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Cover story

What the Lost Boys of Sudan Found in America

January 05, 2003|David Weddle | David Weddle last wrote for the magazine about the lasting emotional damage to veterans of World War II.

Alepho Deng missed the 10:52 p.m. bus. He sighed and sat down on the damp bench. The storefronts of east San Diego's Euclid Street were shrouded in winter fog. A Mexican ballad played from somewhere. He shivered and pulled up the hood of his black parka.

Two Latinos wandered out of a Mexican cafe and headed toward him on wobbly legs. They whispered, then their laughter echoed across the deserted street.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday January 18, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 12 inches; 431 words Type of Material: Correction
Sudanese refugees -- In the Jan. 5 Magazine article "What the 'Lost Boys' of Sudan Found in America," it was incorrectly stated that one of the Sudanese refugees, Buay Tang, will be shifting from premed studies to a career in acting. He is continuing with his premed studies while also pursuing an acting career.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday February 02, 2003 Home Edition Los Angeles Times Magazine Part I Page 6 Lat Magazine Desk 1 inches; 49 words Type of Material: Correction
In "What the 'Lost Boys' of Sudan Found in America" (Jan. 5), it was incorrectly stated that one of the Sudanese refugees, Buay Tang, will be shifting from premed studies to a career in acting. He is continuing with his premed studies while also pursuing an acting career.

Alepho knew the next bus would come in 13 minutes, putting him downtown in time to catch the 11:30 trolley to Mission Valley. He could still make his midnight shift. As the two Latinos began to pass, Alepho noticed the odd curve of the short one's mouth--halfway between a grimace and a smile. He wondered if he should say hello.

BAM! The air crackled with tiny webs of lightning, and his head jerked forward. The asphalt rushed up, smacked his mouth and broke a front tooth. He started to stand, but someone kicked him in the stomach and he fell again. Alepho knew he had to get up quickly or soon he wouldn't be able to. He scrambled to his feet and wheeled on his attackers. There were three. Alepho's jacket hood had obscured the one who had sneaked up behind and hit him.

"What do you want?" he asked.

Without answering, they came at him. Fending off the blows, he asked again, "What have I done?"

They kept hitting him, saying nothing. He had seen hatred in eyes like theirs many times, but not here in his new country. He rose to his full 6-foot height, his thick chest and arm muscles tight. He hit one man in the jaw. He crumpled and didn't get up. The small one threw a beer bottle. Alepho ducked it. Then the small one pulled a knife. Alepho turned and ran.

He kept running, a half mile down Euclid to the two-bedroom apartment he shared with his brother, Benson, and three other young men also newly arrived from Sudan. Alepho burst through the door. Benson saw blood running from his nose and mouth.

"Some guys beat me up," Alepho gasped. He sat down on the couch for a moment, then fell to the floor, hugging his stomach.

"Which guys?" Benson asked. "Where?"

"At the bus stop."

Benson remembered what he had been told months earlier, shortly before arriving in the United States. In this country, you can rely on the law. He dialed the police. An officer promised help would arrive in 15 minutes.

An hour later, Benson and Alepho were still waiting. Finally, they gave up and tried to sleep. But Alepho could not. He lay awake, mind racing. "I thought when I first go to America I could leave behind all the memories of the terrible problems that happened in Africa," he recalls months after the Feb. 6, 2002 attack. "But when they beat me up, all of the memories came back, and I realized they are still in my blood. It can't go away, even though I grow old, I can still remember them."

Those memories were of Sudan and Kenya, of a village set afire by Islamic raiders 12 years ago; of the last time he saw his mother, his infant brother in her arms, as she yelled at him to run; of crashing through the tangled undergrowth, others fleeing around him; of boys, not yet 10, being shot or stabbed or dying of disease; of a lion pouncing on a boy who had been sleeping beside him one night and his dying screams as he was dragged into the darkness.

Alepho and Benson were the collateral damage of Sudan's bitter civil war between the Islamic government of the north and the Christian/animist Dinka and Nuer tribes of the south. The war has yielded more than 2 million dead, so far. The boys and 17,000 others, some as young as 5, were driven from their homes in 1987, when government troops, planes and tanks burned their villages to the ground. Most of their fathers were murdered, their mothers and sisters sold into slavery. The fleeing boys formed a sprawling column that made its way across 1,000 miles of forbidding terrain, staying first in Ethiopia, then being driven back to Sudan and finally finding sanctuary in Kenya's Kakuma refugee camp. More than 7,000 died along the way.

In 2001, with the help of the United States government and such refugee relief agencies as the International Rescue Committee, Catholic Charities and the Alliance for African Assistance, Alepho, Benson and nearly 3,600 other "Lost Boys" of Sudan were airlifted out and resettled in cities across the United States. Their arrival drew a flurry of public interest, much of it tinged with national pride at U.S. benevolence and with expectations that the Lost Boys were certain to enjoy better lives. As the media spotlight faded, however, so did prospects for understanding the truth about their American experience, which only time can provide.

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