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Years Later, 'Lost Boy' Finds Kin, but What About His Mom?

Separated from his family by war in 1987 at age 7, a Sudanese man gradually located some of his relatives. But one question nagged at him.

June 11, 2005|Ann M. Simmons | Times Staff Writer

SAN DIEGO — Word came to Benson Deng in a letter from a half-brother.

The mother he had long thought dead might still be alive.

It was 1998 and home for Deng then was an overcrowded refugee camp in a remote part of Kenya. His mother, the letter said, apparently was living in a desolate village in neighboring Sudan -- the war-torn country Deng had fled 11 years before.

Hoping to find her, Deng gave photos of himself to a refugee friend headed for Sudan, but he never heard from the young man again, or from his mother.

"I just prayed that if she was alive, she was OK," recalled Deng.

But he presumed she was dead, another victim of Sudan's civil war. "I had gotten used to it -- that now there is no Mum."

Now, Deng is 25 and living in a three-bedroom flat in suburban San Diego County. He settled here in 2001 after the U.S. government offered about 4,000 Sudanese youths -- known as the Lost Boys of Sudan -- the opportunity to escape Kenya's Kakuma refugee camp.

Deng has a full-time job, drives a shiny black Ford Mustang and is always armed with a cellphone. In Africa, he didn't even know how to use a regular phone.

But a couple of questions never stopped gnawing at him: Was his mother alive? And how would he ever find her?


He was separated from his family in 1987.

Just 7 years old, Deng saw airplanes and watched -- as he would describe years later -- as fire poured from the sky. His parents had sent him to the village of an older sister so he could tend goats while she cared for her new baby. The rumble of gunfire that awakened him reminded Deng of the growl of leopards.

"I ran outside," said Deng. "People were crying. Dogs were barking. There was a lot of noise. I started running because I was scared. I ran to the bush."

It was what his father had advised him to do if trouble ever came.

He had known it would.

For decades, civil war in Sudan pitted forces from the predominantly black, animist and Christian south against government forces of the dominant Muslim and Arab north.

A peace accord signed last year officially ended the war, but since 2003 more than 180,000 people have died from disease, hunger and fighting in Sudan's western Darfur region, according to United Nations estimates.

But in 1987, as northern militiamen destroyed the settlement where Deng's sister lived, he hid in a thicket. Other villagers soon joined him.

"They are killing our people," one man said. "We shouldn't hide here."

As Deng fled the smoldering hamlet -- wearing only red briefs that were a gift from his father -- he remembered words he had heard his mother speak: "Sudan isn't safe anymore."

Deng joined a river of survivors who flowed east into dreary refugee camps in neighboring Ethiopia. He was lumped together with thousands of other boys, many from his ethnic Dinka group.

Then civil war erupted in Ethiopia, and in 1991 government troops forced the youths -- by this time almost 20,000 of them -- on a three-month trek back into Sudan.

Some boys were killed by wild animals as they wandered across the hundreds of miles of semiarid plains; others drowned as they struggled to cross a treacherous river. Deng almost met his death under the hooves of a herd of gazelles thundering across the plateau.

As aid groups and journalists would document, thousands died from thirst and starvation.

"I kept thinking about my parents, [hoping] I could actually survive," said Deng.

After weeks of wandering, he reached a town in eastern Sudan and one day walked to an airfield to see if the U.N. had made food drops for the refugees. He heard a familiar accent, began talking with a young woman and told her his life story.

"You are my uncle's son," she told him. His newfound cousin took him in and he lived with her for a while.

It was the first of many coincidences that, in time, would define his future.

Returning from market one day, he saw his cousin talking to a young man, a soldier in the southern Sudanese rebel army. It was one of Benson Deng's older half-brothers, Yier Deng.

Benson came from a large family. He had four brothers and three sisters, and his mother was the third of his father's five wives.

Benson went to live with Yier.

Two months later, Yier called Benson out of his hut. Yier was surrounded by a group of little boys. One of them insisted he was Yier's half-brother, Alephonsion. Yier was doubtful.

"Do you recognize these little boys?" Yier asked.

As Benson would later write: "At first I thought they were friends from Panyido refugee camp in Ethiopia. Then my heart began pounding deeply and I knew at once this was my younger brother, Alepho, whom I'd left home five years earlier."

Alepho was 10, two years younger than Benson.

"We hugged each other in tears," Benson wrote.

Soon, attacks by government forces pushed the youngsters back on the run.

In 1993, Benson and Alepho were among 11 lanky, ebony-skinned boys who straggled into Kenya. They settled in Kakuma, a hot, dusty, fly-infested refugee camp.

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