During the 1980s, some twenty thousand young men fled the civil war tearing apart Sudan in West Africa – a civil war that had been going on, in some form, since the 1960s. They became known as ‘the lost boys of Sudan.’ After wandering for years, many were re-settled in the U.S. KERA’s Jerome Weeks reports a new graphic novel tells the story of four who came to Dallas.
KERA radio story:
Expanded online story:
Angelo Baak is 30 years old, a detention officer with the Dallas Sheriff’s department. He remembers the day when he was nine, tending his family’s cattle in southern Sudan. He heard gunfire. He and other boys from the village fled. Government soldiers and militia from the mostly Muslim Northern Sudan were slaughtering people in the mostly Christian south. It was a conflict that had raged, in different forms, for decades, but only since 1983 had it escalated to genocide, as the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) fought with the Sudanese government. Thousands of people were displaced, thousands were killed, entire villages were torched.
Angelo: “They just, you know, kill ‘em. Young girls, they raped them. They killed them. They killed everybody.”
Separated from their families, the boys, between seven and 17 years old, spent the next year wandering into nearby Ethiopia, crossing part of the Sahara desert. Few had any idea of where they were going.
Angelo: “We have to cross a river. We have to cross the Sahara – with no trees, no water, no food.”
Many died of hunger, others drowned. Some were eaten by wild animals. The exodus settled in Ethiopia, but after the government changed in 1991, the boys were driven out and fled to a Red Cross refugee camp in Kenya. After nine years there, the United Nations and humanitarian organizations settled several thousand in the U.S. in 2001.
James Disco (left) was a volunteer with Catholic Charities helping the boys when they came to North Texas. The young men had never used a phone or a gas stove. In their Dallas apartment, they kept and arranged canned goods for decoration. They thought the labels were pretty.
Disco: “And we had to go in and tell them, ‘Hey, that’s real food.’ And how to use a shower in a bathroom. And simple things like running water that we’re so lucky in this country to have.”
The lost boys’ incredible odyssey has been told in documentaries and books, including Dave Eggers’ What is the What and Lost Boys of Natinga, a photo book by former Dallas Morning News photographer Judy Walgren. But Disco wanted to present their story in a way that would reach school children and young adults.
To fund a graphic novel, Disco turned to an unusual source: the National Junior Tennis and Learning program, where he’s an instructor. The NJTL was founded by the tennis star Arthur Ashe.
Disco: “Arthur Ashe was a human rights activist, and Dallas Tennis Association here has a NJTL program that works with inner city kids as well as refugee children. So I thought that might be a fit for this story.”
In 2004, Disco produced a comic book, written up by NPR. But unhappy with the cartoony results, he sought an artist who could handle both the “action” elements of a comic book (the violence, the soldiers, the animals) and the more individual, representational treatment he wanted for the four young men. After a long search, he found Niki Singleton, a politically committed, Canadian artist.
Unusual for any graphic novel, Echoes also features a Q&A section with UT-Southwestern professor of psychiatry, Dr. Carol North, who is also director of the Program in Trauma and Disaster at Dallas’ VA Hospital. She interviews the four young men — Angelo, Santino Athian, Matthew Mabek and Michael Ngor — about what traits led them to surmount the horrors and prolonged deprivations they faced, while thousands of others did not.
Finally, Disco approached Richard Halperin about writing the introduction. Halperin is director of the Embrey Human Rights Education program at SMU.
Halperin: “The goal is clearly to work with educators – to use this new medium as a way to bring this issue of genocide to classrooms across the metroplex.”
But the lost boys weren’t so keen on the idea of a book. Traumatized by their escape, some had changed their names. One said he couldn’t let his image become public, to be put up on a wall. In fact, when 9/11 happened soon after they arrived in the United States, the lost boys feared it was because their tormentors had followed them. It was retribution on America for harboring the refugees.
Eventually, as the young men came to feel safe, as they built lives here, attitudes changed. The graphic novel, Echoes of the Lost Boys of Sudan, was released this summer.
Angelo: “It was good, you know. When I see the novel, I say, it might speak the history to the people who don’t know.”
Also this summer, Southern Sudan finally became an independent country, a moment of joy for the refugees. A number of those refugees have had trouble adapting to life in America. But the four in the graphic novel have all found work in North Texas. Angelo (left), in particular, has earned an associate’s degree in criminal justice. He even learned that his parents had survived and he’s returned home twice to Sudan.
He has also become a U.S. citizen.
Angelo: “My accent – here, I have accent. But when I go home, they told me I have an American accent. I met with one American, he was asking me [laughs] so I told him — I’m from Dallas, Texas.”
- The Dallas Holocaust Museum will hold a discussion and book signing for Echoes of the Lost Boys of Sudan on Thursday, Aug. 11.