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Separated at Childhood by War, Three Sudanese Friends Reunite in America

Southern Sudanese at home and abroad are celebrating the results of the January 2011 independence referendum: a near 99 percent vote for sovereignty.  But for thousands of refugees, having lost their homes and loved ones in the 22-year conflict between North and South Sudan, this turn of events is bittersweet.  Many are taking this time to be thankful for having made it out alive to witness this significant moment in their country’s history—and to remember those who didn’t. 

“Those of us who survived the war are the fortunate ones,” said Jakob Kon, 32, a refugee from South Sudan now living in the United States. “I am thankful to God to have kept me alive to tell the story of what happened.”

The conflict between North and South Sudan led to the deaths of two million people.  Millions more fled the country, finding shelter in refugee camps in Ethiopia and Kenya, where many remain to this day.  One particularly vulnerable group of refugee children, known as the Lost Boys, came of age in refugee camps. 

Kon and his friends Chol Dakbai, 30, and Majier Majuch, 29, are three of tens of thousands of Lost Boys who fled the Sudanese civil war of the 1980s by walking hundreds of miles across the blistering hot desert to Ethiopia, back to Sudan, and then into Kenya.  Many of these children died along the treacherous journey.  Others, like Kon, Dakbai, and Majuch, spent their teen and early adult years in refugee camps before being resettled in the United States. This is their story.

A long and treacherous journey

Growing up in the same village, Kon, Dakbai, and Majuch have been friends for as long as they can remember.  When their village was attacked in 1987, Kon, who was 9 years old at the time, recalls men, women, and children running in every direction.  The boys escaped from their village, getting separated from their parents in the mass exodus.

“We didn’t know in what direction our families ran,” remembers Kon, “so I followed a group running east toward the Ethiopian border.” At the time he didn’t know that Dakbai and Majuch, then 7 and 6, respectively, headed in the same direction.

Joining a group of unaccompanied boys, some as young as 3 or 4, they walked at night to avoid being killed by government troops or recruited by Sudanese rebel forces.  By day, they hid in mosquito-infested swamps.  When hunger became unbearable, they ate discarded animal carcasses, leaves, and roots. 

“We had nothing to eat and no clean water to drink,” said Kon. “Many people got desperate and drank contaminated water, got infected, and died.”  Others died of malaria, drowned in rivers, or fell prey to wild animals.

Growing up in refugee camps

After a month-long journey, the boys reached Pinyudo, Ethiopia.  But instead of shelter and food, they encountered nothing but a sprawling forest.  “There was nothing,” remembered Dakbai.  “There were no tents, food, or any other supplies in the camp.” 

Left to their own devices, the youths had to build mud and grass huts and sleep in large groups on dirt floors.  Most had to make do without any clothes, having had no time to take anything with them when they fled their villages.  It took three months for the first aid trucks carrying food and non-food items to arrive. 

This camp was their home for the next four years.  When in 1991 a war broke out between Eritrea and Ethiopia, the boys, along with other Sudanese refugees, fled back across the border to Sudan—first to Pochalla then Narus.  Their temporary respite on the Sudanese border was short lived.  A few months later, they were under attack again. 

“We had to wait until nightfall to start walking,” recalled Kon.  “The attackers were going to bomb us if they saw us.”

This time, the boys ran across the border to Kenya, stopping in Lokichoggio (nicknamed Loki) before making their way to Kakuma refugee camp.  Intended as a short-term shelter while they waited out the war, the dusty camp in the semi-desert region of north Kenya became their home for the next nine years.

A chance for a new beginning

After thirteen years of struggling to survive, subsisting on food rations, and being unable to pursue higher education, Kon, Dakbai, and Majuch (pictured right) were among the lucky Lost Boys admitted for resettlement to the United States.  Separated during of their many flights from one refugee camp to another, the three friends were reunited in the Washington, D.C. area. 

“When we first got to America, the adjustment was really hard,” said Dakbai.  “But we were so happy to be here.  Considering what we’ve been through in life, adjusting to life in the United States was not that difficult in comparison.” 

Trying to learn the English language in a short period of time was one of the many challenging aspects of their new life, they confessed.  “Always having to repeat yourself because people can’t understand what you’re saying because of our accent can get discouraging,” explained Majuch.  “But it’s getting easier every day.” 

The three friends agree that the most difficult part of living in the United States is being so far from their families.  For years they didn’t even know whether their parents and siblings back in Sudan were alive.  Dakbai’s family only recently learned that he was alive and well in the United States.  Last summer, he surprised his parents when he visited Sudan for the first time since he escaped from his village 23 years ago.  “It was too emotional to go back,” he said with tears in his eyes. “My family was so surprised to see me.”

When Kon went back to his village in 2006, he barely recognized his mother.  While his parents knew that he was living in the United States, he wasn’t able to reach them to let them know that he was coming home. “It was such a surprise,” he said with a big smile.  According to Sudanese tradition, his relatives slaughtered a bull in his honor.

Kon, Dakbai, and Majuch hope that the prospect of peace and stability—in a country at war for most of their lives—will make it possible for their families to have a safe and prosperous future in South Sudan.  And perhaps Majuch, who never went back to Sudan, will be able to see his family again soon.

Top photo: Southern Sudanese refugees across America vote for sovereignty. Photo credit: Chambang G. Mut.  

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