MUNDRI, Sudan — John Bul Atem peeks out of the deep shadows of a mango tree into the scorched and war-torn landscape rolling with life that is his native Sudan.[View the slideshow]
This is a familiar scene to him, being not far from the village of his birth, Key, to the north of here. The heat, the dust, the gnarled underbrush beneath green canopies, the delicious pace of life that allows enjoyment of others’ company. These are the things of heartbreaking nostalgia from a childhood innocence cut short.
Yet, it is a radically different landscape and culture than the one he has grown used to since 2001 in his adopted U.S. home of Houston, where he lives a quiet life and works in a bookstore.
This may seem a strange and unusual story — African boy escapes war, survives hunger and disease, works in a Houston bookstore — but it is not. John Atem, now 24, is one of the so-called Lost Boys, a name given by aid groups to the more than 25,000 children, most of them orphans, who wondered for hundreds of miles to safety in Kenya during Sudan’s second civil war. That conflict, which lasted between 1983 and 2005, cost the lives of some 2 million and displaced up to 4 million more.
Over time, nearly 4,000 Lost Boys (many of them were girls, as well), including the tall, soft-spoken Atem, eventually found their way to the United States through a program sponsored by aid agencies and churches.
Now he has come home to this broken land to see what the future may hold.
Awakened by gunfire
He is no longer lost, but he is afraid his country may be.
Sudan is perched at a dangerous moment. Political quarreling exists in the capital city of Khartoum over upcoming elections and a 2011 referendum on southern independence. That threatens the unsteady peace that has set in since the mostly Arab and Muslim north signed an accord with the mostly Christian and animist south more than four years ago.
A widespread crop failure also signals a possible food emergency just over the horizon. Fighting between Atem’s ethnic group, the Dinka, and others is already on the rise over control of dwindling pasture and farm land. Thousands have already died.
“I fear for my people,” Atem says. “I don’t like fighting. I don’t want people to die. But I am afraid war is coming again for my people.”
It is warranted pessimism, springing not only from his experience in the brutality of war, but also from his new understanding of the broader political forces at work.
This conflict, Atem knows, is age old, with religion and race very much at the heart of the matter. It features an oppressive government with a history of trying to eliminate not only his people but also attempting (many experts insist) genocide in the neighboring Darfur region.
Even if peace holds in Sudan, Atem knows it will not be easy for his people or for a new Sudan carved from this desolate land in the nation’s south.
His journey to this understanding started when he was 5, when he sat crying beside a dirt path, scared, tired and thirsty.
On that morning in 1990, he was already lost. The night before, militia had attacked his village, and in the confusion he had become separated from his family.
“I awoke to the sound of gunfire,” he said. “I ran into the night, I was barefoot and only wearing some shorts. I ran and ran for maybe two or three hours. And then, I just sat down and I cried, I cried for a long time there beside this path,” he said in an almost inaudible voice.
It was then — as he cried for his family and for what could happen to a lost boy in the middle of a vicious civil war that was beyond his understanding — that a neighbor lady from his village spotted him.
“This lady took me with her,” he said, “and a few days later, she saw one of my aunts and then I went with her.”
A harrowing journey
Together with what he says were probably 100 people, mostly children, they began a harrowing trek across a war-littered landscape to eventual safety in a refugee camp in Kenya.
The war was at its height, with the forces of the Southern Peoples Liberation Army locked in a deadly struggle with the government’s army of the north.
It was a deadly time. There were the wild animals — the hyenas and the lions, especially — the sickness, the hunger and, always, the airplanes from the north that would drop their bombs.
“You could hear them coming from far away,” Atem said.
Imitating the noise of an aircraft engine, he said, “When we heard this noise, everyone would run. The older ones would yell to us to get down, to lie flat. If you didn’t do this, the bomb explosion could kill you.”
After more than a year of traveling, they came to the Kakuma Refugee Camp in northern Kenya, a sprawling haven that over time would attract tens of thousands of refugees. Here is where he grew up, became educated and learned to accept that he would probably never see his family again.
“I really cried a lot for my family, every day,” he said. “Every day I would cry and every day my aunt would tell me, ‘I am sure your mother will come tomorrow.’ Then finally, it was 1996, I stopped crying.”
Atem stayed in the camp until early 2001, when his visa to the United States was finally approved. With the help of sponors in the United States, Atem and a handful of other boys his age eventually settled in Houston.
There he lived and went to school and worked, leaving Sudan behind — but not quite beyond his thoughts.
Ben Davis, a church worker from Knoxville, Tenn., and his family helped sponsor Atem when he first came to the United States. For a short time before going to Houston, Atem lived with Davis’ family in Tennessee. Since then, the two have kept in touch and traveled together on mission trips.
“What is so shocking to me about John,” said Davis, “is that he has no anger in him at all. He’s such a kind person, but he has every reason to be angry. It’s like he’s seen so much hurt that he doesn’t want to be part of it anymore.”
Davis says Atem refuses to get mad at anything, even when he plays basketball with Davis and his foul-prone father.
“You can’t rile him,” Davis said from his office in Knoxville. “Even when he talks to you about the north [of Sudan]. You would expect him to be very bitter about that, but he’s so calm about it.”
An unexpected call
One evening in 2002, Atem’s phone rang in his small apartment in Houston. To his absolute disbelief, his parents — delighted, relieved and crying — were on the other end of the line.
A few months earlier, Atem had met a man traveling back to Sudan. He gave the man his phone number and told him to give it to anyone he might meet who came from near his village.
Somehow, that scrawled phone number reached his parents, who immediately traveled across the border to northern Uganda to find a phone to call their lost son. Amazingly, his father explained, his parents had survived. He was crushed to learn that one of his three sisters had died during the conflict, but the rest of his family was fine, including his brother who managed to emigrate to Australia.
After the peace accord was signed in 2005, Atem finally reunited in northern Uganda with his parents who, among many other happenings during his short visit, arranged for him to get married.
Now Atem has returned to Sudan again, this time to visit his village and see his new wife, Amir, and young son Isaac.
He wants to bring them to Texas, but it will not be easy. Though Atem holds a U.S. passport, his wife and son do not.
As Atem explains it, “There are no proper documents in south Sudan. The State Department expects me to produce a marriage certificate and a birth certificate from the proper authorities. Those things do not exist in south Sudan.”
Still, he is looking to the future.
“I want to go to school some day,” he said. “I have strong feelings for school, and I hope to attend classes in the future. [But] what I’m doing right now is to work and take care of my family... I’m their only provider.”
Sudan, he said, is entering a difficult period, one featuring elections and many challenges. It’s going to be tough, he said.
“I really hope it goes well, without war. I also hope for lasting peace in Sudan,” said the former Lost Boy.
John Fleming is a former southern Africa correspondent for Reuters. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.