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Severed by War, a Mother and Son Share a Moment Beyond Emotion

Times Staff Writer

A mother’s instincts tell her she will always know her child, even if they have been separated for years.

Anok Mangong knows the truth isn’t so simple.

Eighteen years ago, Arab marauders attacked Mangong’s tribal village in southern Sudan, scattering her terrified family into the bush. Seven days later, Mangong crept back to her hut to find her husband’s decomposing body and no sign of her youngest boys, Benson, 7, and Alepho, 5.

She eventually found her five other children. But the two boys never returned.

“My sons are dead,” she told herself.

Mangong’s family is one of hundreds of thousands torn apart by Sudan’s two-decade civil war, which pitted Arab northerners against black southerners in a struggle over power, land and oil. Under a peace deal signed early this year, the nation is attempting to reunite. Thousands of southern refugees are flooding back to homes they fled years ago.

But Mangong long ago gave up hope of finding her boys. She thought of them often in the beginning, but over time their small faces began to fade from her mind. “I even lost my memories of them,” she said.

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She could scarcely afford to dwell on the tragedy. She had five children to raise. In accordance with Dinka tribal custom, Mangong was “inherited” by her brother-in-law, who took her as a wife and fathered another son.

Over the months and years, their village, Juol, suffered repeated attacks. Their home was burned down, but they rebuilt. Surviving the war and keeping the family fed were their main concerns.

Then health problems began to plague Mangong, who doesn’t know her age but probably is about 50. She suffered bouts of typhoid and malaria. She couldn’t keep food down and experienced severe pain from intestinal parasites. Doctors were hard to find in southern Sudan, hospitals even rarer.

Help arrived one day from a stranger who approached the family and offered to fly Mangong to Kenya for treatment. But the biggest surprise was who was behind the mysterious assistance: her long-lost sons.

Confused, Mangong traveled to Nairobi in April, where she was met by Peter Amoi, who told her he was a friend of the now grown boys. They were living in San Diego, and a family friend had recently reconnected them with a relative living in Uganda. The man told them their mother was still alive, but ill.

She gratefully accepted the medical treatment but refused to believe her sons were alive. Peter showed her a picture of Benson to convince her.

“Who is this?” she asked. Blaming her aging eyes, she apologized and said she didn’t recognize the young man.

When Peter brought her a cellphone so she could speak with her sons, now 25 and 23, she broke into tears, but still she insisted that there must be some mistake. She continued to mourn her boys.

Thousands of miles away, Benson and Alepho had no doubt they had finally found their mother.

The two weren’t home when the attackers came that day in 1987. Benson was staying at his older sister’s home, and Alepho was tending goats.

Benson escaped in nothing but a pair of underpants, joining a line of thousands of panicked young Dinka refugees who walked for three months to reach camps in Ethiopia.

In 1991, a regime change in Ethiopia forced all of the youths, who became known as the “Lost Boys,” to flee back to Sudan. Hundreds died along the way of disease, starvation and attacks by wild animals. Some drowned trying to cross thunderous rivers or were eaten by crocodiles. Ethiopian soldiers followed close behind, sometimes shooting at the refugees to ensure their prompt expulsion.

Back in Sudan, the youngsters faced more horrors. Many were forced to join southern militia groups and become child soldiers. Others crammed into refugee camps, where diseases such as river blindness, malaria and tuberculosis were rampant.

Benson, by then 12, struggled through it alone, motivated by the hope that one day he would find his family. He ended up in eastern Sudan, where he was reunited with some older relatives, including a half-brother. One day, the half-brother visited Benson’s hut, complaining about a strange young newcomer who had latched on to him that day and wouldn’t stop following him.

“It was Alepho,” Benson recalled. “We couldn’t believe it.”

Chased away by fighting yet again, the reunited brothers moved to a disease-ridden refugee camp in northern Kenya. Later, they were among the few permitted to resettle in the United States in 2001.

Today Benson does data-entry work for a waste management company and Alepho is a file clerk at a healthcare firm. The brothers, who share an apartment in San Diego, recently released a book about their experiences, “They Poured Fire on Us From the Sky.”

In Nairobi, Mangong remained unconvinced.

“I haven’t accepted it,” she said last month as she sat on a small mattress in a tiny, tin-roofed apartment that Benson pays for.

“Maybe if I could see him and touch him, I would know,” she said. “But my heart isn’t telling me one way or another.”

Benson decided he had to make the trip to Kenya to see the mother he hadn’t been with since he was a little boy. After the long flight from California last month, he immediately headed to the Nairobi slum where she was staying.

Peter answered the door and greeted Benson warmly. Mangong stood tentatively in the hallway. “Who is it?” she asked.

Benson said he instantly recognized his mother. Her tall frame. The two lines of decorative scarring across the forehead, a Dinka tradition. The broad smile revealing a wide gap between buck teeth.

“It’s me, Mama, Atheen,” he replied, using his Dinka name.

“Is that you?” she said. She searched his eyes for a moment, and then realized she saw her own eyes staring back. She reached for him.

“That’s you,” she said. “That’s my son.”

Benson melted into his mother’s arms. “It was the moment of a lifetime,” he said. “It was something beyond emotion. My whole body was warm.”

In the days before Benson returned to California, mother and son tried to catch up on lost years -- and hold close the memory of their reunion.

“He has changed,” Mangong said with a laugh, recalling the 7-year-old she knew who was always eager to tend the goats and cows and handle chores normally reserved for an older child.

“He’s grown into such a strong man,” said Mangong, who hopes to visit her sons in the U.S. once her health improves. “And now he’s brought the family back together again. I know he will take care of me.”

She still can’t believe she has her boy back.

“How did he manage to stay alive all those years?” she wondered. “How did he find his brother?”

Benson has many questions too. About his siblings. About his father and how he died.

“But I don’t want to talk about the sad things yet,” he said. “I want us to enjoy this happy time first.”


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