Lomong's great escape in his words

BEIJING -- By now, if you've paid attention at all, you will be up to speed on the story of Lopez Lomong, United States Olympic 1,500-meter runner and opening-ceremony flag-bearer.

You have read the stories, have seen him march, white tam in place and smile wide as he and the horde of blue blazers behind him waved to George Bush and George waved back. You heard NBC tell you why he was there.

His is a story like few others, a confluence of happenstance and significance seldom seen before in the Olympic movement. For him, at age 23, it is both simple and amazing.

Or, as he says in his quaint English: "It is a dream makes true, right here."

For the rest of us, who have generally eaten well, felt safe and experienced total hopelessness only in sad movies, Lomong is a gift. He lights up the room again and puts a Band-Aid on the cynicism.

If you are a writer, you want to tell his story, even if dozens have preceded you. You want to tell it better, to grip the reader just in case your predecessors haven't.

And then you sit in the audience on the morning of the opening ceremony and realize you need do nothing more than listen and take notes, because Lomong is telling it to you, for you, and better than ever before.

He is one of the "Lost Boys of Sudan," one of a group of more than 3,000 who was taken from his home as a child in the midst of a war between guerrilla factions looking to train young males as soldiers. He escaped to Kenya, where he was put into a refugee camp, then eventually rescued and taken to the United States and to a family in upstate New York through a United Nations-U.S. Embassy program.

That paragraph is a summary of what has been told before.

But before Friday morning, the details were never quite as available, or openly offered. In a room of perhaps 100 reporters from all corners of the world, Lomong, huge eyes scanning the crowd in disbelief that he was where he was, went into stunning detail.

"I was 6 years old. I was the happiest kid in Sudan. My parents were around. We were always playing. They never told me about what was going on around us."

And then, one Sunday, they went to church.

"It was 8 a.m. Mass. Just my dad and mom and me. It was an open-air church. The priest was praising God. Then the soldiers came in."

Lomong said everyone was told to lie down and the soldiers took all the children away. He said he was crying, they were all crying. They were herded into a truck, boys and girls, and it was covered with a canvas top. Eventually, the truck stopped; they were blindfolded and marched single file into a room with no windows.

"They took the blindfolds off and now there were only boys."

They stayed for three weeks, getting water twice a day and little else. When they were given food, it was sandwiches with grain. Three of his friends he called "angels" advised him not to eat the food, to merely pick out the bits of grain, because it had been combined with sand and the indigestible "sand sandwiches" would eventually be fatal.

"Kids would eat them, then just be sitting there and go to sleep."

He escaped when older boys saw a hole in the fence and took him along.

"There was no moon. We could see the lights [soldiers smoking] and when they talked, we crawled. When they stopped, we stayed still."

They got to the hole in the fence and got through as the soldiers chased. One older boy took his right hand, another his left, and they ran. For two days, then another.

"We ran and there were trees and thorns. My legs were a mess."

They hid him in a cave at night and brought him water on tree leaves. At night, they made sure to sleep facing in the direction they were headed so they didn't mistakenly backtrack into the pursuers.

"Then we would get up again and run and run. We didn't know where we were going."

Unknowingly, they strayed into Kenya, where they were captured and put into a refugee camp. Lomong stayed for 10 years. He said the Kenyans didn't care for them because, as little as it was, they were getting food from the U.N.

"We would have to make it last, because the food only came once a month. We would eat once a day, and only late at night, so it would stay with you to the next night. During the day, we would play soccer to keep our minds off the hunger."

The rest of the story is oft told -- the essay that got him an interview, that led to his adoption at age 16 by the Rogers family in Tully, N.Y., that led to a flight on an airplane bigger than he had ever seen, that led to his first-ever trip to McDonald's.

"They got me a chicken sandwich, and I didn't eat it right away because I was looking at it. They told me it was OK if I wanted to take it home. In the camp, we had chicken twice a year, Christmas and Easter, and there was one little piece and we had 10 people, so we chopped it up and boiled it up in water and ate the soup. If you got a little piece of chicken, it was Merry Christmas.

"And here I was, with my own piece, and they were telling me I could take it home and there was more there."

The story moved happily from there, to Northern Arizona University, to the ranks of track and field elite, to American citizenship on July 6, 2007, and exactly one year afterward, to a spot on the U.S. team in the 1,500 meters.

And then to a Friday night march with a flag of stars and stripes, in front of a team of athletes who had the common sense and historical sensitivity to select him to lead them, in front of 91,000 in an Olympic stadium, and for millions more in front of their TV sets.

The story also has political ramifications, of course, because China has been taken to task repeatedly for perceived humanitarian violations in the Darfur region of Lomong's country, Sudan. Lomong has signed on, along with as many as 75 other Olympic athletes, as part of a group called Team Darfur that seeks increased recognition of the problem.

He was asked about that Friday. He struggled with the subject. His storytelling had come much more easily.

That's OK. We have a world full of politicians and diplomatic spinners and we have only one Lopez Lomong.

Too bad it isn't the other way around.


Bill Dwyre can be reached at bill.dwyre@latimes.com. To read previous columns by Dwyre, go to latimes.com/dwyre.

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