I once met a young man who was a new immigrant to the United States of America. The impoverished conditions of the homeland he loved had driven him to seek provision for his family in a land completely foreign to him. He arrived in one of the wealthiest counties, in the wealthiest country in the world with little more than the clothes on his back. As I began to become acquainted with him I asked him his age. He stared at me blankly for a moment and then said,
“I don’t know.”
“You don’t know how old you are?” I asked.
“No,” he replied. “I don’t know.”
I know now that it is not uncommon for someone from a survivalist culture to have no idea how old he is or when he was born. The ceremonial celebration of such life milestones is simply lost in the pursuit of the next morsel of food or the next sip of water. In short, it is far more important to invest energy in living another day than celebrating the ones already past.
And so it was with another boy, James, one of the “Lost Boys” of the Sudan. James Lual Atak is not sure how old he was the day the world as he knew it was shattered, never to be restored. He cannot mark the moment he was ruthlessly thrust from boyhood into the world of men. His best guess is that he was around 11 years old the day the Janjuweed rode into his village raping, burning, enslaving, and slaughtering.
He was with some friends the moment the nightmare on horseback crashed into the only place he had ever known as “home” in broad daylight. In the midst of the murderous chaos he did the only thing he knew to do; He ran.
With the screams of their families echoing in their ears, he and the other boys ran and ran and ran.
Sometime in the night, the boys met up with a group of men who were fleeing as well and among them was his uncle. The man took James into his care and began to teach him some basic survival skills as they ran from their former village, Nyamlell, in northern Sudan. Scattered like seeds borne by the wind, they continued on day after day, month after month, searching for a safe place to land. All the while, battles raged around this group of men and boys who were bound by one common goal – survival.
They set their course for the border of Uganda where they hoped to find refuge, but half way there, they and thousands of other refugees were caught in the middle of a ferocious battle. In the mayhem, and surrounded by the dead and the dying, James was separated from his uncle. As far as he knew, his uncle was his last living relative, the only adult he knew he could trust and he was gone. James was certain he had perished in the fighting.
And so, young James, just a boy, was lost and utterly alone.
He joined with another group of boys and together they continued to make their way south in hope of reaching Uganda. At last, by some miracle, they made it across the border and into a refugee camp.
He must have searched the sea of faces day after day in hope that he would discover his mother, father or siblings among the masses. I can imagine him going person to person asking if anyone had seen his parents or someone from his village only to be waved away by others consumed by their own desperation and struggle to survive.
Sleep must have come slowly for him that first night as he wondered what the future would hold. How could one so young survive all alone in a land torn by war, poverty and hate? As he lay surrounded by countless people and stared at a sky blanketed with a million stars, he must have felt completely alone.
The next morning came however, and many more mornings after that as he settled into his new life inside the refugee camp. Then the day came when the winds of war swept the seed of his life away once again. The refugee camp was raided by armed men but this time it was not the Janjuweed but men from among his own people. It was the army from southern Sudan, the Sudanese Peoples Leberation Army (SPLA). He was only a boy, but a gun was placed into his hands and he was forced to become a solider.
*James’ story continues in my next post.
* All Darfur photography is courtesy of Darlene Dyson.