‘Lost boys’ of Sudan may not have been so lost

Daniel Deng leads a protest march in Juba, Sudan.  Photo  Arne Doornebal
Daniel Deng leads a protest march in Juba, Sudan. Photo Arne Doornebal
Dave Egger’s book What is the What tells the story of Sudan’s ‘lost boys’. But the term is “bullshit,” one lost boy claims.“We were not lost, we were led.”

Daniel Deng feels like he is still being treated like a child. “The South-Sudanese government spent so much money on campaigns for the Sunday elections and now it has suddenly withdrawn its candidate at the very last minute. Who should we vote for now? Don’t we have anything to say here in South Sudan?”

Little seems to have changed since Deng was one of the so-called ‘lost boys’: the tens of thousands of youths who roamed the bush during the civil war that ripped the nation apart from 1983 and 2005. Dave Eggers told the world their story in his 2006 book What is the What. That story made Deng feel like he had no rights as well. “The true story of the lost boys has yet to be told,” he said.

Last weekend, Deng led hundreds of sympathisers and a police marching band in a demonstration in support of free and peaceful elections. He led the protest march in Juba, the capital of South-Sudan, from his wheelchair. Deng’s long march with the lost boys, 20 years ago, cost him his legs. It did little to diminish his strength however. “The atmosphere in South-Sudan now is not unlike the one in America during the Gold Rush. You can build something here, you can make history,” he said.

The lost boys already made some history of their own. The world learnt of the horrors of Africa’s longest-lasting war through the tragedy of these thousands of boy and girls who were shot at, lost and abandoned. In What is the What, protagonist Valentino fled from Arab warriors on horseback. “Some of the lost boys had to run from the Arabs,” Deng confirmed. “But most of them were recruited into the South Sudanese People’s Liberation Movement’s (SPLM) child regiment as part of its Red Army. My village elder had to give ten children to the SPLM. He picked me and my sister.”

Deng dwelled through the unforgiving and deserted landscape of South Sudan for months. First, he travelled from his village, near the city of Bor, to the Ethiopian refugee camps, where he arrived in 1989. Even though the camps were run by the United Nations, the SPLM was free to recruit children and conduct military exercises there. “I wanted to go to school. I didn’t want to fight,” Deng recalled.

When he refused to, the SPLM had him flogged with a whip 15 times. “We were brainwashed,” Deng said. “They taught us the Arabs were coming to steal land from the Southern Sudanese, while it were the rebel leaders who stole our youth by recruiting us into their army.”

After a new government took power in Ethiopia in 1991, the rebels lost their base there. “We had to leave. We travelled across mountains and deserts, we crossed raging rivers. Many of us were unable to swim and drowned,” Deng recalled. They were shot at, first by soldiers for the new Ethiopian government, then by the Sudanese government army. They tried to hide in the border town of Pochalla. “We were trapped there for months, with Sudanese air force bombs raining down on us every day.”

“We were not lost, we were led by SPLM adults. The expression ‘lost boys’ is bullshit,” Deng said. “We suffered one of the most flagrant violations of human rights ever, but it was not at the hands of the Sudanese president Bashir. We were victims of the SPLM. There are so many lies circulating about the lost boys. The story told in What is the What is only part of the truth.”

Deng’s long march ended in 1992, after he had arrived in Kakuma, a refugee camp in north-west Kenya. His legs were causing him trouble and a camp doctor recommended he undergo surgery. Something went wrong, and Deng has been confined to a wheelchair ever since. In 2000, he fled to the United States, but returned in 2007, two years after North and South Sudan signed a peace treaty. “I want to be a part of the historic change sweeping Sudan,” he said, referring to next Sunday’s elections and the referendum regarding South-Sudan’s independence next year. He is active protesting and collecting money for disabled veterans. “I am staying here.”

Deng returned to the now autonomous region of South Sudan, to find himself in the middle of a culture clash. He was hired by its ministry of communication to help backward South Sudan join the rest of the world in the digital era. “I am not a high-ranking SPLM official, so nobody really listens to me,” Deng complained. “Most people at the ministry still live in the days of the horse and carriage. The only technology they know is the walkie-talkie.”

Some people are suspicious of Deng, he said. SPLM cadres do not trust him because he received a proper education in the US. Citizens are apprehensive because of his fluent English. In Juba, an angry crippled man told him recently that he was “not really” disabled, claiming his injuries were caused by polio, rather than the war. “But I have paid my price in this war,” Deng said. “Sudan now belongs to us all. Not just to the SPLM.”