Sudan's civil war killed more than 2 million people and, in a well-known episode, sent 20,000 boys in the country's South on a 1,000-mile march to Ethiopia and Kenya. Beset by thirst, hunger, wild animals and bombing attacks, fewer than half of them survived. John Dau, one of about 4,000 so-called Lost Boys of Sudan who were helped to relocate to the United States, told his story at the law school.
It was the middle of the night when John Dau's village in Southern Sudan's Duk County was attacked and burned by men on horseback — the last time the 12-year-old would ever see some of his family members.
The year was 1987, four years into a Sudanese civil war between the Arab-dominated north and the non-Arab south that would rage for more than a decade and leave more than 2 million dead. That same year, the government announced a genocidal campaign to kill all men in Southern Sudan, regardless of age. Entire villages were wiped out. Girls who managed to survive the bloodbath were kidnapped and taken north. Surviving boys fled on foot. Ultimately, nearly 20,000 boys — known today as the "Lost Boys of Sudan" — set out on a 1,000-mile trek toward refuge in Ethiopia and Kenya. Beset by thirst, hunger, wild animals and bombing attacks, fewer than half of the boys survived. Dau was one of them.
In a talk at the School of Law on Sept. 14, Dau shared his harrowing story and discussed the relief work he does for his homeland today. UCLA's International Human Rights Law Program hosted his visit, with Artists for Human Rights, a Calabasas-based nonprofit. The UCLA African Studies Center was co-sponsor.
In the aftermath of his village's destruction, Dau and 26 other boys became a family of survivors, fleeing eastward from their armed attackers. Dau remembers bitterly cold nights that he prayed would end. Of the more than two dozen boys who started the journey together, only Dau and three others reached Ethiopia three months later. The rest, he said, had been "killed by wild animals, killed by other human beings, or starvation or thirst."
While their arrival in Ethiopia provided relief from warfare, Dau recalled, there was no proper camp for refugees, only an area of confinement. More boys continued to arrive and, because Dau was tall, he was enlisted to help — put in charge of 50 boys. That number continued to grow, until he found himself responsible for 1,200 boys between the ages of 5 and 15.
All these young boys wanted, Dau said, was to drink milk, to see their mothers and eat. "There was nothing we could offer them. It was just giving them courage, telling them, 'Stay. Tomorrow will be better.'"
Conditions at the camp were so wretched that, at one point, two or three boys each day were dying from disease, to be buried in shallow graves by the weakening survivors. Conditions began to improve when the United Nations stepped in with food and blankets, Dau said. But in 1991, rebels aligned with Sudan overthrew the Ethiopian government, and the boys were forced to leave the Ethiopia, once again on foot.
More than 20,000 child refugees — the boys as well as girls who joined them — made the exodus, with Dau helping lead them through horrors that included crossing a crocodile-infested Gilo River and facing bombing raids and attacks by hostile tribes. In 1992, the survivors of that trek reached Kakuma Refugee Camp in Kenya. There, Dau recalled, he and many of the other children began their formal education. With help from camp volunteers and with the older boys taking turns teaching, the boys held class under trees, using their forefingers as "pencils" in the dirt ground.
Fortunately for him, Dau became one of some 4,000 Los Boys who received assistance to relocate to the United States. He and 140 others moved to Syracuse, N.Y., in 2001. There, while working 60 hours a week as a security guard, he completed his associate's degree at Onondaga Community College and started his B.A. in policy studies at Syracuse University's Maxwell School of Citizenship.
Dau's story and that of other Lost Boys of Sudan were depicted in the 2006 award-winning documentary, "God Grew Tired of Us," which portrays the boys' culture shock upon arriving in U.S. cities shortly before 9/11. Dau's reunion with his mother after 17 years is a climactic moment in the film. He has since moved his mother and sister to Syracuse from Sudan. In 2007, he published a memoir, also titled "God Grew Tired of Us."
A human rights activist for the people of South Sudan, Dau directs the John Dau Foundation and other initiatives which focus on health care and sustainable development for his homeland. A clinic established by the foundation in the South Sudan village of Duk Payuel has provided vaccinations, obstetrical care and other services to 57,000 people.
Speaking with his School of Law audience about the current political situation in Sudan, Dau noted that the culturally divided country has spent most of its 65-year postcolonial era in civil conflict. That may change in January 2011, when, following a timetable set out in the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement, the people of Southern Sudan are scheduled to vote on whether to remain a part of Sudan or to declare independence. Southerners want to proceed with the referendum as scheduled, but the government in Khartoum is hoping to delay the vote, while trying to provide incentives for Southern Sudan to remain part of Sudan. Asked by an audience member whether the continuing conflict poses the prospect of new war, which many Southern Sudanese fear, Dau said, "It may be 50-50. I don't know what will happen."
Dau's latest efforts include establishing agricultural training and conflict resolution programs for Southern Sudanese, many of whom grew up in refugee camps. And he has sent thousands of books to Southern Sudan.
"I have a dream to build a library where people can come and study," he said. "I have seen the power of education."
Dau's life in America, which includes marriage to a Sudanese refugee with whom he has three children, has opened his eyes to a world that he and other Lost Boys could only once imagine. The hungry boys would tell each other stories, he recalled, about restaurants in America where lazy patrons could eat for free or press a button on the table to order chicken. While he doesn't find Americans to be lazy after all, Dau said, he does think that some Americans fail to appreciate the advantages they have.
Nor, perhaps, do Americans appreciate that even in times of difficulty, we can survive. As if to hearken back to his days as a leader of the Lost Boys of Sudan, Dau told his UCLA audience, "Whenever you are faced with a difficulty, never think that it is you alone. Other people have difficulty, too.
"But you know how people survive — they don't give up," Dau said. "Never give up."