Benson Deng, Alephonsion Deng and Benjamin Ajak, left to right, recall their harrowing experiences during the Sudanese civil war in They Poured Fire on Us From the Sky.
Earlier this year, the Sudanese government and the rebel army of the south signed a historic peace treaty, bringing an end to the longest-running conflict in Africa's history. The war, which began in 1983, pitted the country's Arab and Muslim northern government against the largely Christian and animist black tribes of the south.
The conflict displaced an estimated 5 million Sudanese. Of these, about 20,000 were young boys orphaned by the war who trekked barefoot across the country to refugee camps in Kenya and Ethiopia. Without parents to care for them, they banded together to survive — and are known as the "lost boys of Sudan."
In late 2000, a group of 4,000 lost boys were relocated to the United States. Alephonsion Deng was one of them. He, his brother and two cousins settled in San Diego. Three of them have just published a book about their long and perilous journey from Sudan to the United States, They Poured Fire on Us From the Sky: The True Story of Three Lost Boys from Sudan.
Alephonsion Deng and Judy Bernstein, co-authors of They Poured Fire on Us From the Sky
An Excerpt From Part Two of They Poured Fire on Us From the Sky
The Skulls Tree & Monyde (Benson)
In the days after we crossed the River Nile, water became precious. It was the dry season: the grasses were brown and the rivers dry with dust. Nearly all the animals were gone except lions, snakes and the vultures that always hovered above, waiting. If you sat in the grass to rest, they thought you were dying and they'd come down and sit close by because they were used to finding corpses in the grass.
The villages were far apart and as we walked without water and food, my vision blurred. I'd open my eyes wide, but everything surrounding me would turn red and then colorless dark with dim stars that made me dizzy. When I wanted to forget walking and sit down, someone would say, "Carry on. I can hear a cock crowing from the next village." I'd force my eyes wide open but all I could see were little boys like me, only heads and hips, staggering along.
We passed through a village one afternoon and came upon a little boy sitting under a tree crying miserably.
"Who is this little boy crying?" Kuany asked a soldier standing nearby.
"He wants to go to Ethiopia with the other boys. He has nobody to look after him."
"Where are his parents?"
"Two years ago a bomb blasted his house. Both his parents were killed but we pulled him out of the burning house and brought him to this village. He was so small he could not yet talk. He doesn't know the name of his parents or if he has brothers and sisters."
Kuany bent down to the little boy. "What is your name?"
"Monyde," he sniffled. "I come with you?"
"We can't look after him," the soldier said. "We're leaving here and he's too little to walk into the desert."
"I can go," insisted Monyde. "I want to go."
I was surprised at his boldness for such a young boy.
"He's not taken care of in this village," said the soldier. "He's always beaten by other kids who have parents. He's tried to leave with a lot of passersby, but they said he was too young to survive the journey across Ajakageer. He's been left in the world without hope of anyone caring for him."
We took Monyde with us. He was a funny, talkative little boy, happy and courageous even when the walking became bitterly hard at the day's end. He made people laugh with childish questions. He was a little comedian.
That night when we camped, he said, "I want to go to toilet."
"Sit in the grass," we told him.
"I'm afraid of the vultures."
Kuany went with Monyde to the grass.
I began to suffer from pinkeye going through the desert. Walking in the hot sun made it worse. By midday we walked like sick dogs, with our steps zigzagging down the road. We could feel our bones trying to exhibit themselves to the world. Everything around us looked ugly and wild. We couldn't find happiness in ourselves, and no one could put it in us.
We thanked heaven one day when we found a few mango trees with small green fruits. I got two little ones that were the size of my thumb tips. Although they were bitter and sour, I chewed and swallowed them raw. When there were no more fruits, someone said, "We could chew the newly grown leaves. It will be like a drink of water."
Everybody was bending the branches down and plucking the leaves. I tried the leaves but they made my tongue and throat itchy.
That day I became exhausted and fell back. I couldn't keep up, although there were still many people behind me. From out of nowhere many antelope ran toward me in a cloud of dust. I was scared and stood still, not knowing what to do. A voice behind me yelled, "Move out of there." But it was too late to move. As they were about to run me over, the leading antelope saw me standing there in my red underwear and skipped aside just before knocking me down.
"That leading antelope saved your life," said a soldier. "They could have danced all over you."
"Go after them," I told him. "Shoot us some animals with a fire eye from your gun. Even monkeys. Go shoot."
"I have only five fire eyes," he said. "And those are to protect you. There are bad tribes on the way who like to attack the walking people. They kill them and take away their belongings. They'll kidnap the young boys."
The only talk among us became the huge desert that lay ahead. More than halfway to Ethiopia, everyone feared and dreaded this most dangerous part of our journey, the desert of Ajakageer.
My eyes grew worse every day. At midday, when it was hottest, I sweated. My eyes burned and my skin was slippery and irritated. At night, I was desperate to have a good sleep and gain strength for the walking but I couldn't because it was cold in the desert. We used the middle of the road as our bed and all you could see was all the different colors of people's clothes lying there. My skin was crusty with dirt and sand from sleeping on the ground without a blanket and my underwear tingled with lice. At dawn, when the soldiers blew the whistle, a murmuring sound traveled all along the road. It was time to get up and walk again.
A day after we entered the Ajakageer we met with some luck. Six thousand men, going to the army training camp in Ethiopia, were being escorted by SPLA soldiers with a large water tanker. The youngest boys were selected to ride on the tanker.
I had never ridden on a vehicle before. The first one I saw in the village came so noisily, running fast and raising clouds of dust, that I ran from my goats. I came out of hiding after the dust clouds subsided, having forgotten my goats, and printed my feet along the tire tread marks. I kept my eyes on where the vehicle had gone, amazed by how fast it ran and knowing that if it returned, I couldn't outrun it and that it might knock me up into the trees.
The only thing that scared me about riding on this water tanker was how smooth and round it was on the top, where we sat. The soldiers put several logs of wood on the edge to prevent us from falling off. When the tanker started moving, I saw that the trees were running backward. I was so scared from the rocking about that I grabbed a soldier's clothes to keep myself from falling, which annoyed him.
That night, in the desert of Ajakageer, Benjamin and Emmanuel fell off the tanker and we had to shout loud to get the tanker to stop so they could climb back on. An hour later Monyde fell off. We shouted again but this time our weak voices from the back of the tanker were not heard by the driver, who was plunging in and out of the desert holes made by the mud during rainy seasons. The soldiers banged and banged on the cab, but the driver was drunk and he did not hear for a very long time.
Luckily Monyde was a very smart boy. He knew that surrounding him were lions and many wild animals, so he hid under the tall grass and waited. When eventually the tanker turned back, searching for him with its lights, Monyde came running from the grass.
The soldiers told him, "You are a clever and brave boy for hiding and not crying."
"Something was shaking the grass," Monyde said. "That's why I was hiding."
The soldiers lifted him up and put him in the cab with the driver.
In the middle of that night, after we had passed and left far behind the long marching line of men, the tanker stopped in the desert to wait for them. Everyone climbed down. It was very dark. A soldier stepped on something with his boot that broke with a cracking noise. He lit a torch. It was a smashed human skull.
"S***!" he said. "This is a bad luck."
Our eyes followed the torchlight into the grass and saw many more skulls. They seemed to be smiling but were scary with teeth missing. "From the people who died of thirst," explained the soldiers. Some of the skulls were smaller, like children. Emmanuel looked at me, his eyes full of terror. A light sweat broke out over my body. It was midnight and very cold. I tried to put the skulls out of my mind. We needed to get warm and we had no blanket or clothes. My underwear, horrible with countless lice, was all I had. So Emmanuel and
I went down to sit under the tanker where the engine was still warm. The warmth felt so good to me that I fell deeply asleep, even though it was in the middle of a graveyard.
But the driver changed his plan and told everybody to prepare to leave. Everyone got up on the tanker and the driver started the engine. Emmanuel called my name to make sure I was okay and instantly knew that I was not there because I did not respond. He screamed as the driver let go of his brake and was about to pull out. The soldiers slapped on the truck cab to try to get his attention, yelling, "There is a boy down under the tanker."
They found me there snoring and a soldier poured cold water into my ear. That startled me awake and I banged my head on the axle.
When the sun came up in the morning, we saw that the tanker had stopped again in the middle of the desert to wait for the walking crowd. Everything was quiet and calm. Nearby many skulls were clustered under a huge tamarind tree. A soldier told us, "That is a skulls tree where you can see all types of bones from a lot of people who went to rest in the cool shade and never got up to continue their journey."
When we started out, the driver told me not to ride on his tanker again. "I don't want anyone to die and blame me. If you want to die, die on your own, not by my truck."
He wanted to leave me in the middle of nowhere beside a tree with countless skulls and bones! My eyes were so sick that I was afraid I couldn't make the walk. I ran to the other side of the truck and tried to climb up with some other boys. A soldier struck my shoulder with his whip and I fell off. I pleaded with the driver not to leave me. He drove off anyway.
I found Kuany in the crowd that was following the truck and walked all day with the very hot sun burning the whip's welt on my back. At three in the afternoon, when I reached the place where the tanker had stopped again, all of the water had been finished. Kuany tried to find me some without success. I was too thirsty to cry. I had no saliva in my mouth or tears in my eyes.
The same soldier who had whipped me earlier that morning saw me and kindly offered me the little water he had left in his container. Kuany didn't get a single drop.
That evening the driver let me back on the truck because there was a night and a half day's walk until the next village where we might find water. The road narrowed and the driver had difficulty following what was a footpath. Sometimes he lost his way. Then he would turn round to find the track again and begin following it once more.
In the middle of the night we ran into three lions. The driver blew the horn to scare them, but they didn't move until the soldiers fired their guns. They ran into the grass, but a few minutes later one lion jumped onto the tanker and nearly pulled a boy off.
The next morning the tanker dropped us at the village of Gumuro, with thousands of people trailing behind in the desert. Kuany arrived later with a few strong men. The soldiers escorting the walkers came with the news that twentyfive people had died of thirst that night alone. Many were those who carried peanuts and sesame in a small calabash. They died because eating this food increases thirst. Among the dead was a huge man, a cook, whom everyone knew because he carried a large metal cooking drum with extra food and water.
After dropping us off, the tanker returned to repeat its journey. We only spent one night in Gumuro because the local people there, who received weapons from the government, hid in the bush and shot at trespassers. Even the SPLA soldiers guarding us were afraid of them.
And so, with just one day's rest, we had to continue on foot. Eating became a big problem because of the number of people. Whenever we camped it was hard for little boys to get food. We were like gazelles among a herd of buffalo. But in this crowd there were a few good men who cared for us first. They contributed what little we ate and that kept us strong. They told us that nothing could befall us while they were around.
Monyde, who had been given a bowl of water, brought it to me so that I could drink and wash my eyes. I was so grateful for that.
At night I usually slept on the gravel road because the wet grass made my skin itch. When we were told we had to walk three more days to reach the last town in Sudan on the border of Ethiopia, I fell asleep wondering if I could make it through the rest of the desert, or if I would be one of the ones to end up under a skulls tree.
After Monyde gave me water at the river we became best friends and traveled together in the following days. I believed that he would be a good leader when he grew up because even though he was very young, I got courage from him because he never complained of any difficulties. When we became thirsty, hungry or tired from the long walking, he just kept quiet. Adults praised him for being the bravest and strongest of all the boys on our trip. I think he was.
At Pochala, after walking three days, Monyde suddenly became sick. They said it was yellow fever. Kuany did everything he could to help Monyde, but he died in only two days. He'd crossed that whole desert, even though they said he couldn't do it. He'd survived when many big people died. But we buried him just a half mile from safety. I was so sad to lose my brave friend. I knew I would never forget him.
We suffered another sadness in Pochala when the SPLA conscripted Kuany, who had been caring for us. Without our uncle, it was really not safe for us, little boys alone. Without Monyde and Kuany, I was beginning to give up hope that we could survive.