Broadman & Holman
At that time a gift will be brought to the LORD of Hosts from a people tall and smooth-skinned, a people feared near and far, a powerful nation with a strange language, whose land is divided by rivers—to Mount Zion, the place of the name of the LORD of Hosts. -- ISAIAH 18:7
If the LORD had not been on our side
when men attacked us,
then they would have swallowed us alive
in their burning anger against us.
Then the waters would have engulfed us;
the torrent would have swept over us;
the raging waters would have swept over us.
Praise the LORD,
who has not let us be ripped apart by their teeth.
SOUTH SUDAN 1987. Fear seized nine-year-old Abraham Yel Nhial and held him captive. Paralyzed by the stories his father had told about the murdering soldiers from Khartoum, the capital of his country, Abraham reached deep inside for courage.
The thundering beat of drums from a nearby village warned of danger and echoed terror across the new morning sky. Abraham knew enemy soldiers marched toward the Dinka villages. They came to loot, steal cattle, and carry away women and children as slaves. His mind raced with questions. If only someone would tell him what to do.
“If you hear the drums telling us that the enemy is coming, run,” his father had said. “They kill all who get in their way.”
But Abraham couldn’t bring himself to obey. Had his father gotten the family to safety? What would happen to the village called Geer where he lived with his grandmother? He stood alone in the middle of Nyakrar, the fenced cattle camp, surrounded by the longhorn cattle so precious to his people. Even here, he was a day away from Geer and his beloved grandmother. If he left the cows, he would be neglecting his responsibility. Abraham trembled. He wanted to hide. His heart pounded so hard that he thought it would burst through his chest. He must get back to Wun Lang, his father’s village along the Lol River, but that was two days away.
The drums continued. He pressed his palms against his ears in hopes the sound would stop, that the warning meant nothing. If he cried loud enough, his uncle might find him, reassure him that danger had passed. Maybe Abraham’s uncle would take him to his father’s village to show him the enemy had not brought destruction. When no one answered his pleas, Abraham began to run. His stomach churned at the thought of the enemy taking his father’s cows or worse yet, harming his family. He had to see for himself—to see if he could find help. Abraham wrestled with the fear and the desire to take on the role of a man.
He tore through the fenced pen, past the cows, and ran. His legs and sides ached like needles pricking his entire body. Every breath caused his chest to burn. Other villages were closer than Wun Lang, but he denied himself rest or to ask for something to eat. The enemy might be waiting. Instead, he hid during times when his body craved a moment’s reprieve. He avoided the thick forests because he’d never been there before, and the dense growth was full of wild animals and poisonous snakes. The tall grasses hid him like a protective coverlet.
When Abraham arrived at Wun Lang, he found the enemy soldiers had left. The smell of burning, thatched-roof huts filled his nostrils and a stench of something he couldn’t define but would never forget. Dying embers and gusts of smoke were all that remained of many homes. He stared at the bodies of his relatives and friends: lifeless forms that once laughed, talked, danced, and worked. Now blood flowed from their mutilated bodies. He’d never seen a dead person, for in his village children were not permitted to see a corpse. Never had he viewed a sight so terrible. Fear reigned where he allowed himself to feel at all.
His village had once held a thousand people; now there were none. Horror beyond his worst nightmare appeared before his unresponsive dark eyes. He had no idea what had happened to his parents, four sisters, and two brothers. Their bodies did not lie among the others. Had they escaped the soldiers? Where were they?
Abraham drew in a breath and slowly turned around. The devastation left him in shock and confusion. He wondered again what he should do. His heart longed to stay in the village, to see if anyone returned, but concern for his family and himself forced him to make a decision. He looked to the jungle and began to run again. For two hours he tore through the wilds, sensing the enemy breathed its hot breath at his heels. The cooler air from the canopy of trees masked the dangers lurking as real as the soldiers who had attacked his father’s village. Monkeys shrieked. Birds called out as though mocking his fright, and a snake slithered across his path.
Abraham raced on until he caught up with about one hundred boys who had faced the same tragedy. Familiar faces gave him temporary hope. One of them must know where the people from his village hid, where safety and shelter could be found. Then he saw the bewilderment in their eyes—and he knew he wore the same haunted look. This could not be real. What had happened to his peaceful world? Abraham attempted to stop shaking; the urge to cry tore through him. In his heart he realized the pain would be a part of him forever.
Some of the boys were from Abraham’s village and others came from neighboring communities. He caught sight of his older cousin Yai, a tall, slim, handsome boy. Relief consoled Abraham for a moment. But the lines on his cousin’s young face and the agony in his voice spoke of a chasm too wide to bridge.
“I went back to my father’s village.” Abraham swiped at the tears flooding his eyes. “So many bodies.”
Yai and Abraham embraced. Words could not express the grief piercing their hearts. All they could do was cling to each other and cry.
“I couldn’t find my parents or my brothers or sisters,” Abraham said. “Do you know where they are?”
“I haven’t seen them. Did you see any of my relatives?”
Abraham held his breath. “I saw your uncle among the _bodies.”
Yai glanced away then back to Abraham. “I don’t think we will ever find our families.”
The Islamic government of Sudan (GOS), based in the north, had used ground forces and air raids to attack the villages of southern Sudan. Soldiers had riddled adults and children with bullets, although some of the younger children, especially the girls, were taken as slaves. Nearly all of the boys were in the fields watching their cattle, sheep, and goats when the troops attacked. Other northern strikes alerted the people with the sound of gunfire, the death-whistle of bombs splitting the air, or the beating of drums signaling impending danger. Many were just rising to meet the dawn of a new day when the enemy opened fire.
When the sound of bloodcurdling screams echoed in the boys’ ears, they ran until exhaustion forced them to stop. They were the lucky ones, able to outrun the soldiers who pressed into the villages. The boys hid until they felt certain the soldiers had not followed them or didn’t lurk in the tall grass. The boys crept from behind brush, rock, and trees with the gruesome image of their murdered families and friends forever embedded in their minds. The boys hoped to find others who escaped the decimation, anyone who would offer comfort and reassurance that the tragedy had ended.
The day wore on, and the torrid sun began its slow descent across the African sky. But with dusk approaching, Abraham and his new brothers had additional fears, for dangerous animals stalked the evening shadows. The boys built fires from wood or dried cow dung and huddled around the light and warmth. They listened to the roars of prowling predators and wondered which one of them would be the next victim. For some of the boys, it didn’t matter; their spirits had died with their families. They had become the Lost Boys of Sudan.
Abraham walked with Yai on their journey to find safety. Eventually the two walked together all the way to Ethiopia. Among the boys were five eleven-year-olds. They were the elders, the leaders, and Yai was one of them. They led and organized the band of boys in order to keep them together. They were family now, brothers united to find lost families and the peaceful existence they had left behind. The boys looked to the elders for guidance and direction, to find food, and to keep them safe from wild animals and enemy soldiers. Abraham was so grateful that Yai helped lead the boys; he felt safer, as though all their problems and troubles would one day disappear.
Several days passed. They met up with other boys who had experienced the same tragedy—so many tears, so much sorrow.
Most of the boys were barefoot, but Abraham wore sandal-like shoes until they wore out. The rough terrain contained thorns that bloodied their feet and slowed them down.
“There were different kinds of thorns that pierced your feet,” Abraham says. “Some went deep and hurt so bad. They were hard to remove. If we were in a dangerous place, we couldn’t stop to take them out even in the daytime.”
The boys pulled and cut out the thorns the best they could with other thorns. No one had soothing balms or bandages, and the footprints left a trail of blood on the path behind them—a perfect lure for hungry lions.
Exhaustion tugged at their weary bodies. “The elders urged the boys to keep walking even when they were tired, hurt, and crying,” Abraham says. “At times the elders slapped the younger boys or poured water on them—when they had ample water—not to bully them but to help keep them alive.
“Sometimes I wanted to give up. I cried when my feet hurt, when I wanted to sleep or rest from walking so long. It was hard when it rained on us because we had no raincoats or a house to give us shelter. The elders cried too. They felt the same way we did, and they cried for the younger boys who had an even harder time.”
“We’re not going far, just right over there,” Yai would point. “It will take only an hour or so. There we will find help.” He sounded confident, so Abraham followed and obeyed.
Abraham and his brothers were afraid to return to their homes, fearful of what they’d find and who might find them. Hundreds of boys became thousands.
He plodded on with his brothers in a southeasterly direction, across the agriculturally rich earth, through the tall, thick grasses, and past the forests of acacia, hashab, talh, and heglig trees. They shared the land with lions, leopards, giraffes, monkeys, elephants, and hyenas. The rivers boasted of crocodiles and hippopotamuses. Tropical birds with their colorful plumage chatted and sang.
Abraham ate mangoes, bananas, and nuts when available. When conditions worsened and food and water were not available, he ate mud. He ate strange, wild plants, which often made him ill with diarrhea or painful sores in his mouth. Rotting zebras or gazelles became an opportunity to fill his hungry stomach.
Abraham wondered about his father. Had he been killed? So many times, he stared at the path ahead and imagined his father coming to get him. He remembered his father had told him their people had been fighting the north for a long time. The men of the north were evil.
“The government of Sudan wants to scare the people living in the south so we will know that they are in control,” his father had said. “The Islamic government doesn’t like us because we’re not Muslim. We refuse to be Muslim.”
When Abraham saw the soldiers’ light skin, so different from his own, he perceived them as the enemy, as his father described.
As the days passed, Abraham’s thoughts changed from those of a selfish child to one who began to think about spiritual matters. He contemplated the things his father had said about the god Nhialic—creator god. According to his father, if a person lived a bad life, he must live and die again.
“What happens to us when we live a good life?” Abraham had asked his father.
“I don’t know,” his father said. “No one knows.”
Abraham pondered his father’s explanation. If he did not please Nhialic, would these same terrible things happen again? The practices of his father’s worship included sacrificing a white animal for war, family strife, sickness, and forgiveness of offenses. Should Abraham take this religion seriously? He remembered a few Christians who lived in Wun Lang. Did they have any answers for him? But he didn’t ask. Abraham was too sad and miserable. Was death only the end of life?
Weeks passed with the encouragement of Yai and the other elders who always said their destination lay just beyond. The elders stationed themselves in front of the brothers, the middle, and rear. Others watched out for the younger ones. Always the elders alerted the boys to dangerous animals. When the brothers could not take another step, the elders carried them. Abraham was too young to carry another boy, but he urged them on. The elders also found whatever food they could, sometimes only grass, leaves, and tree roots. They rationed these so all would have something to eat.
Each new morning the boys plodded ahead, one foot in front of the other, doing what they had to do to stay alive. For life beckoned them to follow and death lurked behind. Abraham strived to ignore the insatiable hunger and thirst. He learned to drink his own urine so he would not die of thirst. Abraham leaned on Yai to help fight the incredible odds against survival. He gave up on ever seeing his family again. Too often the truth shook his dreams and plunged him into reality; he was lost and alone just like Yai and the newfound brothers.
They were attacked by enemy soldiers and lost more of the brothers. They met up with the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), but the soldiers were unable to help much because of the army’s own dire circumstances.
The threat of lions plagued Abraham’s life. When the huge animals approached, Yai and the other elders forced the brothers to huddle together in a group with the youngest ones in the middle. At times fright overtook a boy, and he broke out to run despite the elders’ attempts to stop him. A lone boy was easy prey to a hungry lion.
“Don’t run. Stay together,” Yai said. “Be strong. Do not let the lion see you’re afraid.”
Abraham heard these words so many times that the elders’ voices shook his waking and sleeping hours. “The first time we fought lions, I was afraid the elders couldn’t protect us. I thought they would run away and leave us alone. I hoped and dreamed my father might come and save us.”
The boys used whatever they could find to protect themselves from the lions. The elders instructed them to make lots of noise. Their screams of panic became a shield of defense. If other groups were close by, they helped. The lions moved toward the brothers, closing the gap. The huge, hungry animals roared and tossed their heads.
“We are going to war,” Yai told Abraham. Like the loved ones left behind, Abraham understood the brothers had a small chance of survival.
The elders shouted and repeated the same instructions as the lions circled closer. “Don’t be afraid. Be brave. If you cry, they will know you are weak and come after you.”
Abraham crouched low on shaking legs with the others. Standing made it easy for the lion to leap and knock them down. The boys held weapons, usually big sticks. Abraham knew they would fight a terrible battle. The hot sun beat down hard. Sweat poured over his face and stung his eyes. He swallowed his tears. Brave, he must be brave. All the while, the lions roared. The sound exploded in his ears and intensified the terror crashing around him.
Don’t run. Stay together. Be strong. Do not let the lion see you’re afraid. Do not be afraid. Be brave.
While the words rang through Abraham’s mind, he could not stop the panic raging through his body. He feared for his life and his brothers. Sometimes the boys succeeded in killing the lion or chasing it away. Too often Abraham watched in horror while a lion dragged away one of his brothers—screaming in pain and begging for help. The cries wrenched at his stomach; his heart hammered against his chest. He didn’t want to watch the blood, the gore. After all, he could be the next victim.
Abraham pauses in telling his story and swallows hard, the memories too painful to not give reverence to the many who had died. Names and faces from the past creep across his mind. Tears fill his eyes.
“For many years I dreamed that we were being attacked by lions, and there were no elders to protect me. I cried aloud in my sleep. This nightmare doesn’t happen anymore, but I still have others.”
Hyenas also trailed the boys. These animals were smaller and easier to kill, but still the boys had to conceal their fright when facing these dangerous animals.
Why have I been spared? Abraham asked himself each time he escaped death. Will I be next? He tried not to think about what he left behind and the future looked just as foreboding.
His legs ached from walking, and he dreamed of stopping long enough to sleep, filling his empty belly, and drinking until he thirsted no more. He didn’t think they would ever reach their destination, if they really had one at all. They passed villages that Abraham didn’t recognize, many like he’d left behind. He continued to wonder where they were going. At times he wanted to go back, but he couldn’t do that by himself. They had no food, no water, only the constant dread of wild animals and enemy soldiers. Hunger, thirst, fear, and an aching body became a way of life.
Abraham had to obey the elders. He wanted to say, “I will not listen to you. You are not my father.” He had to adapt to what was happening around him or he would die, and most times he wanted to live.
While Abraham walked, he talked with his new brothers. He found they all shared in the same disaster.
“What happened when the soldiers came to your village?” Abraham asked.
“When the bombing began, I ran with the others. I didn’t know where my family had gone, but I kept running. I was six years old.”
Abraham walked on. He asked other boys how the enemy had attacked their villages.
“The Arab soldiers from the north fired their guns into the village and burned our homes and shot many people. I hid in the bush until men from my village found me. It was not safe then. Later we were separated. That is how I found more boys.”
Another brother said, “I saw my friends shot by Muslim soldiers. I ran back to my village, but no one was there. Everyone ran from the soldiers.”
Still another recalled, “I was too small to remember my age. I was with my cousin. Later they told me I was five and he was nine.”
The accountings all seemed to be the same. “I was four years old when the Arabs attacked our village. I saw the dead bodies. The others made me run because we were Christian.”
Christian? Did the enemy hate some of the people more than others? Abraham longed for answers.
Abraham’s eyes hold the reality of the boys’ bleak existence then. “We were not used to all of these deaths. And we saw each other die—in all of the different ways. We had to bury our own brothers.” He pauses, his turmoil too obvious to hide. “This was something new for me—for all of us. It caused great depression. We didn’t know what to say or do. We didn’t understand. Many of the brothers were so depressed that they couldn’t survive physical sickness.”
He recalls how other boys expressed their grief.
“Your life has totally changed and now it becomes a matter of survival in a jungle, searching for a new place to stay. You cannot see your family and relatives anymore. You are trying to look for a safer place, but there is no safer place than a jungle filled with wild animals.
“I had to keep walking. I didn’t want to die.”
William Deng, who now lives in Houston, also tells of his personal struggles. “I remember the water I drank in the desert on our way. It was very bitter water squeezed out of an antelope’s intestines. During that journey, some died of thirst and starvation. It was a long journey through hell.”
The nightmarish life continued for Abraham and his brothers until they reached a huge river separating Sudan from Ethiopia. This was the river Gilo. After drinking their fill, a few of the boys chose to swim to the other side. Only the strong swimmers escaped the strong currents and hungry crocodiles and made it safely to the opposite bank. The boys pleaded with the Ethiopians to help transport the remaining thousands of boys across the river, and through the use of boats, the boys found refuge within the interior of that country. For Abraham, the journey took four months.
When he reflects on those months, he remembers one triumph. “Most victorious is the friendship and love we had during this journey, and I believe this kind of unity is from God.” But one of the questions piercing his heart and mind surrounded the culture of his people, the Dinka tribe. He wanted life as he knew it, and he refused to forget the Dinka ways.