US & Canada

Sudan's 'Lost Boys' reunited with their past in Arizona

Call it "Lost Boys Reunited". From a nondescript low-rise building in a rundown neighbourhood of Phoenix, Arizona, a remarkable online database is helping to reconnect members of a scattered community from a distant land.

But with the connections come reminders of painful experiences.

The Lost Boys is a nickname applied to as many as 27,000 boys who fled their villages in southern Sudan during that country's second civil war, which began in 1983 and lasted more than 20 years.

Twice the boys were forced to make epic, perilous journeys - first to a refugee camp in Ethiopia and then, when fighting came to that country too, back to Sudan and on to another camp, this time in Kenya.

In groups large and small, the boys, some as young as five, walked hand-in-hand, barefoot, through the bush.

They travelled at night to avoid hostile tribes and forced conscription, but this left them prey to wild animals. Some were carried off by lions, others drowned or succumbed to hunger and disease.

"We moved from place to place. We didn't know where we were going," says Malek Deng, one of about 600 former Lost Boys now living in the Phoenix area.

Crucial fragments

For many, the wandering continued. In 2000, almost 4,000 Lost Boys, most now in their late teens and early 20s, made it to the United States on a resettlement programme. Others scattered across the globe, losing contact with their former friends.

Image caption This photo recovered in Ethiopia is the only one Kuol Awan has of himself as a young boy

The boys got on with life in their new homes, adjusting to such novelties as doorknobs, light switches, refrigerators and faucets that dispensed water without even being touched. They studied, learned English, looked for work and did their best to keep in touch with the old country.

But then something happened that brought the past vividly to life and allowed the Lost Boys to piece together crucial fragments of their traumatic past.

A trove of field reports compiled by aid workers in the late 1980s was found gathering dust in a warehouse in Ethiopia.

Eight-page handwritten documents listed the origins, family members and travelling companions of some 13,000 Lost Boys.

About 75% of the documents included photographs.

"I was excited," recalls Kuol Awan, executive director of the Arizona Lost Boys Center, describing the moment he first saw his file.

"This is the only picture I have as a young kid."

'Robbed of so much'

As the largest association of its kind, the Arizona Lost Boys Center was chosen as the repository for the files, which have now been scanned and entered into a website.

Last September, the site was about to go live when it lit up.

"All of a sudden, our site was discovered," says Ann Wheat, a city supervisor and church volunteer, who founded the Lost Boys Center.

"Literally within the first two weeks, the word just spread."

The site had 3,800 visits from 32 countries in that period, resulting in orders for 400 personal records.

The word was spreading from Lost Boy to Lost Boy.

"They were looking up their brothers who they had travelled with," says Ms Wheat. "It really gave us our first sense of the power of these documents to a group that has been robbed of so much."

Until they moved to the US, none of the Lost Boys had any kind of personal documents. What they knew about themselves, they carried in their heads.

Diing Arok's document was one of those which lacked a photograph, but he says that does not diminish its significance.

"It'll be important for me to show it to my kids," says Mr Arok, an engineer with the Arizona Department of Transportation.

"It's a frame of work that shows who you are," says his friend, Malek Deng.

Ritual ceremony

Behind his desk in the Lost Boys Center, where the boys-turned-men gather to listen to music and play animated games of dominos, Kuol Awan also reflects on the sombre side of this rediscovered snapshot.

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Media captionSudanese 'Lost Boys' Diing Arok and Malek Deng talk to Paul Adams about the recently discovered refugee camp records

"This guy got killed in the war," he says, pointing to a list of names of boys he travelled with.

"And this guy died in the camp."

And then there's the family: a brother shot dead on a Sudanese battlefield in 1991. A father who died in a refugee camp in 1995. A sister killed by lightning.

The first time he saw his brother's name, Mr Awan cried, something he had never done while on the run and living in the camps

Other siblings and step-siblings are still alive, and Mr Awan plans to meet them back in his village later this year, to hold a ritual ceremony in honour of their father.

Meanwhile, the centre is working hard to return the files to their owners, or to the families of boys who are no longer alive.

"We want those families to have the documents," Mr Awan says, "so they can say this is the year he was in this camp and this is the year he died."

The Lost Boys are no longer lost, or boys. And with South Sudan poised to declare independence on 9 July, many are thinking of returning to play a part in the affairs of the world's newest nation.

Armed with their 20-year-old records, they do so with a renewed sense of who they are.