As children, Bol Aweng and Jok Dau survived lion attacks and death squads as they fled their village in Sudan. Today, the Ohio State students have built new lives. Their friendship is deep and abiding.
The boy, dressed in a wrap of white cloth where shorts might be, stands proudly, holding two wooden staffs. He watches the herd of water buffalo, a calf reclining languidly near its mother. The sky, an illuminating blue, contrasts with the white clouds, fluffy and unimposing. In the background, mud and straw dwellings form a semicircle; a crucifix juts from a pitched roof. A sense of unity pervades this scene of a young boy tending a varied herd beneath a brightly rendered sky.
And it is here where our story begins, a painting of a long ago memory-an Eden in Sudan created years later by that boy, who has grown to be a man with an artist's heart and an irrepressible spirit. And he has a story to tell about human nature's capacity to commit acts of evil and unimaginable brutality and great sacrifice.
But we get ahead of ourselves. The boy had not yet learned any of this. It is 1987 and the 6-year-old knows only simplicity and the relative peace of a small Christian village in southern Sudan. It's a life of laughter, play, family and the daily rhythms of early dawn herding.
An instant later, this world would turn inexplicable.
"I heard the sounds, the guns, there were big explosions and artillery, the soldiers were on the ground, running and setting the village on fire, capturing and killing people. I ran into the jungle to hide. I had never heard these sounds before," says Bol Aweng, the artist who is now a student at Ohio State University, recalling the moment that sent him reeling for more than a decade, hurtling toward a new life he never could have fathomed. Today, he sits at a table inside the bustling Northstar Café on High Street in the Short North. His soft voice rises just enough over the din of casual conversation filling the high-ceilinged room. Tall and lanky, he has a welcoming smile. Each time it breaks, which is quite frequently, it puffs out his slightly pudgy cheeks.
He describes the moment after the mysterious sounds: an instinctual dash to hide, a search for cover in the brush of the jungle, the anxious waiting as the sounds grow more fierce, the screams deafening as the heat of the day passes. "I just kept hiding and watched the smoke getting higher," he says.
And then silence as darkness descends. Gripped with fear and confusion amplified by thirst and hunger, he faces unthinkable worries: Are my parents alive? Are my brothers and sisters? My uncles, aunts and cousins? Will the soldiers find me?
It's a sleepless and lonely night. Only the next day do the cautious whispers of other boys, saved from the militia attack by the custom of early morning herding, let Aweng know he is not alone. He finds other boys and they begin walking, in search of safety. A few days later, he is joined by a cousin, Jok Dau, a constant playmate at village gatherings; the two have a bond often remarked upon by elders in the village.
The connection proves prescient. The two boys will spend the remaining days of their childhood never far from one another's side. They will live the same history of exodus, spanning four countries, two continents and thousands of miles of ceaseless walking (barefoot) to Ethiopia and then back through part of Sudan to reach a refugee camp in Kenya-as violent soldiers and militias, stoked by the Islamic government based in Khartoum, engage in a protracted and brutal battle against Christian civilians and rebels in the south. Sudan will be ravaged by war for years.
On the first night their village was plundered, as Aweng and Dau crouched fearfully in the woods, neither grasped the epic struggle ahead. "We heard things we never heard before and we run, but you think you come back some day," says Dau, as he sits next to Aweng at the cafe. The shorter of the two, he is compact and trim, with an intense gaze and calm demeanor. As they talk, often speaking over each other's words, it's more collective story than individual memoir-a narrative about both the cruelty of man and the power of friendship to sustain when life tests one's resilience and even one's sanity.
The nightmare of that first night turned into years. Two decades would pass before Aweng and Dau saw another family member again. They describe how the group of boys hiding from the marauding soldiers grew to more than 20,000. Many boys did not survive the dangerous trek in search of safety in Ethiopia, killed by hungry lions and poisoned by wild plants eaten for sustenance. There were other attacks from militias and the brutal drowning of some boys at the bare hands of soldiers while traversing an overflowing river. Planes dropped bombs on the human caravan. Death surrounded them.
The river of children turned into a stream, their numbers cut by thousands, making the arrival at a makeshift refugee camp in Ethiopia one of sadness for Aweng and Dau, whose journey to safety lasted seven weeks.
They will spend four years living in miserable conditions at this camp, called Panyido, before walking again through Sudan to Kakuma, Kenya. Dau and Aweng will sleep side by side in a 4-by-3-foot tent, share rations of flour and lentils and live in squalor and deprivation for a decade in Kakuma before eventually being two of the lucky ones to leave the country.
Aweng and Dau now make their lives as two of the 3,600 so-called Lost Boys of Sudan in the United States who are scattered from coast to coast. They were part of an unprecedented resettlement of refugee children that began in 2001, the largest in U.S. history, a group described by one observer as the "most badly war-traumatized children ever examined."
Dau and Aweng are both 28 and the only Lost Boys in Columbus. Yet, to persist in this label created by the media upon their arrival in the West seems unfair, derogatory even. Through the trial of building a new life here, they became men and have found themselves, achieving more than mere survival.
"They are very talented guys that have taken advantage of every opportunity that has been given to them," says Steve Walker, a former state coordinator for refugee services in Ohio, who worked with them not long after their arrival in Ohio several years ago and has since become a good friend. "The will to live that they had to go through their 1,500-mile walk has served them well in striving for other goals in their lives."
It was an ardous path, this building of a life in a new country. Dau came first, arriving in Nashville in 2001. By chance, Aweng soon followed, placed in the same apartment complex with other Sudanese immigrants from Kakuma. Aweng and Dau were together again, working low-wage jobs and attending school. The desire for more education would lead them to Ohio State in 2006.
But both carry the refugee's burden of guilt, lessened only by the hard work of establishing themselves in hopes of helping family members in Sudan someday. This burden translates to an austere existence. They work 40 hours a week at full-time jobs to pay for their undergraduate studies at OSU. Aweng drives a forklift at a Wal-Mart warehouse; Dau stocks Pepsi products in area retail stores. Each also is employed at an OSU recreation center.
Aweng is a brilliant painter with the raw material of his life inspiring his work as an art student with a specialty in computer animation and design. Dau chose political science, majoring in international relations with dreams of one day working abroad for a nongovernmental organization or the U.S. government. Both are scheduled to graduate in December and begin the next chapter in their lives.
It is a rainy, chilly evening in mid April on the campus of Capital University. Aweng and Dau, invited by a friend to tell their story to a cultural diversity class, stand next to a podium inside a windowless classroom. It's a class of nontraditional students, diverse in age and race. Dau wears a blue oxford shirt, black pants and dress shoes. Aweng wears a
T-shirt with an OSU "O" screen-printed in red, a pair of black sweat pants and worn sneakers. After a quick introduction by the instructor, the men begin a PowerPoint presentation with the title, "Journey of Hope."
It is slide after slide of arresting images, Aweng's paintings writ large on a screen. "Painting the obstacles that we faced is very difficult," he explains as he introduces the slides.
A painting titled "Imperceptible Misery" is in shadow, with the skinny legs of three young boys on the road to Ethiopia. Another boy lies on a makeshift stretcher made out of a tree limb, carried on the shoulders of the other two. "We were so young, it would take 10 people sometimes to carry one boy and it was not easy when we were 6 years old," Aweng says.
"I drew this in shadow because there was a huge genocide going on and the destruction of villages," Aweng adds. "But no one paid attention to it, so it was something in shadow, no one understood it."
He describes each painting, capturing the rapt attention of the classroom with his lucid storytelling. There's a trio of paintings of lion attacks. Beyond the deprivation of food and the hot sun, the boys faced this unimaginable danger. "The lions were everywhere by then," Aweng says. "The only way we can protect ourselves is to run to the tree and make loud sounds. If a boy got scared and tried to run away, they never came back."
In another painting, countless bodies ashen and gray lie lifeless beneath an imposing sky rendered a dramatic blood red. "Shooting in Magos" is the title, and Aweng describes it this way: "The gunmen just opened fire on us. You just jump up and run. Many died. Many didn't make it."
The paintings evoke better than words the suffering of the past, and the students appear moved by the story. Yet, not all of the works portray suffering; some speak of hope.
A river of humanity is depicted in one, young men holding bundled white satchels on top of their heads, a small sign on the bottom right: Welcome to Kenya. "When we saw the sign, we knew there was hope," Aweng says. Not that life in Kakuma was the end of the suffering. But there were good moments. The painting "Christmas Marching" represents one. A group of tall, well-dressed teens adorned in red sashes, wearing clean white shirts, hold up small wooden crucifixes. "Religion was part of the reason for the war," Aweng says, making eye contact with students on each side of the class. "When you are seen doing something like that in Sudan, you are the target of bombs. After we made it to Kenya, we knew we could do whatever we wanted to worship our God again."
He looks back at the overhead screen, as if reliving the moment: "That was a very good time for us."
And in each painting, it's always there, the evidence of sacrifice. The outstretched hand of one boy to another, pulling him into the safety of a tree; the stronger boys throwing down sticks, shielding the younger boys as a powerful lion roars below.
After the series of paintings comes a succession of photos from the men's lives, as well as shots of a long-awaited pilgrimage home to Sudan in 2008 to be reunited with family members. It's a life-changing visit, especially for Aweng, who sought out a young woman he had known in the refugee camp in Kakuma and married her during the trip. He is now working to bring his wife and young daughter to the U.S.
The photograph with the most impact is of a field, overgrown and green. "The last memory we have is so different from what we saw," says Dau. "We just see it as land as if no one ever lived there before." The photo is where the downtown of their village once stood. The last time they had seen it, smoke rose overhead and soldiers roamed the dirt roads pillaging and murdering.
They returned to the site of their village in search of family. It was a bittersweet homecoming, filled with moments of joy as well as sadness and mourning. For years, Dau and Aweng never knew if they were orphans. Information was difficult to come by in a refugee camp.
Dau reunited with his mother, father and four brothers. Aweng found his mother, father and aunt, and he learned the devastating news about his sister, who was abducted by soldiers and never heard from again. One brother now lives in Australia and four sisters remain in Sudan. He describes the moment he saw his mother for the first time again: "We were speechless. We just look at one another for an hour. You cannot talk."
But the return revealed a great contrast between their lives-the opportunities they enjoy as U.S. citizens, including their college educations-and those of the children in Sudan, living out a destiny that might easily have been their own.
It's a contrast made all the more profound by the photos that follow: Aweng and Dau surrounded by beautiful children with toothy smiles and adoring faces. "There's been no major improvement there," Dau says. "Some of these children spend the whole day without food. But the kids, they still just play."
The next photo is of a man sitting at a table surrounded by waiting people. "That's the whole clinic," says Dau. "One person and one table. And that person only has a second-grade education. But he knows how to read."
They explain the situation back home with regret and sadness. There's little source of employment. For many children, their only choice is to join the military. "The dream is to become a soldier," Aweng says regretfully. "No one dreams of becoming a doctor. There is no source of inspiration, no one to be the professors one day." For girls, educational opportunities are limited, too, and many only seek to get married, he explains.
After the presentation, the students pepper them with questions, but it's the first one that catches Aweng and Dau off-guard: "Are you currently working with any groups to raise funds?"
"We saw so many things to get done and we are planning to raise money for a clinic," Dau says, struggling for an answer that seems sufficient. He mentions the need for more connections. The importance of documentation. The challenge of putting the paperwork together for a nonprofit. Getting the money there. Making sure it goes where it's supposed to go.
Indeed, the question of how to help Sudan, one of the most war-ravaged countries in the world, often leaves even the experts without answers. The causes of the suffering Aweng and Dau endured are complicated, the perennial ones that never seem to go away: religious fundamentalism, the remnants of colonial rule, oil money and bad leadership.
At least now the impunity with which Sudan's leadership acted for decades is being challenged by the international community. In an unprecedented ruling in early spring, the International Criminal Court charged the president of Sudan, Omar Hassan al-Bashir (the man arguably responsible for robbing Aweng and Dau of their childhoods), with war crimes and crimes against humanity. It's a first for the court, which has never attempted to detain a sitting head of state. Yet, even this move is proving disastrous, as aid agencies have been forced to leave the nation and al-Bashir retains his rule over the country.
While Dau stands in the front of the classroom, faced with the question of what he's doing for Sudan, it's easy to see his mind turning. How to explain his brutal schedule: work, demanding classes, a tight budget, the lack of any time to work on anything beyond building a life again.
"If we have money, we send it to them," he says finally. "But the one thing we can do for them is if we are educated we will make them proud."
Other questions follow, typical ones about how they have adapted to American culture, how they've learned to drive, what foods they like here. But the final one cuts to the heart of the amazing resilience and strength of both men. And their answer seems to explain why they've survived and built a new life.
"How did you handle things?" a student asks.
"We learned something out of our suffering," Dau says. "We saw boys killed by lions and crocodiles, and there are those who thought a lot about it, those who lost their minds for good. If you put all your thoughts on one, it will give you trauma."
It's a gorgeous Palm Sunday as Aweng and Dau pull up in a slightly beat-up beige Toyota Camry on a two-lane street in Grandview next to the Boulevard Presbyterian Church. When the car door opens, music is blaring. Dau's trim frame pours out of the vehicle. He flashes an endearing smile, his face lit up against a crisp white shirt and mustard-colored tie. Aweng parks the car and joins Dau as they chitchat with Steve Hill, a retired OSU business professor, who has invited them to the church. The congregation is gathered in the lobby.
They are not hard to spot among the mostly white congregation. Hill introduces them to a handful of other members, who stretch out hands in greeting, curious about the two visitors.
Soft acoustic guitar begins to play and a small children's choir sings a hymn with a repeated chorus of praise him, praise him. The music crescendos as the congregation melds its collective voice with the chorus. Aweng and Dau, joining the procession into the sanctuary, sing along: Hosanna, Hosanna, Hosanna in the highest!
It's easy to wonder what is on their minds. Is it too much of a contrast to take in? The well-dressed and fed congregants. The new cars and minivans in the parking lot. The overflowing donation plates. Despite the normalcy of the moment, it's soon clear Sudan is never far from either one's thoughts. Aweng whispers an aside to a visitor: "The war destroyed all our churches."
After the service, sitting in a coffee shop in Grandview, they talk longingly of home, especially the food. While stepping over one another's sentences, they reminisce about one dish that will never be forgotten-tilapia from the Nile River. It can't compare to any fish served here. Nor to a particular kind of seafood found in abundance. "Shrimp, cooked shrimp. I really don't appreciate it," Aweng says, shaking his head, sounding like an unpretentious food critic.
Dau laughs at his cousin, but nods in agreement.
Mya Frazier is a freelance writer.
This story appeared in the August 2009 issue of Columbus Monthly.