"It Was Just Boys Walking" - Believer Magazine
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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: The Murahaleen, The Kakuma Refugee Camp, Visa Processing, The Sudanese People’s Liberation Movement, Membership Cards, Handshaking, Lokichoggio, Breakfast in Nairobi, Mideighties Adventure Film Scenery, Abandoned Machinery, Heat, Light, andDust, Ritual Scarification, Non-Norwegian Norwegian People’s Aid

“It Was Just Boys Walking”

Dave Eggers
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Dominic Arou is sitting on a sack of rice in the cavernous hold of a sixties-era Russian cargo plane, full of food and wooden posts and bicycles, and the plane is astoundingly loud. Dominic’s ears are stuffed with blue tissue paper, as are half of the passengers’ ears, to dull the roar of the engine as it shakes the fuselage. But Dominic’s tissue paper isn’t stuffed enough—it’s sticking out, perpendicular to the length of his face, looking like very long blue ear-hair, or frozen steam. It’s dark in the cargo hold because all of the plane’s windows are covered; the plane is that full. In the cargo hold is a Sudanese man, named Simon, who is on his way to Nuba, the mountainous central region of the country; two Kenyan aid workers, also on their way to Nuba; myself and my brother, who’s videotaping some of the trip; and Dominic Arou, who has not been to his village in sixteen years, and who is going home.

We six are sitting on supplies that will be dropped at Nuba. One of the Kenyan aid workers, who is wearing a mechanic’s jumpsuit (he is naked underneath and the zipper is down below his waist) is sitting on a large rolled piece of insulation. He looks bored and is not bothered by the noise. The noise is so great that no one can hear what anyone else is saying, and so all communication is done with hand signals and notes written on small bits of paper. To pass the time, we’re giving each other words to unscramble.

Dominic is drinking from a small bottle of orange Fanta, purchased just before the plane took off, from a small snack bar at a tiny airport in a small town in Kenya called Lokichoggio. Dominic is wearing one of my shirts, because Dominic’s luggage is still in the Newark airport, through which he passed eighteen hours before, en route to Nairobi from Atlanta. The shirt he has borrowed is a yellow Western-style shirt, with snaps instead of buttons. It looks better on Dominic than it ever did on its owner, though it’s an incongruous outfit to be wearing in southern Sudan. On his feet are very nice newish white high-top sneakers, and on his legs are jeans, also borrowed from me.

He is looking good, and knows it, and smiles a lot knowing it. Dominic Arou’s teeth are not perfect by American standards—and he insists he’s going to get braces someday soon—but still his smile is expansive and utterly convincing. There’s something easy about assuming that a young man—he’s about twenty-four, though there are no records to confirm it—who has seen so much, and narrowly avoided death so many times, would be incapable of grinning like he does. And to laugh so often—he has the giggle of a young child—and with such unmitigated joy. But Dominic is extraordinary, as is his story.

Dominic Arou is one of a group that has come to be known as the Lost Boys of Sudan. Depending on where the information is coming from—more on that later—the Lost Boys are anywhere between 12,000 and 20,000 individuals, all of whom were children when, in 1987, they fled conditions in their native Sudan, which has been embroiled in civil war on and off for almost fifty years. The latest conflict began in 1983, and for the twenty years since, Sudan’s Islamic government, based in the northern city of Khartoum, has waged war, directly or indirectly, on the black Africans in the southern portion of the country. The people of southern Sudan are predominantly of the Dinka and Nuer tribes, and are largely Christian. A rebel group, the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), representing southern Sudan’s urge to create its own state, or at least share more power in the Khartoum government, has controlled the south for the majority of the period since 1983. Also at stake is control over the oil that has relatively recently been found under many regions in southern Sudan. Its exploitation has until now been impeded by the fighting, and disagreements over ownership and revenue-sharing.

The conflict isn’t only about oil, and it isn’t only about religion. There are centuries-old animosities between the Arabs in the north and the southern Sudanese, and it can’t be denied that the Arabs have historically been the aggressors, sometimes with the help of colonizing powers such as Egypt and Britain. As recently as two years ago, for example, Arab raiders from the north—called the murahaleen— were still sweeping into Dinka villages to kidnap women and children into slavery on their farms and in their households. Though the Khartoum government disavows any responsibility for these raiders, and now denounces the slavery that only recently has been made effectively illegal, their complicity in the actions of the murahaleen is rarely doubted. And only now are thousands of former slaves making their way back to southern Sudan.

(It’s widely unknown that slavery is still practiced in Sudan. And like many of Sudan’s problems, it goes so far back that outrage among the Sudanese is rarer than one might expect. Further, there are those who claim that what we might call slavery is considered a kind of “human pawning” by the Arabs in the north.

This theory posits that in times of hardship, families in the south often pawn their children as laborers or concubines to Arabs in the north, and when times improve, these pawns can be bought back and returned home. Though this likely happens, it doesn’t account for the thousands who have been forcibly kidnapped by the murahaleen.)

Though the Lost Boys have many different stories, Dominic’s is representative. In 1984, his village was attacked by government troops, because allies of John Garang, leader of the SPLA, were 16 from Marial Bai, and Khartoum was attempting to squash the burgeoning rebel movement at one of its sources. Dominic fled on foot from his home, and watched as his village was burned. He returned home soon after, but over the next few years, Marial Bai knew little peace. Repeated attacks from government troops and the murahaleen made normal life impossible. In 1987, muralaheen raiders on horseback invaded the village, looting and carrying off women and children. Again, Dominic ran. Hiding in the woods, he met other boys and a few adults.They joined more escapees, and together they surmised that there was nothing left for them in their villages, that they would only find sanctuary if they made their way to Ethiopia.

The growing group of young boys, most of whom, the story goes, assumed they might be killed by either the government troops or the murahaleen if they stayed at home, were led by a comparatively small group of adults to Ethiopia. Whether these adults, called “caretakers,” were samaritans helping the desperate boys, or were agents of the rebel army, has always been and is still up for some debate. The truth to the question—were the Lost Boys helpless children or were they child soldiers, being manipulated by the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army?—lies somewhere in between, and varies from boy to boy. It is known that the SPLA had training camps in Ethiopia, and that they benefited from their proximity to the mass of children. For his part, Dominic was unaware of any SPLA activity at the time. For him,“it was just boys walking.”

En route to Ethiopia, hundreds if not thousands of the young boys died of starvation or disease, and were killed and eaten in attacks by lions and hyenas. They were attacked by government planes and by murahaleen on horseback.They lived off the land, and southern Sudan is an unforgiving place to do so. Sudan was then in the throes of a drought, and the war greatly exacerbated what would have already been a humanitarian disaster.The boys fought for water, and ate mud to keep their palates wet. Once they found their way to Gambella, in western Ethiopia, they received protection and aid for four years, as refugees under the care of the U.N. and with the blessing of the Ethiopian government. In 1991, when the sympathetic regime was overthrown, however, the Lost Boys were driven out of the country by force. The Ethiopian army, which had until that time safeguarded the refugees, now shot at them as they fled across the Gilo River, and about 2,000 boys are estimated to have died that day, from bullets and drownings and crocodiles, which preyed on the boys, many of whom could not swim.

The Lost Boys walked again through Sudan, this time heading south to Kenya, where after hundreds more died, they found refuge in Kakuma, a hardscrabble area in the northwest corner. They were the first to arrive at what is now, with a population of 84,000 people, one of the largest refugee camps in Africa. At Kakuma they spent almost a decade years living in punishing conditions, eating one meal a day and fighting off malnourishment and thieves who regularly snuck into and stole from the camp’s residents. Still, there was a degree of stability at Kakuma: they went to school, learned English, and in many cases found homes with other Sudanese at the camp, who acted as foster families. In 1999, almost four thousand Lost Boys were approved for resettlement in the United States. Those who made the trip went from living in mud huts in Kakuma, where there is no electricity for the vast majority of the residents, to living on their own in cities like Fargo, Detroit, San Jose, and Atlanta. Most had never seen flush toilets or even ice. None had driven a car. Some had never seen a glass window.The U.S. government provided them each with threemonths’ worth of aid, after which they were on their own.

The Lost Boys, because of their faith in learning and because they were orphaned or separated from their families at such a young age, have an expression: “Education is my mother and my father.” They are almost uniformly hellbent on going to college in the United States. After college some plan to return to the Sudan, but while most would like to visit—and indeed many have returned to Kakuma to find a spouse (for there are relatively few Sudanese women in the U.S.) most express little desire to permanently resettle in the Sudan.

Soon, though, they might have that option.There has been a ceasefire in place in southern Sudan for almost two years now, and for the most part, it’s being respected. And after 9-11, the Khartoum government, under pressure from Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice, become very cooperative in the war on terrorism. Accordingly, Khartoum has been urged to the negotiating table with the SPLA, and at the time of our trip, the two sides were engaged in intensive talks in Kenya about an end to the war and the possible split, after a time, of Sudan into two separate nations, north and south. Since arriving in the United States in 2001, Dominic Arou has worked at a Home Depot and, for the last eighteen months, at a furniture showroom in the Atlanta suburbs, where he filed fabric samples in the back room, sitting on a stool much of the day and earning $8.50 an hour.

In September of 2003 he quit his job and, with the help of the Lost Boys Foundation—an Atlanta- based nonprofit that helps with the refugees’ transition—began attending classes at an Atlanta community college full-time. When he completes the necessary credits, he’ll be applying to a four-year college.

Dominic Arou is well-spoken, and is considered a spokesman for the Lost Boys in Atlanta, where he spends a good amount of time speaking on their behalf at churches and colleges. Dominic regularly tells his story to bring attention to the plight of the people of southern Sudan and the other Lost Boys, and since his arrival in the U.S., felt strongly that he wanted his story told in book form.

Through the Lost Boys Foundation, he was connected with me, and together we decided to attempt to go back to his village, to revisit the country he hadn’t seen in sixteen years, and to find his family, many of whom were reportedly still alive. To the best of our knowledge, it would be the first time a Lost Boy living in America returned to Sudan.

The visa process for a refugee with no official citizenship is not easy. It took about eight months to work out a way that Dominic could be allowed to travel to East Africa, and even then, there was no guarantee that he would be allowed into Sudan. As a matter of fact, everyone involved knew that Dominic wouldn’t find an officially sanctioned way into the country.

Thus, when you want to get a visa into southern Sudan, you don’t ask the Sudanese government in Khartoum; you need permission from the SPLA and its brother organization, the Sudanese People’s Liberation Movement. Hours after Dominic landed in Nairobi, after twenty-two hours in the air, Dominic, my brother, and I—we had preceded Dominic by two days—visited the SPLA/SPLM offices in Nairobi.The SPLA compound is a few miles from the center of the city, down a dirt road, and behind a steel gate, much in keeping with most higher-end residential and office settings around the city. Inside, there are four rooms, none of which has much in the way of Western-style office equipment.There is a waiting area, with two couches. There is a cramped room where an SPLA secretary sits amid a cluttered desk and a few filing cabinets, and, in the back, two rooms with a few tables and chairs. It has the feel of a makeshift office in the process of being either opened or vacated.

We brought passport pictures and 1,200 shillings each, in cash— about $13. An impatient secretary typed up our information on blue cards, and then stapled our pictures to these cards. Dominic also purchased an additional and voluntary SPLA/SPLM membership card, which features the same information, though on a smaller card, and this one laminated.

A young man constructed the card with a laminating machine. Over his head, taped to the wall, were three pieces of paper: one bearing the SPLA/SPLM flag (shown on the card above); and two smaller signs, one saying “I ENJOY MY JOB” and the other: “IT IS A PLEASURE TO SERVE YOU.” While we all waited for the cards to be processed, there was a good deal of downtime. And during the downtime, many hands were shook. In the SPLA offices milled about twenty young Sudanese men, all of whom were close to the age of Dominic, and none of whom seemed to have specific duties at the SPLA offices. They were all dressed very well, in suits or khakis and neatly pressed button-down shirts. Each was unfailingly friendly and polite, and every one of them wanted to shake hands.There is a rule, unstated but never wavered from, that if a visitor comes upon a group of Sudanese men, that visitor will shake hands with every last one of them. If, say, there are twelve Sudanese men in a group, one cannot just shake hands with the few men closest, and wave to the rest, as might be Western custom. One must shake hands with each and every one of them. So if a visitor is sitting at the SPLA office, with his companions and five of the Sudanese men without specific duties, and a new Sudanese man enters the office, he will not pass by to attend to business in the office, if he has any, without first shaking hands with every person in the lobby, especially the visitors. Dominic knew a few of the men in the waiting room from their time in Kakuma, and they traded greetings in English, a language rarely taught these days in Sudan. Wherever you find well-dressed Sudanese men who speak English and are working for humanitarian aid groups, or for an independent southern Sudan, chances are they spent some time in Kakuma.

There are no commercial flights to southern Sudan, and there is virtually no way to enter the country by car. The only way to get in is to beg one’s way onto a humanitarian flight, and this was done, in Nairobi, over the course of two days of negotiating from our room at the Nairobi Holiday Inn. We’d arrived in Kenya with an assurance from a British expert on Sudan that he would usher us into the country, and help us with our preparations. But when I called him on our first day in Nairobi, he was already gone—already in Sudan, and from there would be heading to Geneva. With only a few distant contacts, we had to find a way into the country.

After calling a half-dozen humanitarian aid representatives and more than a few American and British journalists, I reached Hubert D. Charles, the Assistant Country Director of the South Sudan arm of Concern, an Irish relief organization, and he agreed to allow us carriage on one of their aid flights. It was leaving in two days, which would make things tight with Dominic’s delayed arrival, but the itinerary otherwise couldn’t have been better: this flight was not only landing in southern Sudan, but would be stopping in Marial Bai, the very village where Dominic was born, fled from, and where his family presumably still resided.

All we had to do, Hubert D.Charles told us, was show up at a place called Lokichoggio the next afternoon, and be ready to fly to Sudan the next morning. Dominic arrived in Nairobi at five o’clock on the morning of December 10. We met at breakfast two hours later, and informed him that we’d be leaving for Lokichoggio at noon that same day, and would be flying to his village the following morning. He was incredulous. He was eating a danish and sausage, from the Holiday Inn buffet.

“They have approved for me?” he asked, dropping his fork.

“Yes.”

I realized that nothing like this has ever worked out so easily for Dominic. Even his trip from Atlanta to Newark had been delayed many times by blizzards on the East Coast.

“The aid plane, it is secure?”

“Yes.”

“You have a place for me?”

“Yes.”

“And approval to enter?”

“Yes,” I said.

“For me, too?” he asked.

“Sure, all three of us,” I said.

In the middle of the breakfast room, Dominic began clapping. He clapped for ten seconds, grinned, and nodded.

“It is good. It is very good,” he said.Then he went back to eating. Lokichoggio—most call it Loki—is a small Kenyan town near the Sudanese border where most of the relief organizations that serve Kakuma and southern Sudan have settled and together given birth to a strange kind of boomtown. The U.N., the International Rescue Committee, Save the Children, Concern, and a half-dozen other agencies have offices there, and around these compounds tens of thousands of Kenyans called the Turkana have settled, in order to benefit, or attempt to benefit, from the existence of Western aid. Dominic knows Loki relatively well, having traveled there a few times from Kakuma,which is about forty minutes down the road.

Dozens of planes come to and leave from Loki every day, the vast majority of them owned or operated by the U.N. or its designees. Being the staging ground for a very large amount of humanitarian work in a very large country— Sudan is the largest country in Africa—one might expect that Loki would look a bit like a small city, with many buildings, roads, cars, sidewalks, and the like.What it looks very much like, instead, is the backdrop for a mideighties post-apocalyptic adventure film. The land is dry, dotted with scrub, soil of a rust color.There is a very rural-Americana feel to things, where all machines can be abandoned where they cease functioning.This is evident when first landing at Loki, as the runway passes a bevy of crash-landed aircraft, and aircraft in disrepair, and aircraft seemingly stripped for parts.Trucks are also left in various states of functioning, and share the area around the landing strip with hundreds of fuel drums, and fences, and shacks, and garages. We got off our twelve-seat prop-plane with about ten Kenyan and Western aid workers. All was heat and light and dust.

The Loki airport comprises a series of haphazardly connected trailers and extremely homely wooden buildings. One small room, about eight feet by sixteen feet and containing one long wooden table, is the customs and immigration office. One portable trailer, about the same size as the immigration office, is where one buys tickets for flights. Inside that office are only two desks; there are no machines outside of two small solar-powered calculators.

We left the customs area and realized that we didn’t have a ride to the Concern office. In the next twenty minutes, all of the aid workers would get rides into town from their agencies, while Dominic and I wondered if there was some way we could call a cab. But there was nothing like a cab to be had. There were only aid vehicles, and none were there for us.There is only one color of vehicle in this part of the world, by the way, and that is white. Every vehicle in the humanitarian world is white.

Whenever a vehicle will be mentioned from here on out, assume that it is white. Also, assume it is either a Land Rover or small Japanese pickup truck, or a minivan, or a Toyota SUV.There are virtually no other sorts of cars extant in this region and in this line of work. Our flight to Sudan was to leave the next morning at 6 a.m., so we had to spend the night in Loki. We eventually found a ride to the offices of Concern, and were admitted through the gate.The compounds of Loki, in which the different nongovernmental agencies (NGOs) sit, reinforce the comparison to Road Warrior–like production design. They are fenced off, and are guarded by one armed man, who opens and closes a sliding gate for the Land Rovers that come and go. Inside the compound, the ground is dirt, the buildings are spread about haphazardly, and the practice of leaving abandoned vehicles and machinery in their place of expiration is strictly observed.

Irene, a young Kenyan woman in charge of this Concern outpost, had not been told that we would be coming. She didn’t know who we were.We told her that we were here to fly into Marial Bai the next morning, and that we would also need a place to stay tonight. With barely a flinch, on a solar-powered calculator, she figured the amount of weight she would need to remove from the aid flight to make room for us. She made a phone call.“We need to dump 200 kilos,” she said, and then:“Yes.Yes, I know.”And she hung up.We didn’t allow ourselves to think too hard about what would need to be removed to allow us onto the flight. We allowed ourselves the luxury of assuming it was not essential, or could wait.

Irene directed us to the Norwegian People’s Aid, another NGO sharing the compound, which, she said, rented beds for the night.The woman at the NPA, another young Kenyan, asked for about fifteen dollars each, and we paid her. Only later did we realize that she had overcharged us, tenfold.This would become a recurring theme.

Later, we realized that the Norwegian People’s Aid is really nothing of the kind. It’s not in any way affiliated with the government of Norway, and is simply a fake humanitarian group providing aid to the SPLA. This sort of masquerading would, too, be a recurring theme though one can hardly blame the SPLA for bringing in aid any way possible, given that for many years the primary financial backer of Sudan’s repressive Khartoum government was Osama bin Laden, whom they called their “great Islamic investor.”

The Norwegian People’s Aid area was filled with Sudanese men who, we were told, were working for the NGOs serving southern Sudan.They were gathered in lawn chairs in the compound, and in the fading light, on the way to our cabins, Dominic exchanged greetings. The men were older that Dominic, all about forty, and their foreheads told the story of how different Dominic’s life has been from the generation before. Men in the Dinka tribe traditionally scarify their foreheads, and the designs are clear and in a few cases, forbidding.The Lost Boys, because they left home so young and grew up in Ethiopia and Kenya, rarely have the marks of ritual scarification. It’s one of the distinctions that sets the Lost Boys apart,and though the men’s greeting to Dominic,in his new clean clothes and unblemished sneakers, is polite, it’s not quite warm. Among these older Sudanese men, we ate a hearty dinner in a well-equipped hut in the compound, and worried aloud about the fact that we had little to no supplies for the trip into Sudan.

I had stupidly thought we could outfit ourselves with food, water, and some camping necessities once we arrived in Loki, but this was not the case. By the time we arrived at and were settled into Concern, it was dark, and the possibilities for preparation were scant. Still, after dinner, we walked with one of the men from Concern, whom Dominic knew vaguely from Kakuma, into town, hoping to buy what we could. It was now very dark, and the lights along the dirt road were few. The stars were bright, the sky silver-blue, but there was menace in the air. Along the dirt road, shacks made of corrugated tin offered goods, though most of the shops were closed. We passed figures in the dark, mostly Turkana—in red robes and jewelry reminiscent of the Maassai—and they watched our party of four men, two Sudanese and two white Americans, with interest. Barefoot children ran by, tiny girls carrying great baskets on their heads.

Dominic was nervous. Relations between the Turkana and the Sudanese Dinka have not historically been good. There is debate about when the tension began, but it has something to do with thescarcity of local resources, and thedistribution of aid. The Turkanahave lived in the region around Kakuma for centuries, and only recently have tens of thousands of Sudanese moved in, and through the U.N. receive free food and shelter, while the Turkana must continue to live as well as possible off the land. In recent years, there have been numerous instances of skirmishes and even murders between the Turkana and the Sudanese.The Turkana say the Dinka leave the refugee camp and steal their cattle.

The Dinka claim the Turkana slip into Kakuma and rob them while they sleep. Either way, Dominic knew that it’s rare and usually unwise for a well-dressed Sudanese man to be out and about in the dark in this Turkana town. We decided to hire a car. Dominic’s Sudanese friend waved down a passing vehicle and arranged a price, and soon we were driving down the rough dirt road, looking for an open shop. A mile down the way, we found a tiny shack glowing with amber light. Inside, two women stood behind a chickenwire wall; we were told to point to what from the store we wanted.We indicated a jug of water and a gallon of orange syrup (to be mixed with water).We pointed to a loaf of bread and three packages of round biscuits. Dominic spoke to the women in Swahili,and they slid the items through the small window cut into the counter. It was not nearly enough for a week in southern Sudan, and when we got back to the Norwegian People’s Aid compound, we were more concerned than before. The next day,we would fly from Loki to Marial Bai, and would be left there for six days, until the plane returned.

There would be little in the way of supplies—no stores, not even the ramshackle kind found in Loki.We really had no idea what to expect. We weren’t even sure what NGOs were operating there.And of course there was the most recent warning from the U.S. State Department:(November 14, 2003) The Department of State warns U.S. citizens against all travel to Sudan. Although the fighting resulting from the twenty-year civil war has diminished greatly, the two parties have not signed a peace accord ending the war. The fighting affects southern, western, and eastern Sudan.

The U.S. Government has received indications of terrorist threats aimed at American and Western interests in Sudan. Terrorist actions may include suicide operations, bombings, or kidnappings. U.S. citizens should be aware of the risk of indiscriminate attacks… Sporadic fighting has continued between Sudanese government forces, the Sudan Peoples’ Liberation Army (SPLA), and various militias in the southern part of the country…

We’d been assured by others working in the field that southern Sudan was safe enough, and we knew that the State Department warnings were always on the shrill side. Still, Dominic and I worried about everything, including our inadequate anticipation of the trip’s needs. He had no doubt assumed that I had things in hand, and I made the mistake, which would pay dividends in the upcoming days, of assuming that Dominic knew everything one might need to know about Sudan. I figured that Dominic would know what we needed, would know the conditions in the town and what we should bring. But it slowly dawned on me that Dominic knew very little about his village, or about present conditions in his country. The last time he was in Sudan, he washalf-starved, wandering toward Kenya, no more than nine years old.We were flying blind.

Now, as we sat in our cabin at the Norwegian People’s Aid compound, a few minutes before falling asleep, I asked Dominic how he was feeling, about seeing his family in a few hours, about returning to his village after all this time.

“I feel sleepy,” he said. He hadn’t slept in three days. ✯

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