In their gripping memoir, three Sudanese boys share a tale of horror—and hope—and uncover the mindbending plight of war-torn Sudan.
The last time Alephonsion Deng saw his mother he was 7 years old. He was out tending to his goats when marauders attacked his Dinka village, Juol, in Southern Sudan. He knew what to do—his mother had always told him if something happened, if the government’s soldiers came to kill them, flee. He did.
“Before they reached my house they began shooting. People scattered everywhere. Roofs went up in flames … I watched them kill our cattle, set the millet and sorghu fields on fire, Benjamin Ajak, from “They Poured Fire on Us From the Sky.”
“Explosions, horses and camels chasing people, shooting, screaming, crying: it was like the end of the world,” he writes. Alephonsion, who goes by the nickname Alepho, watched the soldiers take villagers to the river and drown them. His homeland was up in flames. The young boy, now all alone, joined others still alive and traveled 100 miles to what was considered to be a safer place, guarded by rebels who were fighting the Sudanese government’s army, the Murahiliin.
“Ignited in 1983, Africa’s longest-running war is still going on,” writes Alepho’s mentor, Judy Bernstein. “North against south, Muslims against animists and Christians, Arabs and Blacks. Huge oil reserves in southern Sudan being held by the northern Muslim government fuel the war. Race, religion and riches. The same things people always kill each other over. With no solution in sight, 2 million Blacks in the south have already died. … Five million displaced and at risk. A holocaust is happening today ”
Alepho found a half-brother and later, down the road, a cousin. But his mother had disappeared. So had Benson, his 9-year-old brother, who was lost in a similar attack two years prior.
“We never handled guns so when we saw a person handle it and it went bang,
we knew that thing killed. We called it the harmful stick. We learned quickly that if somebody points the stick at you, you die. Some of the boys, like ten-year-olds didn’t listen [to the soldiers in Torit]. They’d seen a lot of killing and they also wanted to kill. They wanted to be warriors. They didn’t want to have mercy. I think it is because they were worn out by so much killing.” Alepho Deng, from “They Poured Fire on Us From the Sky.”
While Alepho was desperate to return to his village and hunt for his family, he was routed in with hundreds of other boys and sent to move on, perhaps to find a safer place, somewhere away from the civil war erupting in his country. That was just the beginning of a long and often tragic story depicted in the heartbreaking, stunning book, “They Poured Fire on Us From the Sky,”
of which Alepho is a co-writer. He, and two of the book’s other three writers, will be speaking and reading from their harrowing true tale at the Capitola Book Café at 7:30 p.m. on Monday, July 18.
Alepho’s journey is mindbending. He walked 1,000 miles across Sudan, enduring disease and starvation. He witnessed murders and was plagued by despair. He faced every tragedy that war produces. His 7-year-old body soon became emaciated. He didn’t want much: peace, a return to a simple life again—tending goats, his brother Benson to laugh with, some handfuls of grain to eat along the way and … his mother’s voice.
I was beginning to give up hope that we could survive.”
It would be16 years before he heard it again. At age 23, Alepho found his mother. He was a file clerk for a hospital in San Diego. He and about 100 other Lost Boys of Sudan were removed from a refugee camp in Kenya and relocated to America by the U.S. government. It was in December 2004 that Alepho and his mother spoke for the first time, neither knowing if the other was still alive.
“I found out on Christmas,” Alepho says, over the phone from his apartment in San Diego, recalling that stunning telephone call to his mother. “It was such a big reaction and I was crying on the phone. I tried many times to get through, maybe $40 worth of calling cards. It finally went through for about five minutes. She didn’t believe I’m the one talking to her. She thinks I’m a dead person that’s come back, like a ghost.”
But now his mother is beginning to believe it was really her son who called that wintery day last December, and who continues to contact her in Kenya. “I’m hoping to save some money. I want to see her so bad,” he says.
After Alepho and his mother were separated, he became one of the reported 20,000 seemingly orphaned boys who traveled across Sudan seeking refuge. Many were just small boys that suddenly became men. They were soon dubbed “The Lost Boys.” As for the girls, many were taken as slaves, killed or raped, and many of those that attempted to travel, to flee—with hardly any food and endless miles of walking—died.
Alepho’s hellish experience spanned 11 years. He was sent to live in various “safe places” and refugee camps. Although he was in less danger there, life in a refugee camp was just a step up from horrible. And the young boy worried that he may never find his family again. While he was sent to a Southern Sudanese place of supposed refuge, called Palataka, unbeknownst to him, his younger brother Benson and their cousin, Benjamin Ajak, were sent to an Ethiopian refugee camp. But war erupted there as well and the Lost Boys were sent back to Sudan, by crossing the River Gilo.
“I have many bad memories that I will never erase from my brain, but witnessing how the River Gilo gulped Sudanese underneath to their deathbed will always prevail,” writes Benson. “… To get the twenty thousand boys to the other side would take hundreds of crossings a day. By the third day only half the population was across and waiting on the Sudan side for the rest. … Then suddenly: Boom! Bang! Taai! Tuuk! Tuuk! The guns were loud and near. … Then there was the wail and the woe. … Bullets flew from the Ethiopian side to our side of the river. … The enemy emerged into view and shot people trying to cross the swollen river. Blood exploded out of their heads as they crumpled into the water. … Thousands of people flowed into the river and disappeared like water poured into the sand of Sahara. … One woman crossed on the backs of bodies that had accumulated in the water.”
Benson and Benjamin traveled to yet another camp, while Alepho, Peter and Joseph were stationed in a different place. Alepho and Joseph escaped and traveled to a town called Kidepo where they found the very one that Alepho had been looking for, for years—his brother, Benson. But the journey didn’t end there. That was only another harrowing part in the three boys’ epic tale. And even Alepho, Benson and Benjamin couldn’t predict that after such excruciating journeys across Sudan, that they would finally arrive in the United States in the fall of 2001.
This happy reunion ended quickly. More bombings. They were separated again. They were hungry. Alepho remembers a story, which he recounts in a chapter titled “Good Samaritan,” about a man who gave him some food:
“Hunger makes you different. It changes you. Like the cow that sees grain on the ground and walks in without being invited and eats it. It makes you like an animal.
“War had ruined a lot of things. I had become convinced that people were not good; people were bad. Sometimes I try to remember the man who shared his small meal. That incident made me think differently about people.”
“We suffered another sadness in Pochala when 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, Benson Deng, from “They Poured Fire on Us From the Sky.” Alepho pressed on. Eventually, the boys were brought back together and then settled into a tough-as-nails Kenyan refugee camp. At 19, Alepho and his 22-year-old brother Benson were ushered through Immigration and Naturalization Services (INS) and boarded a plane that would take them to the land of the free. Benjamin wasn’t far behind them. Of the 20,000 boys that fled their villages in 1987, about 4,000 were brought to the United States in 2001 and deposited in groups of 100 into different cities. Benson, Benjamin and Alepho now live in San Diego.
When they arrived in America, they were brought under the wing of mentor Judy Bernstein, who’s on the advisory committee at the International Rescue Committee (IRC), which provides services and assistance to refugees. She began assisting the boys with what we might consider simple tasks, but these “tasks” seemed monumental to the boys: buying food, visiting doctors, going to the DMV, and the like. Soon, the boys became a part of Bernstein’s family, which already included her husband and a son. During her first outing with the Lost Boys, Bernstein purchased 69-cent composition notebooks for them. These notebooks would produce the beginnings of stories for “They Poured Fire on Us From the Sky.”
At first, Bernstein thought their stories about Africa could maybe be compiled into a little booklet for the IRC to put together. But things started to evolve, and although the prospect of the boys and Bernstein writing a book seemed like a pipe dream, the ambitious fiftysomething decided to take the idea to the top. In 2003 she sent out a query letter to Joni Evans, vice-president of the William Morris Agency (one of the most reputable, talent/literary agencies). The next day she got a response. This is very rare. Typically, it takes weeks, even months, for an unknown writer to receive a response from a literary agency, let alone a behemoth like William Morris. Evans procurred a contract from HarperCollins’ Public Affairs division for Bernstein, Alepho, Benson and Benjamin, and the boys began reworking their stories. Their traumatic and powerful memoir was published in mid-June and the writers have been on a book tour together.
They’re visiting Capitola on July 18, mostly on the urging of Judy Bouley, a Hollywood casting director who lives in the area. The boys met Bouley in 2002 when she was in the San Diego area casting actors for the Russell Crowe film Master and Commander. Benjamin and Alepho auditioned for the film, as director Peter Weir was looking to add African men to the movie. The cousins were added to the roster and spent six months living in Rosarito, Mexico, making the movie.
“I saw myself for probably eight seconds,” Alepho says of watching the film on the big screen. “I thought he was a good guy,” he adds, referring to Crowe.
Because of that experience, Alepho is considering studying both acting and journalism. He currently attends a city college in San Diego and works as a file clerk at Kaiser Permanente. Alepho, his brother Benson, and his cousin Benjamin have been in America for nearly four years now. It’s a vastly different life for them.
“Writing this book, I decided not to hide my message,” Alepho says. “I wanted this book to help other young people to see life on a different level. … It helped somehow as a therapy, but it didn’t completely take away the stories and experiences. I still have them. It is something for my kids to remember someday. I can’t say that I’m proud that I wrote a book … I can only say that I needed the world to know about my story. … This world is becoming a world of war right now. People are indulging in war. The people affected are kids and women. If people can read (our book) they will feel they should not support any war.”