Augustino Dut Kuol saw the dust and smoke on the horizon. Confused, the boy asked his father what had caused it. “He said, ‘Maybe it’s the Arabs burning houses,’” Augustino says. “He said that in two days, you will see the Arabs coming.”
Two days later, at around 6 p.m., Sudan’s predominantly Arab army invaded Augustino’s village in the 1987 offensive against a separatist rebel movement called the Sudan People’s Liberation Army. Augustino says the government soldiers burned houses and took girls, driving metal chains through their wrists to keep them contained. Augustino ran into the jungle.
“We ran with donkeys and dogs. It was total confusion in the forest,” he says. “I got separated from my parents, and I joined another group. I traveled with them for two days. … We decided the best place was to go to Ethiopia. We learned that young men were going to Ethiopia and training and getting arms so we could fight the army. We followed the sunrise until we got to the desert. That’s when things got hard.”
For weeks, the traveling party—made up mostly of boys younger than 11—trudged on without food or water. Augustino says army helicopters occasionally flew overhead, opening fire on the single-file line of refugees. Wild animal attacks were a constant concern: “A lion would cross the line, and there was nothing we could do. People would cry. We would do a head count to see who was missing.”
People died from starvation and thirst, others when they ate poisonous fruit out of desperation. There wasn’t any time to bury the bodies.
“People would walk off and sit underneath the shade of a tree without leaves and would not get up again,” Augustino says.
Life in Ethiopia wasn’t much better. Still more people died, from malaria and diarrhea. Abraham Aleu Gai, a fellow Lost Boy, says boys as young as 5 and 6 had to scratch out graves for their brothers, cousins and friends. “In Ethiopia, a lot of boys went mad because the friend you’re playing with might be dying, and you’re the person who has to bury him,” he says.
Considering what Abraham and Augustino have been through in their short lives—both are just 23—they seem unlikely fans of more war. But both Sudanese refugees hope America brings its troops and bombs to Sudan, that Iraq is just the beginning. They hope that Saddam Hussein—Sudanese president Omar Hassan Ahmed el-Bashir’s biggest ally—is dead and no longer able to supply weapons to the East African country.
“This thing will lead to peace in Sudan,” Augustino says, “because the source of this problem has been found.”
When told that there may have been other reasons for U.S. involvement in Iraq, such as oil, Augustino shakes his head. “It’s not because of oil. It’s to free others. It was a good decision. This thing will lead to many other countries,” he says. “All of us are happy that Bush has taken the right position. … The leader of Sudan has now agreed to peace talks because the guy he has leaned on has disappeared.”
Augustino says that in 1993, when the State Department included Sudan on the list of states it considers sponsors of terrorism, he was pleased. “I’m Sudanese, and I’m happy,” he says.
His roommate James Thon Pajok—most of the 140 Lost Boys in Utah live with two or three other Boys to help maintain the familial environment created during their exodus and life together in refugee camps—says he is “happy about the war.”
“We need it to be extended. Southern Sudan needs to be liberated, too. They harbor terrorists there,” he says. “We need Sudan to be disarmed, too.”
Unfortunately for the Lost Boys, Sudan doesn’t offer much in the way of natural resources or strategic geography, meaning American troops probably won’t be marching into Khartoum any time soon. But the Lost Boys have reason to hope: Last year, the U.S. Congress passed the Sudan Peace Act, which stipulated that unless the Sudanese participated in good faith in peace talks with the SPLA, there would be an increase in existing sanctions. El-Bashir got the message, made even more poignant when cruise missiles started falling on Baghdad and has since entered into talks with the rebels.
“That can help the people of Sudan,” Abraham says. “The U.S. can help the peace.”
While U.S. foreign policy is giving Sudanese refugees hope, it’s also confusing them. Atem Thuc Aleu, also 23, says he wonders why the U.S. is willing to stop wars in the former Yugoslavia and overthrow Saddam Hussein but not intervene militarily in a country where there is evidence of direct links between the government and al-Qaeda.
“We’re still asking when they can stop ours,” he says. “The war has been going on for more than 18 years and more than 1 million people have been killed.”
Included in the body counts is Atem’s father, mother and two brothers. He says government soldiers forced his mother and younger brother into a river. Both drowned. Another of Atem’s brothers was shot and killed during the Lost Boys’ exodus from Ethiopia.
The war also claimed a sister in law, who passed away in 1995 while giving birth to Atem’s nephew, Deng Aleu, in southern Sudan. Because the situation in Sudan was so precarious, Deng’s father—who died of disease in 2000—sent the boy to the Kakuma refugee camp, and asked Atem, then just a teenager, to look after him. He agreed and cared for Deng for five years as if he were his own son. But when Atem was granted refugee status in 2001, he had to tell Deng goodbye.
“I’m trying to bring him over here,” Atem says, adding that the process is complicated since Deng isn’t considered an immediate family member. “He was hoping that I would go back and bring him here. I’m trying but it’s not easy. I try.”
In many ways, Deng is an unlisted casualty of war. Stuck in a refugee camp without a mother, father or even his uncle to look after him, the now 7-year-old boy must endure what the Lost Boys call the “Black Days” on his own. Black Days occur when the U.N. food rations run out before the next shipment comes, and it happens every two weeks for up to four very slow days.
If Atem can’t bring Deng to America, the next best thing would be a let-up in Sudan’s civil war.
“If the U.S. can get rid of Saddam Hussein,” Atem says, “then we can take a little breath.”
Breath is important in a place where so many no longer have it. So too is peace, something the Lost Boys have rarely experienced. But most important to the Lost Boys is their never-fleeting hope. It explains why they kept walking to Ethiopia when they ran out of water, and why they bothered to go to school while interned at Kakuma. It also explains why they have such faith that George W. Bush will bring the Abrams and Apaches to Sudan some day.
In the meantime, Abraham is going to follow his plan—to get the best education possible so that one day he can return to a peaceful Sudan and help his people. He speaks constantly of this plan, almost as if he doesn’t voice it every 10 minutes, it will disappear like a stolen ration. He currently attends Salt Lake Community College, and he plans to eventually enroll at the University of Utah.
“After my school, I need to help my people,” he says. “If there’s a war in Sudan, I have no intention of going back. But if there is peace, I can go back.”