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Lost Boy of Sudan

Mariak Chuor finds a new life—and vocation as an author—in Garner

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The year is 1991 in the southern Sudanese village of Maper. To Mariak Chuor, it still plays like a movie in his head.

He is 8 years old. It is late at night. Mariak is sleeping near his 12-year-old brother Mangong. Earlier in the night, they had been warned the attackers from the north could be coming.

The adults have sent the children away from the village to hide. Mariak's 5-year-old brother is also with him, although the youngest of his siblings, a 3-year-old twin brother and sister, are too young to be separated from his mother. His father, a member of the southern army, is away.

The night is silent. He awakes to gunfire blasting the door of their tiny hut. There is shouting. The roof of the hut catches fire from the guns. The children begin screaming and running for the exit, but they are blocked by men carrying guns and long blades like machetes.

Mariak does what he was told to do by his mother—run. He runs with another 8-year-old boy named Deng Majok. The two escape the grasp of the attackers and flee for the bushes.

Hours pass. Mariak and Deng double back toward the hut. From the distance, they watch as the men sit their captives down. They will either kill the kids or make them work.

Mangong and other boys refuse to work for the men from the north. The men, "Arabs" as they are called by Mariak's village, use their blades to chop Mangong across the head, killing him.

Mariak is now 25 years old. He is wearing his favorite shirt, a brown Three Stooges T-shirt, basketball shorts, and he's recounting the story in the tiny kitchen he shares with a handful of relatives in Garner.

"That's one of those things," he says, touching his forehead. "The memory still comes in flashbacks."

For Mariak, it was just the beginning. Over the next decade, he would be a refugee and a soldier, one of what the world has come to know as the Lost Boys of the Sudan, thousands of the youngest warriors in history. In many cases, they are orphaned and forced into military service in the war-torn African nation of Sudan. Their brutal story was chronicled for American audiences in the 2003 documentary Lost Boys of Sudan.

And now Mariak is telling the Lost Boys' story in a book, Rebuilding What Had Been Destroyed, which chronicles his experiences and most important, details his vision of the future.

"I've been in the worst-case scenario," he says. "Sometimes you just have to tell yourself that you've got to make the best of the opportunity that you've got right now. What has happened in the past, let it be in the past because there's no way we can go back and change it. What we are trying to do is avoid it so it doesn't happen again."

For Mariak, war has raged between the Muslim Sudanese of the north and the predominantly Christian, oil-rich south since his birth. The conflict dates back to 1955, offering only a brief respite from 1972 to 1983.

The civil war started 15 years ago and it shows no signs of letting up. It is one of the bloodiest conflicts ever recorded and by the time a peace treaty was signed in 2005, nearly 2 million Sudanese civilians were dead.

Of those, one of Mariak's uncles was murdered by a Muslim militia in 1991. Mariak says he watched his uncle bleed to death. "It was a painful moment for me," he says.

The attackers burned and destroyed property. They killed those who are unwilling to be their prisoners. The girls were sold into domestic service. The boys were either forced to fight or work.

"They would just grab you, put a rope in your hand and chain you to a horse," Mariak says.

By 1991, Mariak's southern land is teeming with northern soldiers who make war against unguarded, remote villages like Maper.

Mariak and Deng escape to the south to a refugee camp in Uganda. In 1992, the boys want to know what happened to their families. They begin the trek to Maper but find it abandoned. Not long after, they are kidnapped and forced into service with the Sudan People's Liberation Army, or the SPLA, a southern-based group of rebels fighting for autonomy from the Muslim north.

After one month of training, Mariak and Deng, now just 9 years old, are each given an AK-47, an automatic assault rifle, that they will use to fight the northerners. For the next five years, they fight, always firing into the distance.

Mariak cannot say if he ever killed anyone. He can never be sure who his bullets hit.

"It was a constant fight," he says. "You might get a week off, but then you go fight again."

Mariak and Deng don't want to fight, but they have no choice.

"I knew exactly what I was expecting," he says. "You kill or get killed. It was one of those two."

The boys become close friends, but their conversations rarely turn to the prospect of life after war.

"When we were over there, that was all we knew," he says. "Either you get killed or whatever happens. We didn't think about later on, when the war was over. We didn't think the war would be over. War started before we were born. We grew up in it and now we are in it."

For five years, Deng and Mariak escape harm. In 1997, their luck runs out. Someone fires a rocket-powered grenade at them. The rocket carries an explosive warhead powerful enough to damage tanks. It cuts Deng in half and explodes, spraying Mariak with shrapnel.

Back in Garner, Mariak runs his hands over his legs, which are still visibly scarred.

"That's one of my sad moments," Mariak says, although his facial expression remains unchanged.

Word of his injuries somehow makes it to Mariak's father. He receives a letter from his father in 1998.

"This war doesn't need both of us," his father writes, telling him to seek out an education.

Mariak travels to a refugee camp in Kakuma, Kenya. It is there he meets the interviewers who will steer an International Rescue Committee program for the Lost Boys. The program will send thousands of boys to America to pursue a different life. Mariak is chosen and leaves the country in late 2000 and through a series of fortunate events, winds up in Garner, N.C.

For Megan Mylan, a documentary filmmaker in New York, it began with a simple conversation with a friend. Mylan's friend has spent time doing international relief work and he tells her of a remarkable group of boys who are traveling to America from Sudan.

Mylan, always looking for a story to tell, latches onto the painful narrative. She filmed a critically acclaimed, 87-minute documentary in 2003 Lost Boys of Sudan that tells the bloody, winding tale of two of those boys.

"They've gone through so much as little kids," she says from her home in New York. She has gone on to make more successful films, winning an Academy Award for a 2008 documentary Smile Pinki that tells the story of a poor Indian girl who receives free surgery to repair a cleft lip. But Mylan is excited to talk about the Lost Boys. She hasn't spoken about them much in recent years.

"How do you wrap your head around being a 6-year-old who sees your parents killed and then you and thousands of other boys run and have to fight off lion attacks and swim through rivers full of alligators?" Mylan says. "And then you're rescued by the (United Nations) and you spend your whole childhood in a refugee camp waiting for violence to end and it doesn't."

Mylan confesses she found it hard to believe the stories of the roughly 1,000 or so boys she met while producing the film. "It's just so removed from our reality," she says.

Mariak's story mirrors those of the estimated 27,000 southern Sudan boys displaced by the civil war. Life was no less harrowing for the girls, many of whom were sold into service, but the boys undertook great, arduous journeys on foot that would leave them among the most war-traumatized children in history. Told by their parents to flee if their village is attacked, they spent the rest of their childhoods running from one place to another, seeking sanctuary or fighting for their lives.

They watched their families be murdered before their eyes, their possessions destroyed. Many fought and killed long before their voices deepened and matured. Some died in battle. Others survived, with deep mental and physical scars carved into them.

"That's all they've known," Mylan explains. "They didn't know childhood could be peaceful. They didn't know that this should never be something that could potentially happen to a child. No child should have to grow up thinking the bomb may drop, my village may be attacked."

Some, like Mariak, arrived at a refugee camp in Kakuma, Kenya. There they will be hand-picked by international relief workers to relocate to America, some into the very guts of America—towns like Garner or Omaha, Neb.—to pursue education and a career.

"What happens when you get into this whole different reality where all of a sudden you have to pay your rent or you have to find your way on the subway?" Mylan says. "I think the realities of working life were a hard blow for some of these guys."

More remarkable, perhaps, than the boys' stories are the next chapters.

Some of the boys struggled, falling into the cracks of society. Others, Mylan points out, have excelled, earning college degrees, settling into successful careers and now giving back to their devastated home nation.

"They were so focused on education as the way to a better life," she says.

Many, like Mariak, are staunchly positive, she says. Their resiliency, tested to its most extreme limits by bloodshed, grief and poverty, has brought them here.

"There is something really special about this group," Mylan says.

To be sure, moving to America was not an easy transition for Mariak.

"It's kind of up and down," he says, recounting his dogged pursuit of education and work first in Richmond, Va., and then in Garner.

In Sudan, the passage of time was measured by seasons. Here, he works from 9 to 5, 12 months a year, and must commute within Raleigh's urban sprawl.

He lives with a few cousins his age and an uncle, all of whom fled Sudan for a better life in America. His family was separated during the fighting, and his cousins trekked northward. His uncle, who still bears the scars of a hatchet wound on his leg, was financially stable enough to book a trip overseas.

Mariak's cousins, like him, are reserved. They seem uninterested in conversation. One, who is tall and thin, sprints to open the door for me when I visit Mariak's small home in Garner, beckoning me inside with a nod of his head.

Once in Richmond, the change of scenery did little to quell Mariak's troubled mind. Even as he pursued a degree at the ECPI College of Technology worked odd jobs, his dreams were haunted by his bloody past: the memories of his brother's murder and fighting in the SPLA.

Two years ago, Mariak found some relief when he began writing. School and work kept him occupied for most of his time, but he would find infrequent moments in the afternoon and evening to sit down at his laptop computer.

But in June 2009, having completed an associate's degree in computers and electronic engineering, Mariak sat down to write and did not stop. His book, titled Rebuilding What Had Been Destroyed, is finished and he's pitching it to publishers today.

Aside from his past, Mariak is just like many young men. He is ambitious but modest. He likes to play basketball, soccer and write.

He found work at a Target department store in Garner but was laid off in January. Although he is unemployed, he is, as usual, relentlessly upbeat. He wants to earn a bachelor's degree and work in computers. But foremost, he wants to be a writer.

"Whatever is good, that's what I'm going to focus on," he says.

The flashbacks, which used to plague him at night, are almost completely gone now. But he seems, at times, unmoved by the gory details of his youth.

And then there is his family, which remains something of a mystery for Mariak.

Until 2004, he had heard nothing of his mother, two brothers and his sister. A friend contacted him to say he had found Mariak's family and left him a phone number. A phone call later and Mariak was talking to his mother. She was not quick to believe his story. She believed her son had died 13 years ago, and she had heard no more.

Mariak eventually convinced her of his identity and learned two of his brothers still lived with his mother. His sister had been killed not long after Maper was attacked. His father is still active in the military.

Mariak has not been able to travel back to Sudan to reunite with his family, but he insists he will if he ever has the money. He is unfraid of returning to the country where he witnessed so much death. After all, it is his home.

"Everywhere we go in the world, if you're meant to die, you're still going to die," he says. "There's no way you can escape death."

Mariak says his message through his book is one of hope and reconciliation. The people of Sudan must embrace a future that breaks sharply from the past. Five decades of civil war is enough.

"Until we get over it, it's going to be the same thing over and over again," he says.

He doesn't want revenge on the men who killed his brother and sister. Once the dead are gone, they cannot come back, he says.

"Everywhere you go human beings are still going to have problems," he explains. "But you've got to know how to overcome problems, because the problems, they're not going anywhere."

In the meantime, life will continue on the clock for Mariak. When the flashbacks do return, and they will, Mariak will know what to do. Write some more. There's a children's book on the way from Mariak Chuor.

Editor's Note (Jan. 18, 2011): The title of Mariak Chuor's book was updated to match the published title.

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