"It Was Just Boys Walking" - Believer Magazine

“It Was Just Boys Walking”

DISCUSSED: Begging, Daily Meals, First Encounter with the Murahaleen, A Lion, The People Who Are Walking, A Death at Night, Crossing the Nile, Flight from Thiet, An Injury, Another Lion, Elephant Meat, Funereal Traditions, Thiet, Bitter Fruit and Baby Birds

“It Was Just Boys Walking”

Dave Eggers
Facebook icon Share via Facebook Twitter icon Share via Twitter

In the last installment of “It Was Just Boys Walking,” we found the author and Dominic Arou, a Sudanese refugee now living in Atlanta, on their way from Kenya to southern Sudan. Dominic was attempting to make it back to Marial Bai, the village of his birth, to find and visit with his family, whom he hadn’t seen since fleeing in 1987, at about the age of eight. This month we begin from the beginning, when Dominic Arou left home during the civil war which has engulfed Sudan since 1983, killing about two million people and displacing four million. Though there are many tribal and regional conflicts in the country, at its core the war has pitted the government of Sudan, based in the northern city of Khartoum and controlled for the majority of the past two decades by Islamic fundamentalists, against the black Christians in the southern part of the country. The south, generally supportive of the efforts of the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), has been seeking secession from the north, and the establishment of their own nation, and the equitable division of the oil wealth which has been found under southern Sudanese soil.

Dominic is one of the young refugees known as the Lost Boys, about 4,000 of whom now live in the United States. They were driven from their families during the war, and together thousands of them walked to Ethiopia. Hundreds, if not thousands, died along the way. Below is Dominic’s own account of the first months of his journey, after he and other children from his village fled to avoid murder or capture at the hands of the murahaleen, Arab militiamen in service to the Islamic government. Dominic and his companions began walking across the dry terrain in hopes of reaching Ethiopia, where they expected to find asylum.

This installment is told in Dominic’s words, and reflects his style of English, which he learned during his eight years in a refugee camp in Kakuma, Kenya. Dominic speaks softly, but passionately, frequently punctuating his speech with exclamations. Though his account of harrowing circumstances, of starvation and death, is so matter-of-fact it seems somehow past feeling, Dominic’s outlook is filled with wonder and optimism—anything but fatalistic. Dominic, and the Dinka people generally, are devout Christians, and they see the trials of their past and those before them as preordained by God and imbued with purpose. The story that follows is a result of dozens of hours of interviews and has been edited by the author.


“At first, I did not know where we were going. I’d never heard about the name ‘Ethiopia.’ I had never had a journey like that before. But I just took it as part of what is happening to me. It was like escaping tragedy. It was like going into a better place. And we would go every morning, every night, and I was thinking, ‘Tomorrow is going to be the end.’ But it was never the end.

Sometimes we go this direction, then we face another direction, and go that way. I was confused. I did not know where I was going.

I was far from home. I don’t know about the miles. My group was over a thousand. Every day we’d get new people from the villages we would pass—boys and a few girls. But the girls with us would not always stay very long. The girls would get adopted into families. The way southern Sudanese culture is, people don’t leave baby girls to wander. So families would adopt them and take care of them.

But the boys, they were a target; they would be killed. That was how it was calculated at that time. The boys become the fear of the entire nation.

It was just boys walking.There was no destination. There were no maps.We would only follow human trails. Sometimes when people get lost,we follow the animal trails in the desert, and then people get lost, and we go back and follow another trail. We were not familiar with that area.

Especially crossing the desert, there was thirst and hunger and no food. All these things I’m telling you, there is no regular food. The food you eat depends on how lucky you are. Where we were walking, there were human habitations.We would walk through and sometimes we’d get some food from the local people. We’d go and beg. It was only begging. We’d go outside and beg people, ‘We want to eat something,’ and they would sometimes give it to you.

But we always stay as a group. Some of the boys had lost their parents, some I don’t know. I don’t even bother myself to ask people; of course I assume that we were all having the same problem as me. I remember one of the boys I met was named Daniel. He happened to be from my hometown also. I did not get separated from him until last year, when I came to America and he went to Kenya. So we lived together, and people made a mistake and called us brothers.

My daily meals, at most, were fruits from the trees. The elders would say, ‘Go into the forest and find something to eat!’ And you’d go up trees, find some trees that you can eat the fruit off of, or the leaves, and then come back and cook it. And some grains—some people who would carry grain— some dried sorghum, dried corn. We’d boil it. Some trees had some leaves—there was a tree called phou, a tree that you eat the leaves and the fruit all together. But they  are kind of bitter. So what you do is you boil the leaves, and pour out the water, then boil it again and pour away the water, several times, and then you eat the leaves. It was not something I’d eaten in my life. I learned that in the journey. There was another one called manyok. I tried it and I became very sick. I vomited all day. It was a new thing to me.

We’d go into some places where there were fields, where they have grain, and we’d get food from there and eat it.When we get some leaves of trees or some fruits, we’d carry them. When I had something that I’m eating, and I had nothing to carry it with, I would take my T-shirt off and carry it there.That T-shirt was my blanket; it was my bag; it was my everything. I use it for all purposes. I just had one T-shirt, and shorts, and sandals. When I beg somebody, they sometimes give me some food, like some ground sesame or something, I would carry it with my clothes. And at nighttime, when I’m asleep, I use the same clothes to cover myself. That was out in the open.

We don’t wait for the sunrise; people just woke up and walk.We walk and walk and walk. At noontime, people rest. Not a long rest, some minutes, to drink, to get something from your bag that you could eat. And then we begin the journey again. But at most points where it was too difficult, we walked at night. During the day, in some places, there was too much danger.

There were educated Sudanese that knew that if we went to another country, as children like that, we’d get help. So some of the people who were with us were educated, I think. And they had that choice of taking us to Ethiopia. People in villages, when we stopped, most times, they didn’t want us to stay. We are coming with problems, and we are coming with danger. Every place we go to, in our large numbers, people would say, ‘That’s a rebel.’ They thought we were the rebel group, the SPLA.

We saw the murahaleen frequently. One day I came into contact one of them, face-to-face, and then ran. And there was another man, a man with us, who was next to a bush, and when we all ran, they saw him, and ran after him. So the murahaleen did not follow us; they ran after that man. That was my first contact. The other thing is, I’d be in hiding, and see them, and they don’t see me. Or I’d be in some far place and hear them shooting. And hear the stories from other people. But my first contact was that first time when I was face-to-face with them. And when they were yelling at me, then the other man came out of the bush and was running, and they all run, to follow him. They were riding horses.

At some point the elders with us would say, ‘There are attacks at this part,’ and people would run. And then we are in this place, and something happened again, and we would be forced to run back, and start in another direction. While I was going from there, we also had to face some attacks. We would hear guns in the air, and then running, crossing the river, people would drown in the water and die.

So we suffer.We don’t get help from the rebels or the government. We suffer in between, as children.

And then at nighttime, if there was trouble, people would wake up and make noise. Some children know how to whistle with their hands in a traditional way, and they do that to wake up everybody.And they do that again and again, sometimes throughout the night. If there was trouble where we are sleeping, we get up and we walk.

We crossed jungles, and we crossed forests.We were walking in a line.This area was wet, this part of southern Sudan. There were some green trees.

One day, during the day, we were walking and I heard a scream from a boy ahead of us. The only thing I heard was ‘AAAAHHH!!!’ I did not know what was happening. The elders ordered us to sit down.They told us it was probably a lion. Soon we found out that a lion had taken a boy away.They say, ‘Don’t run!’ Because if we start running, the lion would come for us. And we sat down, and that boy went.The lion took the boy off.

We had no spears or sticks. There were no weapons. That was the first time a lion took a boy. Every time we walk and we come to the end, people sit together and we count ourselves, who is not there. Now we learned that we’d become the people who are walking. People called us the People Who Are Walking. Some elder boys came up with that sort of thing. My group was named after a person who headed my group, so we were ‘Garang Machiir’s group.’ [Garang Machiir was the name of the elder in charge of Dominic’s group, no relation to John Garang, the leader of the SPLA.] So that became my group until I came to Ethiopia. There were about fifty of us.

What Garang Machiir does is, every morning when we leave, he makes sure that all the people are there. If the number is there, he would report it. He would say, ‘Everybody’s here,’ and we’d start the journey.At this point now, two months into the trip, we don’t walk randomly—we walked according to groups.

But the situation began to worsen. At the beginning, it was good; we have a lot of energy. Some months later, people were weakening.There was no power; there was a lot of conflict. People were dying, and we’d leave people who had died.They died of diseases, of starvation. Some would go mad.

There was not enough food, and the boys would just become weak.When they are weak they get sick more often. The attention would be paid to people who are starving.They’d be carried by older boys or adults when they would get very weak. But at some point, I remember some people who were at that point of being carried, but they never made it. They died. There was no medicine.

I remember one boy named Deng who was my close friend. Each night, he slept next to me. One day he started complaining. He would just complain: ‘I’m hungry, I’m hungry.’ He would complain so much! He said,‘I want to see my family.I want to go home.’

If people had something to eat they would give Deng something.He would eat. But later he would not eat. He was very weak. People were carrying him sometimes.

Now it became the sort of survival that sometimes we are very hungry and we would come to things like that [fields], we would forget that somebody owned them. We’d just go in and just start to eat what we could find. Some people would come and beat us.

Some people kill gazelles, and giraffes. But killing those animals was an adult thing; I was too young to do that. Garang Machiir was an adult. People eventually had bows and arrows; people had the spear. They’d throw the spear. That’s how they’d hunt. Sometimes people would sit, and the adult boy and man would go and hunt. If they find something, they’d bring it.

I remember we came to a place where there were two men. They had guns and they killed an elephant. People kill elephants to get the tusks. And we heard that, that they killed an elephant for the tusks. The men came and told the elders, ‘We just killed an elephant! That’s plenty of meat! Bring the children to have that meat.’ So we came there.

Our group now was over a thousand. We surrounded the elephant to eat it. We don’t ever get meat so we ran. All are cutting meat from elephant, and roasting it. People went and bring it under some trees. It was my first time eating elephant. According to my tradition, my clan worships the elephant, so I wouldn’t have eaten the elephant. But I was hungry. So I had the elephant.We’d cook it, boil it or roast it. It was during the day. That was nine o’clock in the morning.

I don’t remember the taste, but it was good, because there was no food. It was the best of its kind! It was enough for everybody. It was so good! Deng had some of the food and I was happy for him.

We had the meat, we had the fire, we ate a lot of meat, but there was no water. And when we were looking for water, the men who had killed the elephant would not tell us where the water was. They knew there was water. So people went around, some children went around and discovered a pool, where there was water. It was in a rock. So we were coming there to drink from it, but this man stopped us from drinking that water. He did not want us drinking all of his water so he shot at us. We ran. Luckily he did not kill, but if anyone had gone closer, they would have been killed.And so we run again, from them. We ran from those people who gave us the elephant.

That night I slept next to Deng.When we were sleeping, we were close—we were close to the camp and sleeping next to each other. I was happy because we had eaten more than we had in many months, and Deng had eaten, too. He seemed stronger when we went
to sleep.

In the morning, I was sleeping. I was woken up by some elders. They say, ‘People are leaving.’ I stood up, and while people were gathering to go, I went to look at this house that is near where we slept. I did not see it the night before, in the dark. I don’t know why this house was in that part of the country.That was in the desert.

There was an elder with me. We were both looking at the house when I remembered Deng. ‘Wake up Deng,’ I told the elder. I said, ‘Deng is still sleeping, wake him up!’ And the elder did not tell me what was the problem. Later we were sitting in a group, ready to go, and everybody was told to go and cut the leaves of a tree because Deng was dead.

I did not know what happened to him.We all ate the elephant meat, but that night, he died. I slept with him; I did not know he was dead.

They carried Deng to a certain tree. As a tradition, people came and threw the leaves on his body. That was meant to appease the spirit of the dead. People give some prayers there, and I was scared about that. Deng was lying there, sleeping, like that. He was not buried.

At some point we would not bury the dead any more.The adults who were leading us were scared. People were dying almost every day. Mostly it was the hunger; people had nothing to eat. There was malaria, because we had no mosquito nets. So they don’t bury bodies; they leave them. There is no time because we want to get to Ethiopia as quickly as possible. And as we walked, we see bodies of people who had died from the groups walking ahead of us.

There was an elder, his name was Gabrica. He took me one day outside the group and showed me a dead body in the bush. He said, ‘If you want to be strong, you should remember this dead person. The way to overcome all of this is to have courage. If you don’t have that, you will be like this person. This person is dead.’

So that gave me courage; I did not want to be like a dead person. After he showed me that, it affected me. But sleeping was a problem. If I want to sleep, the image of the dead person come into my mind. It was not good.

The next thing we did was we crossed the White Nile. We did not all cross the White Nile at once, because there were many people on the riverbank, every morning people arrive, every night.We were using a few boats. Now, there was the tall grass on the bank of the river, and there were mosquitoes. And people did not have mosquito nets. So what happened is, we just sleep outdoors, and we build fires, with firewood, and some bamboo. But that did not help us with the mosquitoes.

And at night, you could hear all these people crying. All the children and myself, I was crying. But there was no solution. The mosquitoes keep biting people. I waited on the bank for three days, for my turn to be taken on the other side. There were a few boats.These were traditionally built boats. They cut some logs of wood and then carve them inside.We have to take turns, all day and all night.And the boat-owners could not allow everybody to get in. Sometimes they refused to help, and people remained there for days. Because they were doing that as volunteers.

The White Nile has a lot of current, very strong.And as a child, you don’t resist that water. Some people were drowning, because people would get on the boat, and then the boat would turn over, and people are gone. Boys died in the river.

When we crossed the White Nile, we went into this village.And in that village, we were welcomed. These people stay on the shore, on the bank. They cultivate maize. They gave us some corn.And then the next day there was an attack in that area—there was fighting. I think it was between the government and some rebels. In that area there were rebels. We didn’t know who was fighting who. We could hear the guns’ echoes.They were so  close. We heard heavy machine guns. In this case we had to run to the desert.

If you cross, you continue going.You would wait for a group of fifty, or a hundred, and then you’d go. Like that. And by that time, we had had some people, who were organizing us, as we go along from place to place, the number grew bigger. And then we had some elderly people who provided some instructions. They said that that part of southern Sudan was close to Ethiopia. This is the way to Ethiopia, they said. There were no people living in that area, and this is the only place that doesn’t have security. So we could go through that area. I just followed the group that was going in any

Now, at this point, there was no hope. The people we had with us, I don’t think they thought that we were going to make it. Because people were so weak, and there was no food. Disease, injury, hunger. I myself had injuries by this time. I had cut my leg severely and I bandaged it with a shirt. No doctor helped me to heal that. It was on the way to Ethiopia.

There was a place we came to, it was called Dheit. This night we were sleeping. And then in the middle of the night, I was sleeping; I did not know what was the prob-
lem.And I think it was a local Land Rover, and we did not know there was a car in that place. So at night, people heard that car, and then some people heard guns. I didn’t hear any guns myself. But people ran. When we were running, here, there were some wells where people keep water, they keep it in the ground, I remember some people fall in these wells and they died. There were no walls; it’s just a hole. They are dug in a circle, and deep underground. And how people get water is they get some can, and they drop it and get the water and pull it out. Big enough to fall into. There were several in that area. It happened a lot of times. Some people fell, and they died, and sometimes they are pulled out. Some people get big injuries that they can’t go on with the people, so they
are left there, in some village. We don’t know what happened to them after we left. I never hear from them.

So that night is when I got injured. When the Land Rover come and they tell us to run, I run. I don’t know how far we ran. I’m not good at mileage. It was hours. We ran from that area until we hid ourselves. I did not run with anybody; I ran alone.

The wire mesh, the barbed wire—I was running and I ran into that wire. And then, there was a fire. Someplace that had fire, and I ran into it later, also, and that was because of the dark.A lot of people ran into it. That is how it happened. I ran until I got to stay at some camp the following morning. I did not know where the rest of the group was, I was only brought back by a local man; I don’t remember his name.

And I didn’t know I had injured myself, until I came back later and people were settled, and we were told it wasn’t an attack—it was just a car that was driving at night. It was a big cut. It was always bleeding. There was no stitching. What I used was hot water, and salt to put in it.That was for cleaning. And then after cleaning it, I used a leaf of a tree, it was called dhiat. So I put on that leaf, someone had shown me how to do that.We dried the leaf and ground it, and it was a kind of powder, and that is what I used to put in the wound. It was not that protected, though. It was God’s help. There was no bandage, and some places we go into water, and cross the river, and sometimes it rained, it was not good. It did get infected. The bleeding occurred many times, but in the process I was learning how to take care of it.We came to this place where I got another man, he was a traditional medicine man, and I don’t remember the kind of powder he gave me to put in the wound, but he did some kind of traditional ritual prayers, something like that. It got better. Then I did not have any pain.

The desert took us two weeks to cross. We would walk from six in the morning to six at night. If there is a day that people have seen a helicopter or something, we don’t walk during the daylight. We walk at nighttime. People would go through the grass because there was some tall grass and it kept us hidden.And there were some trees,not very big, just small, and at some points when we knew that this is a part of the desert that completely doesn’t have trees, we’d cross this kind of area at night. Not during the day. We were scared.

Here in the desert there was no food. We were empty-handed. The group had nothing. We had to run from the fighting. We were told, ‘Don’t carry anything!’We thought we would come back. But we never made it back.I left some grain, some seeds, and I even left my clothes, my only shirt. I had my shirt and my sandals, and then another boy gave me another shirt, later.

At some points in the trip we had traditional baskets. We used those for carrying grain. Some people used bedsheets, and tied them. But in this case, going through the desert, there was nothing. Nobody carried anything. There was nothing we could share. We were only told, if there is a destination, where we stop, we were told to go into a nearby forest and get something to eat.

I remember there was this place that had a lot of birds! And we went to the bird’s nest, to get the eggs. I did that myself. And to get the babies, the little birds, for food.And that is how we survived. Some places we’d go and dig out some sort of a fruit called abuk; you just take it from the ground. It has only one leaf. Some boys knew that, but I did not know that. They recognize it and then we dig it out. It’s a root. It was bitter. It was not sweet at all.There is water in it. They were not very common; only those who knew the leaves could find it.They were not that common, and we were not allowed to go that far because there was some fear of tribes— they abduct children, and keep you to take care of their animals. So we don’t stray too far from the groups. We stay together. You go within the limit. Beware if people can see you.

Normally we stayed about two meters from another person. But you have to make sure that you don’t break the line, or people could get lost. Sometimes you cannot see. At that time, I could see in the dark, but now that I’m used to lights, I don’t think I could see. Sometimes it was really dark—you could only hear someone’s footsteps stepping, and you follow it.There were some elders, always, and they knew the direction. They were there, but they were not many.

There was this time, we came to a place called Tibol, and there was this hill there, a small mountain.And at night we were walking and suddenly I heard someone crying. It was a quick scream and then a quiet voice.The voice was going away until the voice disappeared. The elders told us to sit down again. We did and then I knew it was another lion. Boys screamed. There was no warning first. The animal was going under the hill with that person.

This lion targets us, and targets even big people. The lions would take that person off with them. In my group, nobody had a spear or anything. What they said is if we heard something roaring, they would shout, some kind of noise that the elders make, and they told us to remember: when they shout, then we sit down. It had been happening before, but in this desert near Ethiopia, it was too common.

After that night, we did not stop. People were really scared. A lion, and some other animal like a hyena; they are usually scared of human beings. So they might not attack but you can hear them, walking nearby. You can hear the animals roaring, lions roaring. Hyenas laughing. And different birds making different scary noises.

We kept walking the following morning.Then we camped and did not go ahead. It was said, you continue walking then the lion will attack, but if you are sitting, the lion will not attack. But I did not know how that theory worked. Because later, we were sitting, and the lion attacked. So the first theory wasn’t right.

At this point, nobody slept well, no one wandered off. No sleep, I did not sleep very well.Too scared! And I was awake until the morning. I was only waiting for the daylight; that was my prayer that night. Because it was too scary: something attacking and you cannot see it. That boy was my age.I was not ten, I was something below—nine? We never found that boy.

There was no ceremony. Nobody even went to find him. Now we were discovering a lot of dead bodies. Of the groups that were ahead, people who had died. We even saw some people who had gone to Ethiopia and were coming back. They had guns, they were military, they were rebels, and they were also dying.They had no food. We met a few men, I could not tell you how many—not over twenty. And then we met two men, one of them was very sick, the other one was not sick, and the one was trying to help the one that was sick. And then they told us that some of their friends died, and we’d find them ahead. And then they’d say, ‘Ethiopia is not far, it is near.’ And the question in my mind was, why are they dying with guns? And they are coming from there? What will happen to us once we get there? It was a very bad situation to be going to a place where people were leaving, and dying because there was no food.

They were not wearing uniforms. I could be wrong to call them SPLA. But that is the only big group I knew they had guns.They were Sudanese from southern Sudan.They were walking. Some of them said,‘We are going to fight, to help you.You will get a better place tomorrow!’ We would hear them say that. But I did not believe they were helping, because they were also dying at the same time.” ✯

More Reads

The Acropolis of Northern New Jersey

Angela Starita

Jane and Me

Karen Joy Fowler

Why the Reader of Good Prose Poems is Never Sad

Sarah Manguso