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Lost and Found

The war is now half a world away, but these Sudanese refugees are still fighting to find their place.

Simon Garang is running behind. He is hunched over a burrito in the student-union food court at the University of Colorado during finals week, backpack sagging with books. He's supposed to be on break, but for Simon, there are no breaks. He glances at his wristwatch, inhales a forkful of food, glances at his watch.

He can't help himself. He is haunted by time. Time that he should have spent with his family. Time that he should have spent studying in grade school. Time that was stolen from him by a nineteen-year-old civil war that has killed two million people in Sudan. Even now, eighteen months and a world away from the blood and the famine, Simon cannot help but look back and imagine what might have been.

It is like this, Simon says in his soft British accent. During the death marches through hostile terrain, during the monotonous years in the refugee camps of Ethiopia and Kenya, he waited for his life to begin. And now that it has, he must dole out his spare moments as carefully as he rationed the maize that kept him alive for thirteen years.

Out of Africa: Lost Boys Simon Garang (right) and Kur Deng are now students at the University of Colorado.
Anthony Camera
Out of Africa: Lost Boys Simon Garang (right) and Kur Deng are now students at the University of Colorado.
This fall, Rich Wildau traveled to the Kakuma refugee camp.
Anthony Camera
This fall, Rich Wildau traveled to the Kakuma refugee camp.

Two minutes to chat. Thirty-five minutes for Thanksgiving dinner. He cannot waste time, Simon says. He is 23 years old. He has lost too much already.


Simon is among the chosen, one of 3,700 young men and boys from the Dinka and Nuer tribes who were plucked from the killing fields of Africa, transported to the richest country on earth and resettled across the United States in an unprecedented program with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

He arrived in July 2001, one of the so-called Lost Boys, with little more than the government-issued clothing on his back. In Denver, he was given a chance to start anew.

And he has. But like everything else in Simon's life, it hasn't been easy.

In Colorado's contingent of 61 Lost Boys, Simon is the serious one. He's intense, thoughtful, obsessive. Like his friends, the tall and rumpled scholar can be warm, good-natured and talkative, but among peers who are usually serious, focused and driven, he is particularly serious, focused and driven. He has to be, he says. There is too much at stake.

Simon came in the middle of six children born to a farmer in the village of Baping, in the marshlands of southern Sudan. The village boys herded goats, gathered firewood, attended school and swam in the Nile. But when Simon turned eight, everything changed.

As part of a scorched-earth policy to drive southern Sudanese from their homes, particularly near oil-rich areas, troops and hired militia from the hard-line Islamic government in Khartoum began wiping out village after village. Baping was attacked one day in November 1987, at 3:00 in the afternoon, while Simon attended a second-grade class five miles from his village. He saw the smoke and heard the crackle of gunfire. His teacher told the children to "run this way," so Simon fled into the bush. And he and the others kept running, because they learned "there is no village."

As the exodus progressed, Simon's group met others whose villages had been attacked: men, women and girls, but mostly boys between the ages of six and eighteen, who'd been attending classes or herding animals when the troops came. Some would flee to Uganda or Kenya. Simon's group of survivors headed east to Ethiopia, where they hoped to find a safe haven in a country that had supported the rebel Sudan People's Liberation Army. But death found many first.

On their trek through hundreds of miles of unforgiving terrain, dozens of refugees, particularly the very young and the very old, became exhausted and fell behind, then were killed by lions or leopards. Others died in bombings by enemy Antonovs. Simon survived by watching, listening and heeding the advice of adults who told them to stay together in groups of twenty to keep wild animals at bay, and walk during the cool of the night. They marched for eleven hours at a time, slept in the brush, sipped from watering holes, ate wild fruit and leaves. Sometimes they encountered SPLA rebels, who shared what food and water they could spare.

Twenty-eight days after the attack on his village, Simon wandered into southwestern Ethiopia, where the communist regime reluctantly allowed Western relief agencies to establish camps. Refugees were counted, classified and grouped according to age. In the camp, Simon was baptized and selected the biblical name of a prophet.

Simon had attended first and second grade in Baping, but under the dictates of Islamic law, which had been imposed upon the entire country, he had studied only in Arabic. In Ethiopia, he started from scratch. In makeshift classrooms in mud huts and underneath trees, they learned their "ABCs and 123s" in English. But Simon and his classmates didn't mind the lessons. They developed songs about the alphabet, worked arduously on penmanship and turned vocabulary assignments into contests.

Dinka boys are extremely competitive, Simon explains. In the villages of their homeland, hierarchy is established by wrestling, and the strongest becomes leader. But in the camps, scholastics replaced physical combat.

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