“IT WAS JUST BOYS WALKING”
AN EXCERPT FROM A FORTHCOMING BIOGRAPHY OF DOMINIC AROU, A YOUNG REFUGEE FROM THE SUDAN.
Dominic is reunited with his parents in Marial Bai for the first time since he fled the civil war in 1987. After a brief stop in Nuba, his trip marks him the first of the Lost Boys to return to Sudan.
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.
We hope you enjoy this excerpt.
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