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“It Was Just Boys Walking”

AN EXCERPT FROM A FORTHCOMING BIOGRAPHY OF DOMINIC AROU, A YOUNG REFUGEE FROM THE SUDAN.
DISCUSSED
DISCUSSED: Russian Pilots, Refugee Camp Nicknames, Dirt, The International Rescue Committee, Happiness, Cargo, Call Waiting, The Joint Military Commission, Oil Pipelines, Fighting During a Ceasefire, Janjaweed, Ashak and Valentino, Parents, Volleyball, A School with Bullet Holes but No Books, Crazy Eights, Crickets and Goats, Unknown Birthdays, Welcoming

“It Was Just Boys Walking”

Dave Eggers
11 Snaps

The modern history of Sudan is rife with civil war, dating back to the country’s achieving independence in 1956. Sudan’s current conflict has been ongoing since 1983, and pits the agrarian tribes (Dinka, Nuer) of the southern portion of the country, who are largely Christian and animist, against the Islamic fundamentalist central government, based in the northern city of Khartoum. The primary entity fighting for the south is the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army.

In the first installment of “It Was Just Boys Walking,” Dominic Arou, a Sudanese refugee now living in Atlanta, was on a plane from Kenya to southern Sudan, in hopes of finding the family he left when he was somewhere between six and eight years old. In the second installment, Dominic recounted the days, in the early part of the current Sudanese civil war, when he was forced to leave his village in Marial Bai, and subsequently walked with thousands of other boys, a good portion of them orphaned, hundreds of miles through parched lands. Many hundreds died along the way, of hunger, disease, and animal attacks, en route to refuge in Ethiopia. Together these boys became known as the Lost Boys. After spending four years at a UN-sponsored camp in Ethiopia, regime change drove out the Lost Boys by force, and they then walked back through southeastern Sudan and finally to Kenya, where they stayed for the next eight years at the refugee camp christened for them at Kakuma. In this installment, we join Dominic again on the journey to his village, riding in the cargo hold—along with the author, the author’s brother, and many tons of humanitarian aid—of an aging plane helmed by three Russian pilots. If Dominic makes it back to his village, he will be the first Lost Boy living in America to return home.

*

After a few hours in the air, we have to stop in Nuba and unload the supplies with which we share the cargo hold. The plane has been flying low over the semi-arid lands, trees and paths visible the entire flight, and now the plane descends close enough to see the villagers running to the runway as we land. The airstrip is paved with ochre-colored dirt and is cracked and uneven, making the landing eventful, if not harrowing.

Dominic gets out, down a five-step ladder, as do the plane’s four other passengers. We descend onto a rocky airstrip amid a dry and mountainous area, dusty and dotted with scrub. There is no airport; there are no buildings, outside of an ancient-seeming fort about five hundred yards away. There are about thirty Sudanese villagers standing on the edge of the airstrip, and for a second, no one seems to know what to do.

The Russian pilots jump from the plane and stretch, and for a moment we all stand under the plane’s right wing, hiding from the bright sun. Soon, a white woman approaches and talks to the Russian crew, and shortly thereafter, the back of the cargo hold opens, and about a dozen of the local men begin to unload the plane. They remove twenty new bicycles, Chinese-made, wrapped in plastic, all of which have elaborate contraptions attached above each wheel to facilitate hauling—for there are precious few cars in the region. After the bikes, there are about sixty rectangular metal objects, looking like naked bedsprings. The British woman, a field director for a humanitarian aid group, explains that these are for an agricultural project underway on the riverside. The bedsprings are stacked beneath the airplane and carried off. Next, six barrels of fuel are unloaded, each rolled to the edge of the plane’s loading bay and dropped onto a large rubber tire, to soften the blow.

Dominic, unsure if he’s expected to help, has gravitated toward and is now talking to a number of Sudanese people from Nuba, many of whom he knows. He laughs with them for a few minutes and then introduces them. In all of the times I have traveled with or otherwise spent time with Dominic—in Atlanta, Chicago, Kansas City, Nairobi, and now in Nuba—it has seemed impossible to go anywhere that he does not have friends. When he doesn’t know someone directly, he knows six or seven of that person’s relatives. And Dominic’s brain is a spectacular people-remembering-and-connecting machine, able to file and retrieve thousands of names and faces and recall where he saw them last, where they now reside, and all of the people he and they know in common. I knew this man in Loki, he will say. This woman I knew in Ethiopia, he will say. This man’s son is my friend in Atlanta. The Sudanese now living in America have an extensive phone network, and spend a good deal of time keeping up with each other and sharing news of Sudan. In the months that Dominic was preparing for his trip back to Africa, he received so many phone calls from among the ranks of the 3,800 Lost Boys living in the United States that he couldn’t keep their requests straight.They wanted Dominic to bring messages and money, and to come back with any news of their families.There was a six-month period when, during any phone call with Dominic, he would be expected to go to his call waiting once every three to four minutes; finally he stopped answering the phone, and began screening all calls, and finally, after hearing from hundreds of the Lost Boys, he realized he simply couldn’t accommodate all of their needs.

The men Dominic knows here in Nuba were in Kakuma with him, and appear to be the healthiest among the men unloading the plane, or watching the others do the unloading. They all work for Concern, an aid organization operating in the village, and were chosen over other residents because while the war was raging, they were in Kakuma, attending schools at the refugee camp, and learning English. “I would be working for an agency like this, too, if I had stayed in Kakuma,” Dominic says.

Dominic is approached by a young Sudanese man in a Gilligan hat, wearing a T shirt that says, “Have You Seen a Paralyzed Child? Contact WHO/Unicef.” The man is carrying a clipboard but is otherwise dressed and carries himself like the teenaged manager of a JV basketball team. He is, we soon learn, the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army’s man on the ground, and he’s there to make sure that anyone who gets off the plane has clearance from the SPLA.

He takes the blue passes we received from the SPLA offices in Nairobi, and inspects them thoroughly. Though no one pays him much attention or deference, and his enforcement power seems dubious—he’s alone, unarmed, and couldn’t weigh more than 120 pounds—we are thankful that we’ve bothered with the hassle of attaining SPLA clearance.

While this SPLA man’s influence seems meager, everyone takes notice when a gleaming and roaring SUV pulls up.

The SUV is white and has three large letters on its hood: JMC. JMC stands for Joint Military Commission, an international oversight organization designed to ensure that no arms are brought into any part of the country during the cease-fire. Out of the JMC vehicle jump three people—a man, a woman (two nondescript white aid workers), and one very large man in fatigues. Why one of the JMC people is wearing an army uniform while the others are not wearing army uniforms is unexplained. The uniformed man, who is wearing black boots and is bald, mustachioed, and built like a carnival strongman, talks to the Russian pilots, out of earshot of the spectators and the plane’s passengers. In the distance, the other JMC operatives are talking on walkie-talkies and satellite telephones.All three of the JMC representatives are wearing sunglasses. The strongman, in fatigues, is wearing the wraparound kind. Satisfied that there are no weapons on the plane, the Scandinavian JMC man pats the Russian pilot on the back and says, exemplifying the humor one has come to expect from his region, “Okay. Take care. Don’t fall down!” then releases a great puff of laughter and gets into his white JMC Jeep, which soon drives off.

*

We are in Sudan during a cease-fire in the civil war, a cease-fire that has been holding since July, 2002. On the day that we’re flying, December 11, intensive talks are going on near Nairobi between Sudanese Vice President Ali Osman Taha and John Garang, leader of the SPLA.The talks began in July, under the guidance of the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), a seven-member group of East African nations,comprising Kenya, Ethiopia, Djibouti, Uganda, Eritrea, Somalia, and Sudan, and have been progressing in fits and starts. Though news reports have routinely indicated that an agreement could be signed at any moment, the Sudanese we spoke to in Nairobi were extremely doubtful, not trusting the Muslim government, and citing the unresolved fighting still going on in the western Sudanese region of Darfur.Though most of the coun- try is at peace, in February 2003, fighting began there, pitting non-SPLA rebel groups, including one called the Justice and Equality Movement, against armed militias associated with the central Khartoum government.

These militiamen, called janjaweed, are paid by the government in booty—that is, they are allowed to take anything they want from the unprotected rural communities they frequently raid. Already hundreds of thousands have been displaced, many fleeing to neighboring Chad.That the two sides, Khartoum and the SPLA, are negotiating as this escalating conflict rages is a source of puzzlement to many in the international community. Still, the date of December 20, just nine days hence, has been set by both sides as the deadline by which an agreement will be signed.

*

During a lull in the villagers’ efforts, one of the Russian crew members yells at them:“Bop! Bop! Take zees one! Wake up!” At that, the men begin to work quickly again. Even Dominic, trying to be helpful, reaches into the plane to retrieve a post, which he carries to a pile of posts, and deposits.

The plane is filled with workers removing the last boxes, planks, and bags from the cargo hold, including all of the luggage owned by Dominic, which is deposited in the pile of aid boxes on the airstrip, and which Dominic must quickly reinstate into the aircraft. And just in time, for within seconds of the plane’s being relieved of its last cargo, the Russians are aboard and the loading bay is being closed.We jump in as the door is rising, as the residents of Nuba are waving. The Russians do not like to stay on the ground for long.

*

We are aloft again, now minutes away from landing in Marial Bai. Dominic has spent the last hour in the now-empty plane, sitting on an actual seat—we were resting on bags of grain before—looking out the window and thinking about what he might find once the plane lands. Dominic has no clear idea what his parents look like, and though he has information that they’re still in Marial Bai, there’s no certainty to that. He has one photograph of his dad. “A few years ago, one of my brothers sent me a photo of my father, but it’s not too clear,” he says, hoping that he will recognize them once he sees his family. He knows, from a brother of his now living in Nairobi, that his father has five wives, and his father and mother still live together— they are the senior members of the family, which now includes many half-siblings whose names Dominic doesn’t even know. Dominic does knows that his father, once a prosperous businessman and owner of hundreds of heads of cattle—the gold standard of southern Sudan— is no longer a wealthy man. The war has been very hard on him.

The landscape below us is dry, beige, and the shadow of our plane is crisp as it moves over the shrubs and light vegetation and the occasional villages. We have not been given any sense of how long the flight will take, but we’re expecting to land soon, any minute. With his usual sense of destiny and seriousness of purpose—Dominic, as do many of the Lost Boys, often speaks like a prophet—he assesses the impact the trip will have. “I think it’s going to change the way I live my life,” he says, pausing to find the rest of his sentence,“… for the rest of my times. It will become clear what it is that I need to focus on.”

Dominic sees something cutting through the landscape below, and having lost it through one window, rushes to the opposite side of the plane, pressing his face to the window and pointing down.

“This is the pipeline for the oil!” he says. “Right there!” Below is a new pipeline, straight as a highway, cutting through the scrub, extending as far as the horizon.The land around it is utterly desolate. One major point of contention in the peace talks is the division of oil revenues. Oil was first found under the soil of southern Sudan in 1978, and the ownership thereof and the splitting of potential profits is perhaps the most important issue for the financial well-being of either region.The World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, both involved in the Kenya negotiations, were attempting to steer the discussions away from the percentage for each side, focusing instead on the financial needs of each side.

Soon the plane begins to descend. Individual homes below are discernible. “We are getting
close!” Dominic says.

I ask him if he recognizes the area from our vantage point. He shakes his head, no. The plane is now only about one thousand feet above the earth. It’s all unfamiliar, he says, especially from the air.

But of course Dominic could scarcely know this land any better than anyone could—he was only five or six when he left. Still, I hope for him a flood of memories, an instant recognition of place, a permanent identification with his homeland. There are so many things Dominic wants to find in Marial Bai: his parents, his relatives, the many brothers and sisters he’s never met, some of the friends he left behind, the elders he might remember if their faces were presented to him, the few friends from Kakuma who survived the journey with him and who have returned. He wants to see the place of his birth, the land from which he fled. And among other small quests, he would dearly like to find out how old he is. He doesn’t know his age or his birthday.

“My heart is beating!” he says, as the plane lowers its landing gear. His hand is on his chest, and with his fingers he simulates the beating of his heart, as if it were bursting through his cowboy-style shirt.

*

It is 1:28 when we land in Marial Bai. Dominic steps down from the plane, onto the dusty dirt runway, and is quickly surrounded by people, easily a hundred people, moving in from all sides. Children run from every direction. Dominic is taller than most in the crowd, and he is smiling, looking for people he knows. Young men in jeans and T-shirts approach him and shake his hand, hug him, pat him on the back, on the shoulder, laughing. Everyone is smiling, and the girls, in brilliant colors, hold their hands in front of their mouths and whisper, watching Dominic cautiously. Young boys yell to him: “Achak! Achak!” Older women get close, only to touch his sleeves and shoulders.

After a few seconds, an old man in a white dashiki snakes through the crowd and puts his hand on Dominic’s shoulder.The old man is wearing large sunglasses, and is missing most of his teeth. He speaks into Dominic’s ear and they embrace.They pull away from each other and Dominic looks into the old man’s eyes and smiles.

“Hey,” Dominic says over the throng, grinning widely with his arm around the old man, who smiles a wide toothless smile.“This is my father.”

They do not look alike in any way. Dominic and his father shake hands and pat each other on the shoulder many times, as is common in Sudan.After this brief reunion of no more than a minute, Dominic’s father walks off. Dominic will see him privately later. The plane’s luggage is dropped onto the runway and the Russian pilots climb back into the cockpit. The crowd begins to walk away from the plane and toward the village, the edges of which abut the runway. As everyone is shuffling away from the plane, a violet-clad woman of about sixty, weathered, very tall, frail, with small hard eyes and a thin straight mouth, approaches Dominic shyly.

“Achak,” she says to him quietly.“I am your mother.”

They embrace. She holds his face in her hands. He yells over the crowd—and again it comes without fanfare—“Hey! This is my mother!”

They walk arm in arm a few yards and through a corrugated metal door, which separates the runway from the compound owned by Save the Children, a relief agency that has agreed to host a gathering, to give Dominic and his family a degree of privacy. Dominic walks through with about nine of his friends and relatives, his arm around his mother, whose head is on his shoulder, whose hand is on his heart.

*

Everyone is sitting in the Save the Children compound and few are talking. Dominic and his mother are joined by some of Dominic’s stepbrothers and cousins, two Sudanese representatives of Save the Children, and a few men he doesn’t know. Dominic is sitting in a handmade chair, constructed with tree branches and white rope. He’s a few feet from his mother, who is sitting in the same kind of chair, and together they are under the generous shade of a kot tree. They speak a bit in Dinka, but for the most part the group is quiet.There is precious little talking being done, as though no one has any idea of where to start. Dominic has returned after sixteen years looking like a prosperous American, when they had all assumed he was dead. As the family struggles for words, the Russian plane rumbles down the runway and takes off in a blizzard of blond dust.

Dominic’s mother has tears in her eyes. Her look is one of plain astonishment. She cannot stop staring at Dominic, shaking her head slowly. She says to him,“Is it really you?” He smiles and nods. Dominic speaks to his mother and stepbrothers, and periodically translates.

“They did not know I was coming,” he says. “This was a surprise.” Then he adds with a smile,“No one expected me to leave, either.”

After no more than fifteen minutes, Dominic’s mother stands, holds Dominic’s hand again, and then leaves. He will visit her at home after he’s gotten settled. Once she has exited through the corrugated metal door, Dominic smiles but seems burdened.

“She has been very sick,” he says. “She will not live very long. She told me she was afraid that she would die before seeing me again.”

The Save the Children compound is the size of a football field, and surrounded by a six-foot-high thatched fence. The compound is about seventy yards square, with seven small round huts inside, placed, for the most part, in the compound’s corners. All else is flat and open, with a floor of what looks and feels like fine sand. Little periodic mini-tornadoes of dust.

Inside, Dominic is treated very much like royalty, with the staff of Save the Children allowing no more than five or six visitors at a time inside. He spends about three hours there, receiving visitors and rarely leaving his seat.The day is very warm and still, about ninety degrees, making everyone reluctant to exert themselves.

Faces periodically peer over the compound’s fence, villagers attempting to get a glimpse of Dominic. An Episcopalian church group practices the same hymn for hours. We speak at length to the men working at Save the Children, a nonprofit whose mission includes returning former Dinka slaves, taken by Arab raiders in the north, to their homes in the south. The woman working in the compound, cleaning laundry and preparing meals is herself a former slave. Because she was taken at a young age, she speaks only Arabic, and is very slowly acclimating back into the Dinka life.

I want to ask about the name they are all calling him—Achak—but remember that when we met, a year earlier, Dominic had introduced himself as “Dominic in the United States, Valentino in Kakuma, and Achak in Sudan.” Achak is his given name, Valentino a nickname he was given by a Catholic priest during his baptism (though his friends at Kakuma assumed it was for his way with the ladies). Dominic is a name he chose for his transition to the United States.

More visitors are ushered into our seating area—old friends of Dominic’s from Ethiopia and Kakuma. The young men are dressed in clean shirts and stylish jeans, baseball hats, flip-flops, joking familiarly with Dominic. He exchanges information with them about the whereabouts—Seattle, Kansas City, Florida—of various friends they have in common. Dominic knows a number of Lost Boys now in the United States who have family in the region, and he quizzes the Marial Bai residents about anything they might know. He receives the news that the family of a friend of his, who now lives in Colorado, is dead. He’ll have to be the bearer of this news when he returns to Atlanta.

A young man named Joseph Akoon emerges as one of Dominic’s closest friends from the journey and from Kakuma. “He was our catechist,” Dominic says. Apparently, en route to Ethiopia, the elders who guided the boys deputized a few of the older boys to lead Sunday catechisms; this is how Dominic and Joseph met. Joseph is an extremely charming man of about twenty- five, with a quick smile and a jocular attitude. He’s better dressed than any of the other men in the village, well-fed and fit.With his fluency in English and his knowledge of everything happening in the country, he has the air of an ambassador; more precisely, he seems very much like the mayor of Marial Bai. This despite the fact that he very much wishes he were in the United States, with Dominic.

Joseph, like Dominic, spent eight years at Kakuma, and also went through the UN screening and interview process for possible resettlement in the United States. In the year 2000 he was chosen to go with the rest of the 3,800 Lost Boys chosen, and was scheduled to make the trip, when he heard news that his parents were still alive in Sudan, living in the northern region of the country, but were very ill. (To be considered for emigration, the Lost Boys for the most part had to claim or prove that their parents were dead.Those who made it to the United States were not allowed to bring family with them, or afterward to return to them.) Giving up his chance to go to America, he found a way back into Sudan to attend to them. Joseph’s feelings about his situation are clearly mixed.

“I sometimes feel that I should be there,” he says, smiling, kicking lightly at the dirt.“But this is okay. Maybe someday.”

*

In the afternoon we walk to the home of Peter Dut, a local representative of the Sudanese People’s Liberation Movement, and the acting chief of the village. He has asked to meet with Dominic, and would have come to see us in the compound, but he is recovering from malaria, and is too weak to move more than a few steps.

A man of about fifty, handsome, Dut is, at well under six feet tall, somewhat short by Sudanese standards. As he rests gingerly on a folding beach chair, we sit with him in the shade and talk about the peace talks going on in Nairobi, the significance of Dominic’s arrival, and the importance of Sudanese like Dominic, living abroad, coming back, and bringing resources and attention to the state of the villages.

About the peace talks, Dut is cautious, and though he is a member of the SPLA/M, he claims that he wants not independence for southern Sudan, but one unified country, with power equally shared. “I am not a separatist,” he says. He is a rarity among the Dinka people, in that he appears to want to work with the Islamic fundamentalist government in Khartoum, the regime in which almost no one from southern Sudan has any faith or trust. It’s startling that he wouldn’t want what the negotiations in Nairobi are largely about: a trial period of a unified state, with southern Sudan having the option, after five years, to secede if they so wish. It seems, with the bloody and wretched history between the two sides, with hundreds of years of the north raiding and enslaving the south, a relationship better severed than mended. Peter Dut acknowledges this but holds his tongue. This is perhaps part of the strategy of the SPLA—that to appear conciliatory and willing to remain a united Sudan gives them more leverage in the talks.

As we talk, children begin to gather. They walk across the fields or down the nearby path, and stand, watching. School is all but forgotten in Marial Bai, leaving most of the children idle. Within twenty minutes, there are a dozen or so kids, all boys, gathered, listening politely. Invariably, the younger the children are, the dirtier they are. And invariably, wherever there is a five- or six-year-old boy, he has a baby on his arm.

As we talk to Dut, and as we walk back to the compound afterward, Dominic’s face is drawn taut in consternation. Dominic is usually quick to smile, but this day has found him often bearing an expression of truly oppressive concern. He can’t believe the poverty. There is almost no livestock, and the homes, all made from mud and thatch, are small, temporary-seeming. We visit the hospital, one room resembling a cement bunker, where eight beds are arranged. There are no windows, no sheets, no pillows, no doctors—there is one man who dispenses medicine. The hospital’s two patients, two women sitting on a bed, each with a baby on her lap, glare at us until we leave.

The civil war has reportedly killed two million people, though the majority of those have died of starvation and disease. People cannot farm because they don’t know when they will have everything taken from them—their fields burned, their livestock stolen. Schools operate sporadically if at all. With uncertainty the guiding state of mind, the war has effectively put life in Sudan on hold for twenty years.

“Everything has changed,” Dominic says. “There weren’t so many trees before. Everywhere there used to be homes.They used to be closer to one another. But so much displacement has taken place. The population of the people in this area used to be bigger than what it is now. People showed me some homes that have been lost. It’s pretty emotional. But it’s good to witness the destruction.”

Many times during the day, as he passes through the village and as he speaks to his relatives, Dominic’s face is tense, his eyes focused on some indeterminate point.When he stands on a village path, being told of conditions by a villager or one of his Kakuma friends, his hands are on his hips, his mouth tight in frustration, like a president inspecting the aftermath of a disaster.

*

In the late afternoon, we borrow a few old bikes from the Save the Children compound and ride slowly through the village. The area is not densely populated; the homes are spread out. Still, as we ride, there is steady interest in Dominic’s presence, and he has to stop frequently to visit with residents—a young man his age whose cousin is now in the United States; an elderly woman who points to a line of shrubbery in the distance and says that she remembers the day Dominic ran off, that he was headed that way.

The pace of the village is very slow, with most residents taking refuge from the heat in their huts and in the shade of trees and makeshift shelters. Women grind grain in clay bowls, and carry water on their heads, while each man we see is laying about, or, in the marketplace, drinking rice wine and playing card games. (More will be learned soon about the dire state of affairs for Sudanese women.)

We come upon the school grounds, or what used to be the school grounds.The school itself bears thousands of bullet holes, has no windows, and is utterly empty of furniture or books. Next to it, an open dirt field is being used as a soccer pitch, and next to it a volleyball court is has been carved, with twenty young men playing and another fifty watching. At their invitation, we join.

The young men of Marial Bai are decent volleyball players. The sun is setting, and most of the men are barefoot. Dozens of children, most wearing only shorts, watch, laughing at any provocation. At one point, with the ball sailing out of bounds, Dominic yells something to me in Dinka. I can’t understand him, so I try to save the ball. The entire seventy people watching erupt with laughter, and don’t stop laughing for some time. Apparently Dominic had yelled “Let it go!” Everyone finds it hilarious that I hit the ball anyway, or maybe that Dominic would think I would understand a command in Dinka.

The game breaks up at dinnertime, and Dominic goes to spend time alone with his family. Everywhere he walks he is followed, stopped by children and elders. He walks toward the airfield, near which his parents live, trailed by dozens of villagers and illustrating the strangest thing about the plight of the Lost Boys—those here and living in the United States.Though they endured incredible hardship, they are now seen—with their UN-sponsored educations, with their ability to speak English and Swahili and Arabic, with their youth and optimism and knowl- edge of the larger world—as the future leaders of Sudan.

*

It’s about nine o’clock and we’re inside the International Rescue Committee compound, drinking Tusker beer and eating rice from Tupperware containers.Above us, the sky is a dome of bright stars, the moon having yet to rise. Lizards scurry underfoot. The IRC staff is having a party before they close their office for the Christmas break; it’s December 11 and they will be heading to various parts of Africa and Europe the next day. The IRC staff hails from England, the United States, Uganda, elsewhere. We drink our first cold water of the day.

We walk back to our huts at the Save the Children compound, and as it’s still relatively early, we sit outside and play cards, watching the moon slowly rise, orange and nearly full. My brother and I taught Dominic how to play Crazy Eights while waiting for our flight from Lokichoggio to Sudan, and now, using a flashlight to see the cardfaces, we play a few games as the night cools and as the ground begins to vibrate from the generators on the other side of the airstrip. Animal noises—crickets, birds, goats—blend with singing, people calling to each other in the night.

Dominic tells us that his parents, though they had heard he was coming, did not know when, and are embarrassed that they don’t have a celebration planned.They’re putting one together now, and it will likely be two days hence. The event, honoring Dominic and welcoming his companions, will, Dominic is sure, include the sacrifice of an animal, a goat or calf, an a performance by dozens of children from the area.“It will be very large, very impressive,” he says. He expects the whole village to be there. The SPLM wants to welcome us in an official capacity, too. We will be greeted by the regional commander.

“The feeling to be home is there,” he says, his face ethereal above the flashlight’s deflected light. “Everybody is welcoming. Everybody is excited—those who were with me on the journey, those who were not, but have heard of me. It is just a good happiness to be home.The difference is everything has been destroyed. I expected not to see any homes, but…” He sits back on his chair and exhales.“The people have a great attitude, and morals.They are happy to be here.”

But Dominic still doesn’t know how old he is.There are no records. He asked his mother, and “she did not know.” All she could do was to point to a cousin of his, a small boy about six years old, and tell Dominic that he was that size when he left. “I can’t believe how small I was,” he says,“I did not know I was that small when I left this place.” ✯

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