The trip from a refugee camp in Kenya to Tacoma, Washington is unimaginably far--much farther than the 36 hours it ok Nhial Guot to fly from Africa to the Pacific Northwest.
I met Guot on a fall afternoon while a steady rain was plastering leaves to the sidewalk outside his front door. An 18-year-old whose face radiates intelligence and enthusiasm, Guot had been back from church for an hour but had not bothered to take off his jacket and bright orange tie.
In a corner of his small, sparsely furnished bedroom was a desk piled with schoolbooks. Guot had been digging through a chapter on atoms for his next chemistry class. Except for the neatly made bed and clothes that had been hung up, this was the habitat of a typical teenager. Loud, dissonant music came from a tape player, and a Michael Jordan poster hung over the desk.
It all appears so familiar, so normal, but Guot can be forgiven if, to him, his surroundings still seem strange. He can be forgiven if his mind still returns frequently to Kakuma, to Paliau, to his missing family, and to the excruciatingly difficult journey that has brought him this far.
Guot is one of the Lost Boys of Sudan.
It should be said that Guot hates to be called a boy. He is a Dinka, a member of southern Sudan's largest tribe, and when a Dinka reaches his 18th birthday, he be comes a man. That's how Guot sees himself, and to be called a Lost Boy is an insult.
Nevertheless, Guot was part of that long, ragtag column of children, mostly boys, who trekked a thousand miles before the survivors finally found sanctuary. It was 1987, and Sudan, Africa's largest and most ethnically diverse nation, was racked by a civil war that pitted the Muslim north against the black, partially Christian south. The Lost Boys were among the youngest and earliest victims of the cruel conflict that has gone on for 18 years and already has killed an estimated 2 million people and turned an additional 4 million into refugees.
Guot, whose name means heaven in Dinka, was born in Paliau, a village of 300 people located in Sudan's southeast corner not far from the White Nile. Guot's father was an itinerant judge and a Christian preacher. Besides Guot, there were four other children in the family.
Cattle are at the heart of Dinka existence. The animals, with their long, graceful horns, provide their owners with much of their diet, fuel for their fires, a measure of their wealth and place in the community, and their sense of well-being.
The Dinka regard their cattle as individuals. Every animal has a name. Thus it was no accident that Guot, while munching a hamburger in a Tacoma fast-food restaurant, could recall instantly the name of the cow that had knocked him down 14 years earlier and left a scar on his right cheek.
"It was Yar," he says.
That same year Guot and his family were swept up in the maelstrom of the civil war. Government troops attacked Paliau one summer morning while Guot and his friends were away watching cattle. Although he was only 4, he can still remember the gunfire and the smoke. The children had no choice but to run for their lives. Guot had become a Lost Boy.
Day by day the ragged line of boys grew until eventually there were 10,000 of them moving eastward toward Ethiopia. Many had no clothing or shoes as they crossed the southern edge of the Sahara. They were attacked by lions and marauding bandits. They died of thirst and hunger.
The first part of their harrowing journey finally ended in Canyudu, a refugee camp run by the United Nations in Ethiopia. Life was spartan in the camp. There was not much beyond a little shelter from the sun, one meal a day, and a blanket to ward off the chills of malaria. …