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The United States recently welcomed the first of an estimated 3,600 ‘Lost Boys’ from Sudan in the largest official resettlement of children there since the Viet Nam war.
Today there are around 300,000 children who were kidnapped or coerced into becoming child soldiers.
“Life is Good” Written by Joan Hecht as told by Atem AjakGALLERYCONVERSATION
Atem Ajak
Joan Hecht
United States
You can read more of Atem's compelling story, along with the personal stories of numerous Lost Boys, in the award -winning book "The Journey of the Lost Boys" - A story of courage, faith, and the sheer determination to survive by a group of young boys called "The Lost Boys of Sudan." Written by Joan Hecht www.thejourneyofthelostboys.com

For more information on how you can make a difference in the life of a Lost Boy and those they left behind, visit "Alliance for the Lost Boys of Sudan" at www.allianceforthelostboys.com.

My name is Ajak Atem Ajok and I am one of the Lost Boys of Sudan. It may seem odd that I’m called by that name, as I am now a young man.

But it was given to other boys and myself, when we lived in refugee camps in Africa and it remains with us still. Aid workers in the camps told us that we reminded them of young boys in a movie called Peter Pan. They said that these young boys, like us, were without parents and left to survive on their own. However, their story is only a fairy tale while sadly, our story is true.

I was not always alone. I once lived in a rural village in Southern Sudan with my family and other people from my Dinka tribe. Our life was simple and uncomplicated. There was no electricity in our village, no running water or flushing toilets and no radios or televisions to cloud our minds. We had never even heard of such things! Our days were spent tending cattle, cultivating the land, fishing and hunting, or assisting with various chores around our tukuls (huts) and village.

Many things are different in my homeland, especially in regards to marriage. It is not uncommon for a man to claim more than one wife in my country. My father had five wives of his own. I suppose our family was rather large by American standards, but not so much by our own. I had four sisters and three brothers from my mother, and eighteen stepbrothers and eleven stepsisters from my fathers other four wives. We were a happy family and life was good in those days –the days before the darkness covered my homeland.

When I was seven or eight years old I journeyed with other young people from my region to a place we called cattle camp. It was a place where young people took their families cattle for water and grazing in the dry season. It was also a place where young boys learned how to become young men through various challenges, such as spear fighting and wrestling. Most of the elders remained in our villages to prepare for the next seasons crops, so for the most part we were on our own. It was my first time at cattle camp and I was very excited to be going. It was also the first time that I had been separated from my parents and I was somewhat frightened. However, I took comfort in the fact that my older brother and sister accompanied me.

Time passed quickly and before we knew it the first drops of rain fell from the sky signaling the onset of the rainy season and our time to return home. I couldn’t wait to tell my parents about the many things I had seen and done. As we gathered our belongings a messenger appeared in the camp with alarming news. He told us that terrible fighting was taking place in our villages. The type of fighting he described was not typical of our people, that of spears and shields, but rather the works of strange men riding on horses and camels along with those who marched on foot in great numbers with powerful guns. Flying above them were giant insects made of metal spewing fire from their mouths, which destroyed entire villages. Men, women and children were killed at random and mothers and daughters were raped side by side. The villages were ransacked and everything of value was stolen or destroyed. Many of the women and children were captured and taken north to be sold for slaves. Surely, this was the work of the devil himself and the soldiers were his evil army, we concluded. But the messenger said the men shouted “Praise be to Allah (God)!” as they killed our people. It was very confusing. What had we done to make God so mad that he would send these men to kill us? Some of the elders explained that these men were Arab Muslim Militia (Sudanese government soldiers) and that they had come to kill us because of the color of our skin and our Christian faith.

The elders of the camp decided to return to the villages with the younger children while the older children led the cattle to safer grounds. My siblings instructed me to find our parents and bring them to a predetermined place where they would be waiting for us with the livestock.

As we approached my village I was comforted by the sight of huge billows of smoke rising into the sky. I assumed that my parents were indeed safe and simply burning last season’s crops in preparation for the new. The anticipation of seeing them was more than I could stand and I quickened my pace, in an effort to greet them more quickly. But as I drew closer, my excitement turned to shock and horror at the sight before me. My entire village was destroyed. The house of my family, along with everyone else’s had been burned to the ground. Dead bodies were scattered everywhere. Most were burned beyond recognition and the smell of their burning flesh was so bad. I will never forget it for as long as I live. I walked through the charred remains, searching diligently for my parents or other members of my family, but due to the condition of the bodies, my attempts were futile.

An older man appeared from the bush where he had been hiding and with tears in his eyes he told us of the horrors that had taken place. He gave no words of encouragement regarding the fate of my family. A huge emptiness sweep over me as I tried to make sense of what had happened. Life as I once knew it was over.

The old man reached down and gently took me by the hand and together, we walked through the ashes and ruins of our village, not knowing where we were going or how long it would take us to get there. Soon we joined with other villagers, mostly young boys, forming a small caravan. Each day the number of people fleeing the south of Sudan grew, swelling to numbers in the hundreds of thousands as we rolled across Ethiopian borders like a human tidal wave, flooding refugee camps and sending shock waves among relief workers caught totally unprepared by our mass exodus. In our wake, we left an indescribable path of death and destruction. Aid workers flying overhead later commented that our path was an easy one to trace. All one had to do was follow the trail of bones and bodies left scattered on the ground behind us. Some fell victim to enemy soldiers or wild animals. Others died from starvation, dehydration and disease. Our bodies shook and trembled from hunger and thirst. Some people grew crazy; eating everything in sight like dead animals or wild berries that proved to be poisonous. Some boys drank their own urine or ate mud in an attempt to wet their throats. And then there were those who gave up all together and hung themselves from nearby trees or simply stopped walking and remained by the roadside to die. I buried many of my friends in the dark years. I think that you could read every history book ever written and still you would not find such a thing - children burying children.

We spent four years in Ethiopia until civil war broke out in that country as well, forcing us back into Sudan. We remained hidden in the bush for over a year until finally making our way to a refugee camp in Kenya. By that time, we had walked a thousand miles in search of safe refuge. Many people ask me how I survived such a journey. Truly, I cannot say. It is hard even for me to believe. I can only say that it was God who saved us.

In 2001, the American government granted refugee status to approximately 3800 Lost Boys. I was one of the lucky ones to be selected. When I first arrived in America I was overwhelmed. People from various churches, synagogues and organizations like Lutheran Social Services and Alliance for the Lost Boys of Sudan helped us to acclimate to our new lives in America. We had to be taught the most basic tasks such as, how to cross the street at a traffic light, how to use a can opener, how to turn on a light and even more amazing; how to drive a car. Some of the Lost Boys did not fare well with this task at first, and much damage resulted. Luckily, we are better drivers now.

When we lived in the camps the Lost Boys adopted a slogan that said “An education is my only mother and father.” Our primary goal when coming to America was to receive an education. I am now in college and for the first time my future is one of hope.

Many exciting things have happened to me since coming to America, but the most exciting was in 2003, when I learned that my mother and five of my siblings were alive and living in a camp in Kenya. With the help of friends I was able to call my mother. It was the first time we had spoken in seventeen years. Imagine my disappointment when she hung up the phone saying, “You are grown man! You cannot be my son!” In her mind, I was still a small boy. With much persistence, I was able to speak to her again reminding her of the nickname she had given me as a child, “Aporote,” which is the name of a vegetable similar to okra. She gave me this name because as a small child I was slippery like wet okra, always wiggling and hard to hold onto. When she heard that name, there was no longer any doubt and many tears followed. Unfortunately, I learned that my father had passed away. My parents and younger siblings became displaced following the attacks on our village and one day, as they walked along a deserted road they were approached by Arab Militia. The soldiers commanded my father to kneel on the ground and with a gun pointed to his head they asked if he was a Christian. “Yes,” he answered. They commanded him to denounce his faith, but he refused and was executed. The soldiers then left my mother and siblings alone in the bush to die. But this was not God’s plan.

In the U.S., I worked very hard to support my family, paying the tuition and board of my five siblings for two years in addition to my own living expenses and college tuition. In 2005, my dreams finally came true when I was able to bring my family to America. Until that time, I had never met my four younger siblings. Now that I have found my family I think that I will be able to regain my childhood that I lost so long ago. Once again, my life is good.

In January 2005 a Comprehensive Peace Agreement was signed between the North and South of Sudan bringing an end to the civil war that raged in my country for over two decades, killing over two million people. But despite this agreement, my people continue to suffer. Thousands are still dying from the lack of clean water, food and medicine. Please do not close your ears to the cries of my people. They desperately need your help. In closing, let me share the words of the famous Martin Luther King Jr., “In the end, we will not remember the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”
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