The Lost Children

Displaced Sudanese children at a camp, west of the Darfur region of Sudan
Displaced Sudanese children at a camp, west of the Darfur region of Sudan (Antony Njuguna / Reuters)
By Emily Wax
Sunday, August 21, 2005

Our rickety plane jerks to a halt, landing in the small southern Sudanese town of Rumbek just as old men in tattered straw hats rush to shoo goats off the rocky runway. Hundreds of children run to meet us on bare and calloused feet, warbling welcome ballads in Dinka, playing cow bells, happily swaying their hips and bouncing their shoulders.

But southern Sudan is not a happy place these days. The aftermath of a war that has taken 2 million lives and displaced more of its own citizens (some 5 million people) than any war in the late 20th century has left most of southern Sudan without cars, roads and running water -- just boys herding cows, some women hauling water and children playing atop piles of smoldering trash.

The children are singing because we've arrived to herald a joyous development in the area's otherwise sad history: a hard-won peace deal between the Arab government in the north and the African rebel movement in the south. Stepping out into the heat, I make eye contact with some earnest-looking youths who seem like Sudanese Boy Scouts: lanky teens in torn beige uniforms with name badges like "Chuck" and "Timothy." (European missionaries donated the outfits.) "My parents were killed during the war," Yusuf Makuac, 18, tells me with a piercing stare. "I almost died of thirst." His shredded right foot has a bullet wound, and he says he was a rebel soldier by the age of 12. "I have no hope but to educate myself," he continues, tugging again on my arm. "I want to write nice words like you do -- so fast. On a real notebook! But I can't write yet and am not having paper. Do you have? Can you teach me?"

I've been reporting in Africa for The Washington Post now for three years, and every time I arrive in places like Rumbek, I am struck by the enormity of the suffering here, away from the view of an often indifferent world. I am particularly amazed by Africa's children -- by their ability to survive, to raise themselves, to fight when they have to, to endure horrors like rape or famine. There is nothing noble about it, nothing to glorify; children trapped in adult wars have no other choice.

The stories of Yusuf and other African children are deeply worth telling, but resonant works about their lives are truly rare. While statistics-laden reports on AIDS or tomes on political machinations are abundant, few books have been able to capture Africa from the point of view of Africans. Three recent volumes make moving attempts to do so, offering glimpses into the heroic struggle of Africa's children. I had them in my backpack on my trip into southern Sudan and read them in my tent with my head-lamp; there was, of course, no electricity.

The Youngest Refugees

Three young Sudanese boys -- Benson Deng, Alephonsion Deng and Benjamin Ajak -- tell their own story (with the help of Judy A. Bernstein) in They Poured Fire on Us From the Sky: The True Story of Three Lost Boys From Sudan (PublicAffairs, $25). This beautifully told volume is by far the strongest of the three books under review here; it will remain on my desk for years to come. In this tender and lyrical story, the world of some of Africa's most desperate children -- running away from war and toward life -- is vividly evoked. The authors escaped bombings and attacks on their villages and survived a sandstorm-swept trek to Ethiopia, only to be forced into a thousand-mile walk to the sweltering, overcrowded refugee camps on the Ethiopia-Kenya border. They were later picked as among the camps' brightest residents and resettled in San Diego by the International Rescue Committee, an American nonprofit group.

The idea to write this book came from Bernstein, a volunteer worker who was touched by news reports of some 20,000 Sudanese boys -- some as young as 5 --who were escaping rebel groups and government armies that wanted to force them to fight. These young refugees, known as "the lost boys," walked across deserts drinking their own urine, dodging hyenas, bitten and bloodied by termites and mosquitoes, and praying for worms for their dinner.

Bernstein -- who appears only in the introduction -- was dispatched to help Benson, Benjamin and Alepho navigate the confusing web of U.S. culture and bureaucracy. When she took them to a shabby Wal-Mart -- "a king's palace," Benson says, "reaching his arms toward the ceiling in reverential awe" -- their first request was for a few notebooks. The lost boys -- now young men -- soon began recording their ordeal.

The result is one of the most riveting stories ever told of African childhoods -- and a stirring tale of courage. The book drags a little at the start, with context-setting material about idyllic village life before the men on horses came. But like the boys themselves, the book is layered with depth. It takes on a fittingly frantic feel once the war begins. The narrative explodes in the second half, when the boys' villages were raided by government-backed militias and rebel soldiers. The children, who show deep respect and affection for their parents, saw them killed or lost them in the hail of gunfire and bombs.

What is so unique and extraordinary about this book is its meticulous detail. Each of the three boys describes his particular pains and nightmares in his own voice. The hurtling pace and unassuming prose kept me running back, reading late into the night until my head-lamp nearly quit on me.

One of the most heart-pounding, mesmerizing scenes occurs when Benson and Alepho, who are brothers, found each other after years apart in a town where thousands had gathered after a bombing attack. Heartbreakingly, the two were then separated again. "It would be difficult to understand how we could allow ourselves to be separated again unless you have traveled in a crowd of 20,000 exhausted starving people fleeing a bombing," Benson writes. "After our reunion and a short spell of peace was shattered, I ended up alone without any of my family in the middle of a long line of people running for their lives." The story of their ultimate flight to America is extraordinary. Anyone interested in Africa, its children or the human will to survive should read this book.

Out of Africa

So what happens after some lost boys make it out of the hardscrabble Kenyan refugee camps and are resettled in suburban Atlanta? In his fascinating The Lost Boys of Sudan: An American Story of the Refugee Experience (Univ. of Georgia, $24.95), Mark Bixler charts two years in the often tumultuous yet earnest lives of four young men who survived Sudan's war and became what they thought they most wanted to be: immigrants to one of the most competitive and individualistic societies in the world.

Since these children who never had childhoods hailed from a place with little rule of law -- let alone seatbelts or library late fees -- they had little idea of what to do in America. At first, the former lost boys spent their days terrified, unable to find jobs or work the dishwasher. Bewildered, they took to watching "Divorce Court" in their shiny apartment, located in a complex ironically called Olde Plantation.

When well-meaning volunteer housewives came to help them, they often got deeply involved -- so involved, in fact, that the men sometimes asked for enormous loans or permission to move into their homes. Bixler, an astute and sometimes wry Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter, neatly captures the tension between the Americans' commitment to privacy and self-sufficiency and the Africans' sense of community and collective financial and emotional support. His unsentimental reporting offers a keenly observed reality check of the American dream. In one of the most haunting scenes, the young men, who came from traditional cattle-herding tribes, wound up working 15-hour shifts sweeping discarded meat off the floor of a beef-packing plant in order to save up for their education.

The book's weakest element is its organization; the four men are hard to keep straight since the narrative jumps back and forth between their personal stories and a long history of Sudan's horrific civil war. Its most revealing pages capture the former lost boys' voices with honesty, empathy and wit.

Child Abuse

In both They Poured Fire on Us From the Sky and The Lost Boys of Sudan , the protagonists feared becoming child soldiers. In Children at War (Pantheon, $25), P.W. Singer takes a step back to make a strong, comprehensive argument that the world dare not ignore an increasingly worrisome phenomenon: governments and warlords turning kids into soldiers, guerrillas and terrorists. In recent years, children have become combatants in Iraq, Afghanistan, Kashmir, Sri Lanka, the West Bank, Colombia, Peru and above all in Africa. "These new soldiers are not simply children; they can also be callous killers," Singer writes. "At the same time, they are still children whom society has an obligation to protect."

Singer, a fellow at the Brookings Institution, has written the least emotional book of the three; Children at War sometimes reads like an academic essay, filled with insider policy detail and a history of children in combat dating back to the Bible. But he weaves in vivid interviews with young soldiers around the world and gives enough context to help explain how desperate and terrified children can be commanded to kill. Singer urges the world community to outlaw the use of children as combatants; to put teeth into that, he suggests seizing the property of rebel groups or governments who steal childhood away from children. Only when the world does so will thousands of boys like Yusuf Makuac, who danced for me on that runway in Rumbek, have much of a chance for a future. ยท

Emily Wax is Nairobi bureau chief of The Washington Post.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company