War orphans get first look at childhood records
Sunday, November 14, 2010
PHOENIX (AP) — When a humanitarian worker asked Ajak Dau Akech in 1988 why he fled civil war in Sudan and walked 1,000 perilous miles to a refugee camp in Ethiopia, the boy answered with words few 8-year-olds would know.
“We ran away from massacring and butchering of the people,” the boy said.
More than 20 years later, Akech had no idea he had spoken those words until he read them from a document he didn’t know until recently even existed.
Akech and other Sudanese war orphans, known as the Lost Boys of Sudan, are starting to receive eight-page records that include their family histories, the names of people they traveled with on their flight from war, the names of those who died along the way, medical information and observations about their well-being and photographs of themselves.
For many of the Lost Boys, the roughly 13,000 documents are the only record of their childhood and families, the photos the only ones taken of them as children.
The records were a project by Radda Barnen, the Swedish branch of Save the Children International, and were meant to document the histories of the boys who arrived at the refugee camp without parents in hopes they could be reunited later.
But the war lasted 21 years, nearly 2 million people were killed and many villages were destroyed, leaving reunions virtually impossible.
The civil war between Sudan’s Arab and Muslim, northern-dominated central government and rebels in the mainly Christian and animist south ended with a 2005 peace agreement establishing an autonomous southern Sudan. Southerners are scheduled to vote in an independence referendum in January that could split Africa’s largest country in two.
The Lost Boys’ records had been moved repeatedly, were nearly destroyed by another agency intent on throwing them out, and were languishing in a Radda Barnen warehouse in Ethiopia when Kirk Felsman learned of them.
Felsman was a senior research scholar at Duke University and was working on a children’s rights project with Radda Barnen when he saw the documents in 2004.
Felsman obtained a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, and a team of anthropologists and others scanned more than 100,000 pages over four months before giving them to the Arizona Lost Boys Center in Phoenix, where about 600 Lost Boys have resettled.
It took the center and a team of mostly volunteers six more years to sift through the scanned documents, but all are now digitized and searchable online at www.lostboysreunited.org.
Of the 30,000 children who began the trek, only about 11,000 survived, according to the Lost Boys Center. In the first month that the database was available, the website got 4,000 hits from 32 countries and orders for 400 personal histories, which started going out in the mail from Phoenix last week.
Ann Wheat, founder of the Arizona Lost Boys Center, said the arduous task has been worth it.
“We venture out into the world from a platform, and that platform is provided by family, siblings, stories from our grandparents, and photo albums and reminiscing about family events,” she said. “What if you never had that?
“We’re right at the very beginning of this, and while we probably can’t articulate or know what this means to them, it has to be huge, sort of just giving them that roadmap back, and that’s where healing comes from,” she said.
Wheat said the current system requires Lost Boys to have computer access and a mailing address, but that’s not possible for many still living in Africa. The center also is trying to determine how to get documents of those who didn’t survive to their family members.
Felsman, who is now a senior technical adviser for orphans and vulnerable children at the United States Agency for International Development’s regional office in Pretoria, South Africa, wrote in an e-mail that part of being human is constructing one’s personal story.
“From a child’s rights perspective, I have always believed that children on the move should have access to the facts of their story, as it informs their reality, what those facts mean and feel like,” he wrote.
David Turkon, an anthropology professor at Ithaca College in New York who helped get the documents in order, said the records mean different things for different Lost Boys.
He said some of the documents have provided the names of forgotten family members in a potential first step to a reunion, and one of the Lost Boys living in New York was planning to use his documents to prove he married his wife in Africa so she can be brought to the U.S.
For some, the documents are a curiosity. Others experience intense emotional reactions.
“To be able to look at your own eyes at this time in your life, these are terrified young children,” Turkon said. “You can just see it in their faces ... It’s terribly important for a lot of people.”
For Akech, it was a reminder and a record of a stolen childhood.
He wept as he looked through his document for the first time recently in Phoenix, where he now lives.
He listed his activities before the war as tending cattle and playing, and said that he had finished the first grade. The humanitarian worker who conducted the interview noted that Akech was crying and frightened.
Akech had not only escaped war and left all but one brother behind, he also had survived famine, thirst, sickness, ambushes, unforgiving desert conditions and attacks by wild animals during the monthslong walk to Ethiopia.
“I didn’t have my parents, and I was afraid the whole time that I wasn’t going to survive,” he said.
The photo taken of Akech at the refugee camp is quite the opposite of Akech now, whose ready grin led one of his former teachers to nickname him Mr. Smile.
“I can’t imagine that was me,” Akech said as he looked at the photo. “How can a young little kid like that survive all these tragedies?”
Akech’s father died before the war. His mother and most of his siblings scattered to different parts of Africa.
Akech said he’s grateful to have his document.
“It commemorates what went wrong, who I was, where I was,” he said. “It’s historical.”
Arizona Lost Boys Center: http://www.azlostboyscenter.org/
Save the Children International: http://www.savethechildren.net/alliance/index.html
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