So many years had passed, he knew that he would not recognize his youngest son.
It was in the middle of the night long ago when John Lodu was whisked away at gunpoint from his home in the Sudan, thousands of miles from here. It happened so fast, there was no time for goodbyes.
Robert was just 3 at the time, a little boy who clung to his mother.
Ladu, then 7, was the quiet son. Sobe, 10, was the talkative one.
And there were Lodu’s shy 13-year-old twin girls, Nancy and Poni.
Two painful odysseys followed.
John Lodu’s family ended up in the unforgiving world of a refugee camp in Africa, living among a desolate sprawl of grass-and-mud huts, surviving on handouts of cornmeal, rice and beans.
Lodu himself endured a brutal beating in Sudan just days after his seizure; his spine was crushed, leaving him paralyzed. After a risky escape and the kindness of many strangers, he eventually made it -- in a wheelchair -- to America.
For years, his family didn’t know that. They didn’t even know if he was alive.
And John Lodu didn’t know how they were. But he began to develop a plan.
He would find his children.
He didn’t know where to look or how he’d pay for a 10,000-mile journey, then navigate a wheelchair in remote eastern Africa, to places without paved roads or any roads at all.
But after nearly eight years of separation, he knew one thing: He wanted to be a father once again.
He explained it simply: “I cannot live without my kids.”
The knock on his door came one terrifying night early in 1992.
He says Army officers in Juba, in southern Sudan, ordered him to come with them for questioning.
“There’s no way in the world you can say no,” he said.
Sudan has been mired in a civil war for two decades, pitting the Islamic north against the largely non-Muslim south. An estimated 2 million people have died, mostly from famine and disease.
At the time Lodu was taken, there was a rebel uprising in Juba.
Then an accountant and an activist in the Episcopal church, Lodu insisted that he had nothing to do with the rebellion. His interrogators asked about church meetings -- he said they were about religion, not politics.
“I’m not a soldier,” he protested.
The officers didn’t believe him, Lodu says, and forced his feet into scalding water. He gingerly removes a sock to reveal fleshy pink scars on his ebony skin.
Later, he says, his interrogators tied a plastic bag around his head, nearly suffocating him.
He says they warned him: “ ‘If you tell the truth, we’ll release you. If not, you won’t see your family.’ ... They say this is a journey without return.”
More torture followed and after he was kicked and struck on his back with rifle butts, he could not get up. He screamed from the burning pain in his spine -- and he had no feeling in his legs.
“I didn’t know about paralysis,” he said. “I was thinking: What was wrong?”
Lodu was transferred to a military hospital in Khartoum, the Sudanese capital, where, finally, he saw a friendly face: He knew one of the doctors, an Army colonel who had been at the University of Juba.
Lodu says he remained there about two years, while the doctor secretly planned his escape. One day after visiting an outside clinic, the doctor handed him a passport and a train ticket for Cairo and put him in a taxi.
Lodu had no money, no food, not even shoes. He couldn’t walk. But he had an unswerving faith that he would “find a good Samaritan.”
As it turned out, there were many.
In Egypt, a Sudanese student took him in. A Dutch clergyman at an Episcopal church befriended him, arranging medical care. He had his first operation.
Lodu held out hope that he would walk again. Instead, he received his first wheelchair.
“That,” he said, “is how I start my life again.”
Returning to Sudan wasn’t possible, he says; he feared that he’d be killed there. He was even afraid that contacting his family would endanger them.
He was resigned to a fate beyond his control.
“I was already helpless,” he said. “If I die, that’s fine. If I survive, that’s fine.... I didn’t dream of my future.”
Lodu had a wheelchair, but little independence.
With some effort, the Dutch clergyman managed to find Lodu’s daughter, Nancy, in Sudan and she agreed to move to Egypt to help care for him. Lodu is not certain how this was arranged, but he suspects that it was through a network of ministers.
Three years had passed and Lodu was delighted to see her and desperate for news of his family: Nancy reported that they had moved to the countryside, near the Uganda border.
Lodu yearned to see them, but he says, as a disabled man, it would be hard -- maybe impossible -- to get proper medical care and find work in Africa to support a family.
“I could not help myself,” he said, “so how would I be able to help them?”
He had read about America in schoolbooks and heard stories that disabled people can work and earn a living there. He decided that would be best for his family.
“I know there is a democracy and a lot of opportunities, according to what we study,” he said. So Lodu filled out applications to immigrate, was interviewed at the U.S. Embassy and, in 1996, he and Nancy boarded a plane to Iowa -- a place that he had never heard of.
Sponsored by the Cathedral Church of St. Paul in Des Moines, Lodu moved into an apartment and spent the next two years in and out of the hospital, having seven operations on his spine. Doctors were encouraging, saying he could lead a full life in a wheelchair. “I come to accept my disability,” he said.
Lodu, now 43, speaks four languages -- English, Swahili, Arabic and Bari, used in Sudan. He discovered that he could help police and others as a translator.
He also met a church member, Patricia Casady, who became a close friend.
“He looked very sad to me, very helpless, but very determined,” she said.
When he asked for a computer, she wondered why.
“I’m going to find my children,” he replied.
Casady, a former social worker, quickly realized that this was no idle boast. “I’ve seen people struggle. I’ve seen people give up. He was not going to give up,” she said. “No one tries harder than this man.”
An Episcopal priest with African contacts began making calls until a Sudanese bishop in Uganda was located. Lodu e-mailed him and learned that people from his village were in refugee camps in northern Uganda.
The bishop named several camps, but there were no phones there, so Lodu couldn’t call. He could go, but he’d have to maneuver a wheelchair alone through isolated parts of Africa.
Regardless of that, regardless of the expense, he resolved to make the trip.
“Leaving them in the camps means they have no future, they have no education,” he said. “If you bring someone in this world, you need to take care of them until they are on their own feet. If I raise them, they will come and one day help others.”
Lodu began saving money from his disability checks, sometimes eating just once a day.
When he told Casady that he bought a plane ticket, she asked: “Do you have money to spend when you get there?”
No,” he replied. “But I will find a way.”
She made him a loan.
To save money, Lodu took a circuitous route -- Des Moines to Chicago to London to Bahrain to the United Arab Emirates to Nairobi to Kampala, Uganda -- a three-plane, two-day journey that left him exhausted.
His motorized scooter was lost en route. He waited two weeks until it arrived.
Finally, he hired a driver and was ready to search for his family.
“It was like a birth,” he said. “I feel my dreams will come true.”
In Uganda, Lodu’s family was preparing for the reunion.
His e-mail to the bishop announcing his trip had made its way to the Kali camp in northern Uganda.
His oldest son, Sobe, could not wait. He rode a bicycle four hours to a relative’s house, where he found his father sleeping.
The next morning, an uncle reunited them:
“This is your son.”
“He’s so big!” Lodu said, hugging him, then asking: “Where are your brothers?”
Sobe’s words tumbled out. He told Lodu where they were living and some sad news -- his wife had remarried. He also learned that his mother had died.
That day as their car pulled up to the Kali camp, a crowd rushed across a dusty field to greet them. His sons were not among them.
Robert dashed away, he says, because he was so excited. He never expected to see his father again.
He remembers how he would repeatedly ask his aunt: “Do we really have a dad?”
“You do,” she’d reply, “but he was taken a long time ago with soldiers.”
When Lodu finally saw Robert, the toddler he left behind had sprouted into a lanky 12-year-old. “I never would have recognized him in the street,” he said.
Older brother Ladu stood under a tree, watching.
“I was just crying,” he said. “My memory went back to all the years I was suffering. I remember when I was lonely, thinking what can I do to make life better?”
John Lodu later met with his daughter, Poni, who is married and a mother herself, and his former wife, Grace, who, he says, told him: “I’m happy that you are alive.”
Despite their joyous reunion, Lodu looked at his sons, saw how skinny and dirty they were, and knew without any words spoken how hard their lives had been.
As they all embraced, he quietly told them:
“Your suffering is over. I’m going to take you with me.”
Lodu had one more emotional reunion.
Two days later, he drove to another refugee camp to find his father, Elia, now 86. Seeing his bony, emaciated body, Lodu cried.
Lodu brought his sons and father to Kampala in 2000, where they waited to be approved for immigration to the United States -- a process that took two years. They now all live in Iowa.
Lodu, now a U.S. citizen, has received a two-year college degree and is considering law school. His sons, now 14 to 22, are in high school. His daughter, Nancy, is a mother.
They are a family again, going shopping, attending church, having dinner together.
“Now I know I am a father,” he said. “I was lonely all those years. Now I have a lot of company. My life is complete.”