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Coming to America

These refugees lost their homes and families in southern Sudan. But in Denver, they're finding a future.

They have seen so much already -- the destruction of their homes, the deaths of their friends and families, deserts littered with human bones -- and now, as they arrive at Denver International Airport, the three young men from southern Sudan must confront a contraption called an "elevator."

They stand in an alcove beside the baggage claim, watching the polished steel doors open and close. People get in. People get out. To the refugees, who are only fifteen hours away from mud-and-straw huts, this is amazing. When their turn arrives, they shuffle into the compartment and grip the railing.

Ping!

Daniel Lual fled his village in 1987. Fourteen years later, he landed in Denver.
John Johnston
Daniel Lual fled his village in 1987. Fourteen years later, he landed in Denver.
We are family: Dorothy O'Donal (seated, center) and other volunteers host a Thanksgiving dinner for the young men from Sudan.
John Johnston
We are family: Dorothy O'Donal (seated, center) and other volunteers host a Thanksgiving dinner for the young men from Sudan.

The doors slide shut.

The elevator begins its slow, stomach-rolling descent, and the young men plant their feet firmly on the floor.

Ping!

The doors slide open.

One of the youths takes a few tentative steps forward and out of the elevator, while his companions remain glued in place. As the doors slide shut again, the two Africans watch in wide-eyed silence.

Ping!

Forty minutes later, they are discovered on the fourth floor. The caseworker assigned to meet them, a gregarious man who is also from southern Sudan, makes a joke in Dinka, but the two lost youths do not laugh, so he pats them on the shoulder. Then he peels away the International Organization of Migration name tags on their sweatshirts and hands them two tiny red, white and blue flags.

"Welcome to America," he says.


Even before there was a country, there was a war. Sudan, the largest nation in Africa, has been fighting with itself almost continuously since 1955. A year before the fledgling state declared independence from Great Britain, black Christians and animists in the south launched a campaign for autonomy against the Arabic government in the north, which had hoped to impose Islamic law nationwide. Fueled by age-old religious, ethnic and economic tensions, the civil war raged until 1972. Then the land was relatively peaceful for a decade, but in 1983, fighting flared anew, and it's been nonstop ever since. The discovery of oil in the south has only intensified the brutality, with both sides openly targeting civilians.

The northern government in Khartoum, controlled by the hard-line National Islamic Front, has bombed villages, relief camps, supply lines and even hospitals, accusing aid workers of prolonging the war. The regime, which has embraced fundamentalist Muslims from around the world, including Osama bin Laden, has also employed a genocidal "scorched earth" policy in the south, where troops have leveled villages, slaughtered cattle and burned granaries.

The Sudan People's Liberation Army, meanwhile, has manipulated international relief programs to feed its own ragtag guerrilla troops and has forcibly conscripted displaced young men from the south, often recruiting directly from refugee camps in neighboring Ethiopia and Kenya.

More than two million people have died in the fighting, mostly in the south. More than four million people have been left homeless. Over the past fifteen years, Sudan has recorded more war-related deaths than any other nation. Today it claims the largest displaced population in the world.

Among the refugees are a group unprecedented in the annals of war, a collection of young men and boys who were forced from their villages in the south in 1987 and left to wander the hostile terrain of northeast Africa by the thousands. They were attacked by enemy soldiers, hunted by wild animals and ravaged by hunger, dehydration and disease.

In 1992, they straggled like apparitions into Kenya, where they languished in a massive refugee camp for nine years. Finally, in an unusual move, the United States agreed to resettle 3,800 of them in 28 states, including Colorado. The youngest would be placed in foster homes and attend school, while those over eighteen would receive a host of government services, including temporary financial aid, housing assistance and job training.

The refugees began arriving in Denver last March with little more than Bibles, a few pairs of socks, and the government-issue sweatsuits that hung loose on their lanky frames. With no homes, no families and no country, they've been compared to the orphan tribe in the tale of Peter Pan. Deposited in a strange land, unsure of where their journey will end, they are known simply as the Lost Boys.


Bullets were everywhere

The town of Bor lies deep in the savanna of southern Sudan, along the banks of the meandering Nile River. It is a small and isolated place, named after the Dinka word for "flat," with some 20,000 people, several schools, a clinic, an airstrip, a cluster of government offices and a scattering of shops and cafes. It was built by the British, who laid the basic infrastructure and then left when war erupted. The roads are dirt, water is pumped by hand, telephones are operated by crank. Electricity is powered by generator but is available only to municipal offices and influential families, and then just for six hours a day.

"It is very old-fashioned," recalls Daniel Lual. "There have been no new buildings for many years. If you can imagine a city from the '50s, this is Bor."

Daniel grew up there. For him, and for many of the Lost Boys who landed in Denver, the journey begins in that simple place.

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