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Lost Boys of Sudan look West

Lost Boys of Sudan look West
The 'lost boys' from south Sudan at a refugee camp inKenya, Kakuma in 2000, waiting for their journey to the USA. (Sven Torfinn)

The horsemen came by night, thundering from one mud-and-thatch hut to another, shooting and slashing men, women and children.

Startled from his sleep, 6-year-old Gabriel Majok Bol jumped from the wicker mat that served as his bed. He, his parents and five siblings scattered.

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The sprawling settlement in southern Sudan was burned to the ground. Bol survived unharmed--and alone.

He hasn't seen his family since that night 11 years ago, and thinks they probably are dead. But he did link up with hordes of others fleeing nearby villages that he later learned were torched by marauding Arab militias from the north. Survivors formed a human river flowing east to neighboring Ethiopia, where masses of southern Sudanese already were settled in dreary refugee camps.

Once there, Bol was lumped together with thousands of other boys, many from the Dinka and Nuer ethnic groups. Some also had been burned out of their homes; others were sent away by elders to seek an education and escape their country's civil war.

As Bol grew, these "lost boys of Sudan," as they are known, became his family. And with lives punctuated by long periods of inactivity, they have been running ever since--finally to another refugee camp, this one in a dusty, hot, fly-infested corner of Kenya. Now, as they reach manhood, the boys--and some aid workers--believe that their last, best chance is to move on again, this time to the United States or another Western country.

They have few prospects in Kakuma. Most are unwilling to join rebel fighters and unable to go home again. Estranged from their tribal cultures, they also lack the means to support themselves or establish their own families.

Bol, now 17 and a "head boy" put in charge of 172 others, wants desperately to get an education and a fresh start. Many of his 4,797 "brothers" share his sentiments.

Their wish might come true if the U.S. government signs off on a proposal to resettle them. A decision is expected sometime this year. But the issue has sparked a new debate over an age-old issue of emigration--relinquishing family and cultural ties versus the possibility of a new and better life in a foreign land.

Supporters of resettlement believe that most of the boys would benefit from the opportunities and quality of life in the United States, and would gain skills that will be needed to help rebuild their country if they ever have the chance to go home.

Critics argue that family reunification is the top priority for the boys, about half of whom are minors. They also maintain that the physical and mental trauma many of the boys suffered, plus their years as an isolated, tight-knit community, would make it hard for them to adjust.

Many adult Sudanese here have mixed feelings about losing thousands of their young men to a foreign country, perhaps never to return. Abandoning Africa would probably mean forsaking their native customs and beliefs.

Displaced by Civil War

Civil war in Sudan, territorially Africa's largest country, has dragged on for 15 years, pitting rebels from the predominantly black African, animist and Christian south against government forces of the dominant Muslim and Arab north.

Southerners are pressing for increased autonomy, exemption from Islamic laws, and a fair share of development money. An estimated 1.9 million people have died, and hundreds of thousands have been displaced because of the conflict.

Negotiations have led to agreement that the south should hold a referendum on whether to secede or gain autonomy within a federation. While a date for the vote remains to be set, the fighting rages on.

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Relief workers and journalists familiar with refugee camps in the region say the rebel Sudan People's Liberation Army helped hundreds of boys reach safety in Ethiopia, where it planned to give them military training and considered them a recruitment pool.

But with an upsurge of fighting in Ethiopia's civil war in 1991, all refugees were forced to return to Sudan. And fighting there soon sent them fleeing again, this time toward Kenya. Accustomed to living together and depending on one another, the boys continued their odyssey as a group.

Some were attacked and eaten by wild animals as they trekked across the semiarid plains; others survived by picking clean the carcasses of antelopes and wart hogs, eating leaves and berries, and making plaited grass traps for birds and mice. Desperate for water, some drank their own urine.

In the spring of 1992, about 10,000 lanky, ebony-skinned boys straggled across the Kenyan border. Bol was among them.

They were eventually sent to Kakuma, 80 miles from the border with Sudan, where Kenya's pastoral Turkana people have eked out an existence for centuries.

Relief workers and journalists familiar with refugee camps in the region say the rebel Sudan People's Liberation Army helped hundreds of boys reach safety in Ethiopia, where it planned to give them military training and considered them a recruitment pool.

But with an upsurge of fighting in Ethiopia's civil war in 1991, all refugees were forced to return to Sudan. And fighting there soon sent them fleeing again, this time toward Kenya. Accustomed to living together and depending on one another, the boys continued their odyssey as a group.

Some were attacked and eaten by wild animals as they trekked across the semiarid plains; others survived by picking clean the carcasses of antelopes and wart hogs, eating leaves and berries, and making plaited grass traps for birds and mice. Desperate for water, some drank their own urine.

In the spring of 1992, about 10,000 lanky, ebony-skinned boys straggled across the Kenyan border. Bol was among them.

They were eventually sent to Kakuma, 80 miles from the border with Sudan, where Kenya's pastoral Turkana people have eked out an existence for centuries.

"Life is not good here," Amol said. "We are refugees. There are many things we are wanting that are not adequate, like protein foods."

Option to Relocate Overseas

Refugees International is one of the organizations pressing for relocation abroad for at least some of the boys.

"The humanitarian option is for some of them to be resettled, but you can't rush it," said Mary Anne Fitzgerald, the group's Nairobi-based Africa representative. "Really, most have no future if they remain in the camp."

A U.S. State Department official said resettlement is a last resort. "They have utilized all the camp's facilities; there is really nothing left for them," the official said, adding: "They can't go home."

Africans were allotted 12,000 refugee places in the United States in the current fiscal year, up from 7,000 last year.

Refugees resettled in the United States can apply for permanent residence or a green card after one year. After five years, they are eligible for citizenship, and, if they wish, can file a petition for immediate family members to join them.

The U.S. official said the boys are being reviewed first as a group, but would be screened and interviewed separately. Age, education and, moreover, their habit of living together will be strongly considered.

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"They've been interdependent for about 10 years now," the official said. "To try to split them apart without any type of a support system would be a disaster. We're dealing with a very large extended family. . . . The idea is to help these boys, not to put them in a situation that makes life worse."

The boys would probably be resettled in group homes, but some of the younger ones could be settled with families.

Representatives of the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees acknowledge the boys' frustration. But they add that camp conditions could be improved and that resettlement has to be considered on a case-by-case basis.

"Resettlement is a durable solution of UNHCR" but not the preferred one, said Yvette Stevens, the agency's representative for Kenya and Somalia. "Voluntary repatriation is the most preferred. Resettlement cannot be suitable for all."

About 35% of the youths in the camp are cared for by friends or relatives. The rest are supervised by adult Sudanese but live together in "villages" of between 150 and 200, with up to five sharing small mud-and-thatch shacks.

The environs are bleak. Frequent sandstorms irritate the eyes, nostrils and mouth. A dearth of vegetation, frequent flooding and year-round suffocating temperatures make Kakuma inhospitable.

William Riak Awar said he survives on boiled and mashed maize and beans provided by the United Nations and cooked outside on heated stones and wood. The 16-year-old lamented that he had not drunk milk, which would be a staple of his traditional diet, since he arrived at the camp six years ago, and he has almost forgotten the taste of meat.

The camp has high school slots for only 1,201 of the 22,219 eligible 15- to 25-year-olds. Two vocational training centers can accommodate just 350 more.

"There is frustration," acknowledged Saber Azam, the top Kakuma-based official of the U.N. refugee agency, which runs the camp. "Most of [the youths] have gotten to the stage where they need more and more. If we don't cope with the situation, the problem will get bigger. If they remain jobless, if they remain idle, then we will have problems."

Many of the boys spend their free time--which is all day for those not in school--playing chess, Scrabble or a traditional Sudanese board game called Engosogo.

Some play pickup volleyball or soccer; others make artifacts from scraps of wood and metal. Most just loll about, shooing away swarms of flies and shuffling aimlessly around their squalid compound.

Although some Kakuma officials believe a large percentage of the boys still have family in Sudan, others acknowledge that constant upheaval makes it almost impossible to maintain steady family ties.

Stevens, the regional U.N. relief agency representative, warned that allowing group resettlement to another country might wrongly encourage other desperate parents to send their children to Kenya, already considered a country offering good prospects for resettlement. Since 1992, more than 32,000 refugees have been resettled from Kenya to third countries.

Out of Step With Society

The boys' dependence on one another puts some of them out of step with Dinka and Nuer concepts of a young man's position and duty in society.

An attempt three years ago to integrate them into the camp's overall Sudanese population failed. Some boys complained that they didn't want to live with strangers, while others simply saw the advantages of living as a group of minors--extra food and more attention.

Many of the youths also refuse to undergo the engraving of long welts into their foreheads and the removal of several lower teeth--a once-common rite of passage to manhood. Some fear tribal markings would estrange them from a new society if they emigrate, or make them easy targets for enemies if they stay. Others view the rite as painful, unnecessary and out of date.

"It's bleeding for nothing," said James Akol, 17. "I just can't do it."

Other refugees accuse the boys of being thieves and troublemakers. The youths lament that they cannot even think of finding a wife or starting a family because they have neither money nor--more important--cattle to pay a dowry.

Sister Maureen Limer, project director of Jesuit Refugee Services, which sponsors education for about 100 boys in Kenyan schools outside the camp, cited an "amazing" emotional immaturity among them.

She predicted that they would suffer culture shock in the United States, and warned that "huge" preparation would be necessary--both for the boys and the institutions or families who would receive them.

Skeptics worry that youthful confidence and will to succeed might be crushed by the sink-or-swim rules of American society.

But supporters of resettlement argue that the trauma is unlikely to match what these youngsters already have endured.

Turning Their Back on War

The mental anguish John Kang suffered in five years as a boy soldier is evident in his stutter and sometimes slurred speech. His name engraved on his left forearm, a tattoo often used by Sudanese rebels as a permanent dog tag, bears testimony to his life on the front line.

"I have grown up in war," said Kang, a boy of uncertain age with penetrating eyes. "For my future, I want to do something for my country. I forced myself to come [to Kakuma] for an education, for a safe place without bullets."

Going home would almost certainly place him again in the blood bath of war.

This is a fear of many lost boys--that they will be forced to join the rebels instead of getting an education and a chance in life. Many said they would refuse to fight.

"I'm having my own fight now," said Amol, the head boy who wants to become a doctor. "Trying to get education is also like fighting."

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