Darfur demonstrates, Sudan is still in crisis. But these authors made it to the U.S. 14 years after their personal horror began. Their lives are still not easy, but they endure. And, as their friend Bernstein writes, Their stories take my breath away and break my heart. Anne Bartlett is a journalist in Washington, D.C.