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Lost Boys of Sudan Look West

Unwilling to join fighting and unable to go home, many of the thousands of civil war refugees believe their last, best chance is to move to the U.S. for an education and a fresh start. That wish might come true.

February 03, 1999|ANN M. SIMMONS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

KAKUMA, Kenya — The horsemen came by night, thundering from one mud-and-thatch hut to another, shooting and slashing men, women and children.

Startled from his sleep, 6-year-old Gabriel Majok Bol jumped from the wicker mat that served as his bed. He, his parents and five siblings scattered.

The sprawling settlement in southern Sudan was burned to the ground. Bol survived unharmed--and alone.

He hasn't seen his family since that night 11 years ago, and thinks they probably are dead. But he did link up with hordes of others fleeing nearby villages that he later learned were torched by marauding Arab militias from the north. Survivors formed a human river flowing east to neighboring Ethiopia, where masses of southern Sudanese already were settled in dreary refugee camps.

Once there, Bol was lumped together with thousands of other boys, many from the Dinka and Nuer ethnic groups. Some also had been burned out of their homes; others were sent away by elders to seek an education and escape their country's civil war.

As Bol grew, these "lost boys of Sudan," as they are known, became his family. And with lives punctuated by long periods of inactivity, they have been running ever since--finally to another refugee camp, this one in a dusty, hot, fly-infested corner of Kenya. Now, as they reach manhood, the boys--and some aid workers--believe that their last, best chance is to move on again, this time to the United States or another Western country.

They have few prospects in Kakuma. Most are unwilling to join rebel fighters and unable to go home again. Estranged from their tribal cultures, they also lack the means to support themselves or establish their own families.

Bol, now 17 and a "head boy" put in charge of 172 others, wants desperately to get an education and a fresh start. Many of his 4,797 "brothers" share his sentiments.

Their wish might come true if the U.S. government signs off on a proposal to resettle them. A decision is expected sometime this year. But the issue has sparked a new debate over an age-old issue of emigration--relinquishing family and cultural ties versus the possibility of a new and better life in a foreign land.

Supporters of resettlement believe that most of the boys would benefit from the opportunities and quality of life in the United States, and would gain skills that will be needed to help rebuild their country if they ever have the chance to go home.

Critics argue that family reunification is the top priority for the boys, about half of whom are minors. They also maintain that the physical and mental trauma many of the boys suffered, plus their years as an isolated, tight-knit community, would make it hard for them to adjust.

Many adult Sudanese here have mixed feelings about losing thousands of their young men to a foreign country, perhaps never to return. Abandoning Africa would probably mean forsaking their native customs and beliefs.

Displaced by Civil War

Civil war in Sudan, territorially Africa's largest country, has dragged on for 15 years, pitting rebels from the predominantly black African, animist and Christian south against government forces of the dominant Muslim and Arab north.

Southerners are pressing for increased autonomy, exemption from Islamic laws, and a fair share of development money. An estimated 1.9 million people have died, and hundreds of thousands have been displaced because of the conflict.

Negotiations have led to agreement that the south should hold a referendum on whether to secede or gain autonomy within a federation. While a date for the vote remains to be set, the fighting rages on.

Relief workers and journalists familiar with refugee camps in the region say the rebel Sudan People's Liberation Army helped hundreds of boys reach safety in Ethiopia, where it planned to give them military training and considered them a recruitment pool.

But with an upsurge of fighting in Ethiopia's civil war in 1991, all refugees were forced to return to Sudan. And fighting there soon sent them fleeing again, this time toward Kenya. Accustomed to living together and depending on one another, the boys continued their odyssey as a group.

Some were attacked and eaten by wild animals as they trekked across the semiarid plains; others survived by picking clean the carcasses of antelopes and wart hogs, eating leaves and berries, and making plaited grass traps for birds and mice. Desperate for water, some drank their own urine.

In the spring of 1992, about 10,000 lanky, ebony-skinned boys straggled across the Kenyan border. Bol was among them.

They were eventually sent to Kakuma, 80 miles from the border with Sudan, where Kenya's pastoral Turkana people have eked out an existence for centuries.

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