“It was just boys walking”- Dave Eggers
The Guardian, Saturday 26 May 2007
In October 2002, I received a letter from a woman named Mary Williams, who introduced herself as the founder of an Atlanta-based organization called the Lost Boys Foundation. In the letter, in surprisingly short order, she asked me to drop whatever I was doing and help a refugee from Sudan tell the story of his life. It was a pretty unusual letter.
I had heard of the Lost Boys. There had been a slew of articles about them in the American media that year, and I read about the group with the same fascination as anyone else. I knew that 3,800 young Sudanese men - called Lost Boys because they had been unaccompanied minors for much of their 13 years in Ethiopian and Kenyan refugee camps - had recently been resettled in cities across the United States, in groups numbering from 20 to 400. I knew that the young men, as boys, had fled their villages in southern Sudan as the civil war raged in the mid-1980s, and that none had returned home since. They'd been placed in cities such as Jacksonville and Fargo and San Jose, areas chosen not for their similarity to Sudan, but for their affordability and positive attitude towards international immigrants. There were 180 Lost Boys in Atlanta, and the Lost Boys Foundation was active in helping them find jobs, mentors and educational opportunities.
And they needed a lot of help. In almost all cases, the young men had never had jobs, had never seen refrigeration (let alone ice), had never driven a car or been in a grocery store. The US government, which had done a very good thing by admitting thousands of penniless young Sudanese men into the country, had perhaps underestimated the difficulties they would experience in adjusting to life in America. The refugees were given three months of financial support - about $800 - and thereafter were more or less on their own.
In that first letter and in subsequent phone calls, Mary (whose own story - born the daughter of Black Panthers and eventually adopted by Jane Fonda - would make a fine book) told me that she had got to know one young man, Valentino Deng, better than any other. He had moved to Atlanta in 2001 - his flight from Nairobi had originally been scheduled for 9/11 - and he was already well known as a captivating public speaker and spokesman for the Lost Boys in Atlanta. When she had asked him about his goals, beyond the hopes he shared with virtually all the other Lost Boys - go to college, get a good job, send money back to Sudan, build a family - he had said that he wanted his story told. He wanted his story to serve as the specific that might illuminate the universal - the lives of the 20,000 or so young Sudanese who had also seen what he had seen of the war. Valentino was not proficient enough in written English at that point to write the book himself, but nevertheless he felt that what had happened in the civil war in southern Sudan, still raging in 2002, needed to be documented. If his story was told and told well, he thought, it might convey to the world the realities of the conflict and its effect on the people there.
A few months later, in January 2003, I met Valentino at a birthday celebration for about 200 Lost Boys living in Atlanta and in nearby cities. When processed as refugee children, the young Sudanese had all been given the same birthday, New Year's Day - a common practice for young refugees who don't know their exact date of birth - and now the young men in the US had established a tradition of marking their fictional birthdays together.
After the party, Valentino and I spent the rest of the weekend at his small apartment on the outskirts of the city. There, we began the process of recording his story, from the first days of the war to the present. It's hard to explain how or why, but we both knew, from those first days together, that the project was real, and that we would see it through. I promised I would write his story, and he promised to cooperate in every way he could. We both agreed that I would not be paid for the work, and that any and all proceeds from the book would be his to use or distribute however he saw fit. He knew immediately that he would send most of the funds home to his village of Marial Bai, to build a school, a library, a community centre, and any number of other facilities. Then, that first weekend, I did a stupid thing: I promised Valentino that I would finish writing the story within one year. We both felt strongly that there was no time to waste. One year, tops, I told him.
It was one of the major mistakes of our early days together. The other great misconception we shared was that we were writing a story about the past. A ceasefire was in place in Sudan when we met, and there was hope that peace was at hand. So when we sat down to work on the book, we believed that the violence and incalculable suffering of the Sudanese people were at an end. Neither of us knew that the killing in Darfur was about to begin.
Valentino and I met up in Atlanta and San Francisco, spending days and weeks together, recording his story. We talked for hundreds of hours on the phone and sent thousands of emails back and forth. Though our rapport was easy, and we never argued over content or method, it's impossible to say that the process of writing the book was an enjoyable one. We were dealing with material that was very difficult for him to dredge up, and difficult for me to hear. On top of this was a central struggle for me - I had yet to figure out just how to write the book.
I had been working on a book of oral histories from the lives of public school teachers in the US, and had studied different methods of storytelling. So I assumed I would simply interview Valentino, straighten the narrative out a bit, ask some follow-up questions, and then assemble the book from his words. I even imagined for a while - much of our first year together - that I would simply be the editor of the book, not its author.
But after that first year of interviews and my first attempt to assemble the resulting narrative, we both realised that there were great limitations, in this case, to the oral history model. Valentino was six years old when he left his home and began his 800-mile journey to Ethiopia, and thus his memory of that time was very spotty. When we looked at what we had from our recording sessions, it was fascinating, but it did not transcend the many human rights reports and newspaper articles already available to the world. It was clunky, spare, and full of holes. In addition, a new book called They Poured Fire On Us From the Sky had just appeared, and it did much of what we had originally intended to do: it wove together the oral histories of three Lost Boys, and did so with great skill.
But though the form of the book was still unclear, I knew that we would have to return to southern Sudan, to Valentino's hometown of Marial Bai, if either one of us hoped to tell the story with any degree of accuracy. With the help of Mary, we secured a visa for Valentino to travel to Nairobi, and once there, I went about calling relief agencies working in southern Sudan, hoping to find a few seats on any plane flying into the region. Through a series of lucky phone calls, I was able to find an aid agency, Concern, that was willing to let us fly in the cargo hold of a plane that was dropping supplies throughout the south.
So, in December of 2003, Valentino and I travelled amid the bicycles and medicine and food of a humanitarian aid flight, the plane making four stops in the country along the way. When finally the plane was on its way to Marial Bai - there is a dirt airstrip that bisects the tiny town - the plane was empty, excruciatingly loud and Valentino's head throbbed from myriad pressures. He hadn't seen his parents since he was six, and didn't recognize the landscape as we descended. "My heart is beating!" he said, as the plane lowered its landing gear. He would be the first Lost Boy to return.
When Valentino stepped off the plane and on to the dusty dirt runway, he was quickly surrounded by easily a hundred people, moving in from all sides, calling out Achak, his given name. After a few seconds, an old man, frail and toothless, found his way through the crowd and put his hand on Valentino's shoulder. He spoke into Valentino's ear and they embraced. They pulled away from each other and Valentino looked into the old man's eyes and smiled. "Hey," Valentino said over the throng, grinning widely. "This is my father." After this brief reunion, which lasted no more than a minute, Valentino's father walked off. They would meet later, privately.
As the plane's cargo was unloaded and the Russian pilots climbed back into the cockpit, the crowd began to walk away from the airstrip and towards the village. Through the settling dust a violet-clad woman of about 60, weathered and very tall, with small hard eyes and a thin straight mouth, approached Valentino shyly.
"Achak," she said to him quietly. "I am your mother."
She held his face in her hands. Valentino yelled over the crowd - and again without fanfare - "Hey! This is my mother!"
They walked arm in arm for a few yards and through a corrugated metal door separating the runway from the compound run by Save the Children, which agreed to give Valentino and his family a degree of privacy. He walked through with about nine of his friends and relatives, his arm around his mother, whose head was on his shoulder, whose hand was on his heart. With tears in her eyes, she stared at Valentino in plain astonishment. "Is it really you?" she said to him again and again.
Soon she left, with plans to meet him later in the day. Once she was gone and the other visitors had departed, Valentino tried to smile but was clearly burdened. "She has been very sick," he said. "She will not live very long. She was afraid that she would die before seeing me again."
Valentino, usually so quick to smile and impossible to discourage, was weighed down those days in Marial Bai. His expression was very serious, and though he spent a good deal of time among his family and the people of the town, he often retreated into the Save the Children compound for hours at a time - overwhelmed by the demands made upon him, the people who wanted his attention. He couldn't believe the poverty. There was almost no livestock, and the homes, all made from mud and thatch, were small, temporary-seeming. We visited the hospital, one room resembling a cement bunker, where eight dilapidated beds were arranged. There were no windows, no sheets, no pillows, no doctors - there was only one man who dispensed medicine. The hospital's two patients, two women sitting on a bed, each with a baby on her lap, glared at us until we left.
The civil war has reportedly killed two million people, though the majority of those have died of starvation and disease. People could not farm because they didn't know when they would have everything taken from them - their fields burned, their livestock stolen. Schools opened only occasionally. With uncertainty the guiding state of mind, the war had effectively put life in Sudan on hold for 20 years.
It is a terrible emblem of desperation that people in any number of troubled countries have wished for, and in some cases continue to wish for, American military intervention in their affairs. When Valentino and I were biking on the airstrip one night, we heard a commotion by the Concern compound. We rode to the noise, and soon could make out a television - there were only a few televisions for perhaps a hundred miles - set on a table, outside, being powered by a generator. We dropped our bikes and joined the crowd of about 15 young Sudanese men watching CNN.
"What happened?" we asked one of the men.
"They caught him," he said.
On the screen was the wretched face of Saddam Hussein, in his post-arrest mugshot. He looked haggard and half dead and crazed, and his capture was seen, by the assembled men, as a very good sign.
"Next is Khartoum," one man said.
To them it meant that not only could American military might topple a murderous government in short order, but American and British soldiers could search out, find and bring to justice the dictators who oppressed their people.
And though the elders of the town had more realistic expectations of the US, they still put great faith in the west to bring them hope. On one of our last days in Marial Bai, Valentino and I met with the commissioner of the region, who attributed the peace process, then under way, to the suffering of the Lost Boys, and the Americans' awareness of their plight. He then put it to Valentino: "Now that you're an American, what will you be doing with your life?" This tipped the guilt Valentino already felt. He decided then that, though his life had been epic in the scale of its sorrow and deprivations, he had been lucky. Those who had stayed in southern Sudan during the war were far worse off. Once at the refugee camps, he knew he would be fed, he would be safe (most of the time), he would be educated. Those who had stayed in Marial Bai had no such guarantees.
When we returned from Sudan, Valentino and I were more committed than ever to getting his story into print as soon as we could. In an attempt to kickstart the writing of the book, I published an account of the trip in journalistic form in the Believer magazine. The exercise made clear, though, that my telling of Valentino's story, in my voice, would be distracting and tonally incorrect. In the account I wrote, I was present, both as narrator and as the guy riding in the cargo hold next to Valentino; there was no way to excise myself from the story. But in the book, I knew I had to disappear completely.
The first decision made that spring was to have Valentino narrate his story. His voice was so distinctive and powerful that any other way of telling it would be criminally weak by comparison. But my standards for what would qualify as non-fiction were strict; as a journalist, I was trained not to put any dialogue between quotation marks unless it was on tape. We had no such thing, and Valentino couldn't remember who said what at almost any point in his life, and thus the book would be without any dialogue at all.
So already we were straying from our intent - to bring Valentino's story to the general reader. Without sensory detail or dialogue, the book would be parched, and likely to reach only those already interested in the issues of Sudan. I was holed up in a cabin a few hours north of San Francisco, trying to figure out the book, when, after wrestling with all these problems for the year or so after our trip, I finally gave up. I was cornered. I couldn't make an interesting non-fiction account of his life - I do believe another writer could, but I personally couldn't - and a simple oral history wouldn't add anything significant to the material out there. I didn't know how I would tell Valentino that the thousands of hours he'd given to the process were for nothing, but I knew that I'd spent two years on it and didn't feel any closer to doing justice to his life and everything he wanted from the project.
Yet hours after I had given up - and I truly gave up - something occurred to me. Or many things occurred to me. First, I remembered that, at the refugee camp in Kakuma, in northern Kenya, Valentino had been part of a theatre group whose mandate was to write and perform one-act plays to educate the residents of the camp in various issues - HIV/Aids, gender equality, conflict resolution. So he knew that one usually needed to adapt the facts of life and shape them in such a way that they came alive in the minds of an audience.
By the same token, I realized that so many of the books I'd brought with me for inspiration, and the books I'd been reading on the shelves of this book-filled rented cabin, were novels. The books about war and upheaval that I'd turned to again and again, and that best (in my opinion) communicated the realities of war, were in fact novels: The Naked and the Dead, The Things They Carried, The Painted Bird, Catch-22 - War and Peace, for Christ's sake. Only with a bit of artistic license could I imagine the thoughts in Valentino's mind the first day he left home, fleeing from the militias, never to return. Only in a novel could I imagine the look on the face of the man who rescued Valentino when he became entangled in barbed wire one black night in the middle of his journey to Ethiopia. Only in a novel could I apply what I had seen in the various regions of southern Sudan to describe the land, the light, the people.
I knew this was the only way I could do the book, but I put off calling Valentino with the idea. Although we'd never disagreed on anything involving the project, I thought he might think this step too extreme. I stalled for a few days, but when we finally spoke, he understood completely. "You have to be a writer," he said. "Do it the way you think it will best reach people."
I started anew, right then, finally thinking I could fulfill my promise to Valentino. The first thing I did in my new method was to reimagine Marial Bai, before the war. The book needed a sense of the town - and, by association, hundreds of similar places - before the coming of the conflict. The book needed to demonstrate, step by step, how the war unfolded, through the eyes of a tiny boy in a busy market town. Through my own research, I'd been able to pinpoint the series of events that led to all-out civil war, and combining these milestones with Valentino's memories, finally we were able properly and vividly to convey how the utopian dreams of a small group of well-meaning rebels can engulf an entire country in two decades of mayhem and mass murder.
Sudan had been in a state of civil war off and on since its independence from Britain in 1956; the conflict that swallowed southern Sudan began in 1983, when the Sudan People's Liberation Army, aiming to represent the needs of southern Sudan, rose up against the northern, Arab-dominated government in Khartoum. The SPLA and its leader John Garang demanded a greater share of the country's resources, better infrastructure and more autonomy for the south, among other things. In response, the government of Sudan instituted the "to catch a fish, drain the pond" method of warfare. The government armed and unleashed tribal militias upon hundreds of villages in the south. The militias - then known as the murahaleen but not dissimilar from the Janjaweed now at work in Darfur - were urged to depopulate the south, to wreak havoc and terror, and they were paid both directly and in booty. Whatever the militias could carry off from the villages was theirs to keep. They swooped into villages by the hundreds, killing men, raping women, burning homes and crops, and abducting girls and boys to be bought and traded as servants and sex slaves in the north. The Sudanese government also bombed southern villages with Russian-made Antonov planes and obstructed the delivery of aid and food to the region, causing hundreds of thousands of deaths. The level of mayhem at this stage of the war defies description.
But when Valentino and I met, the SPLA and the government of Sudan were negotiating a peace; the African Union, the US and the wider international community were involved in bringing all the parties to the table. The ceasefire they established has lasted to this day. In 2005, the government of Sudan and the SPLA signed the Comprehensive Peace Agreement, granting the south far greater autonomy, half of the country's oil profits and, most importantly, the ability to secede, should the people vote to do so, in 2011.
The strangest thing about all this is that while this peace agreement was being negotiated, the first killings were taking place in Darfur. A rebel group in western Sudan, the Sudan Liberation Army (SLA), rose up because of the negotiations going on between the SPLA and the government. The SLA (and, later, other groups) felt that if the SPLA could be successful in fighting for their share, they might as well give it a shot. And incredibly, while negotiating with the south under the watchful eye of the international community, the Sudanese government was allowed to revive its vicious civil war tactics for use against the civilians of Darfur. Again to punish a region's rebel movement, the government unleashed great fury upon its defenseless citizens. Again there were indiscriminate bombings, and again there was a brutal government-funded militia - the Janjaweed, known by Americans who work in the region as the KKK of Darfur, tasked with "cleansing" the region of black Muslims.
So while I struggled to write the book of Valentino's life, trying to uncover the truths of his early years and to untangle the story of the SPLA and its effect on the people of southern Sudan, he and I were watching what we had thought impossible: a step-by-step re-enactment of the war he had fled, only this time in another region of his country. Thus far in Darfur, the government of Sudan has been allowed to kill about 250,000 of its citizens in almost precisely the same manner in which they killed the people of southern Sudan. Year after year, since war broke out in Darfur in 2003, the government of Sudan has been allowed to pursue identical policies of mayhem. And though President Bush, among others, has called the killing in Darfur a genocide, this has not yet spurred the international community to stop the killing.
My daughter was born in October 2005, and after a few weeks, I began to take her on walks in the woods and hills near our home. The jostling of the walks usually put her to sleep within 20 minutes or so, but before she fell asleep, it was fascinating to see how she would react to her surroundings. She shunned bright light, closing her eyes tight. When we would pass into the shadow of a stand of eucalyptus, she would open her eyes again, and seem to concentrate on trees and ferns. And always, three or four times during any walk, she would sigh, a sigh far bigger than seemed possible for such a tiny creature.
I had never heard that newborns knew how to sigh. I know of course that their sighs do not mean for them what they mean for us. At that time, I was still struggling with the overall structure of the book, which had yet to be figured out in any real way. I had 600 pages of disconnected passages, and no interior architecture. The book was overdue and my inability to frame it, combined with my sense of powerlessness over Darfur - the killing was escalating, the chaos at a high point - gave my daughter's tiny sigh an outsized significance. Even she knows, I would think, of our impotence. Even she knows that most of our compassion is like so much mist, fleeting and inconsequential.
One night in the middle of this malaise, I got an email from Valentino, who was still living in Atlanta. The subject heading was "A BAD DAY". He explained that he had been mugged in his home, by people he didn't know who had knocked on his door asking to use his cellphone. When I called him, and when we saw each other soon after in San Francisco, he was more distraught than I had ever seen him. "It's different," he explained. When he had been the target of militias, of Antonov bombers, of government troops, it had never been personal. Now there had been people in his apartment, one with a gun to his head, who truly seemed to despise him. There was an intimate aspect to the attack that was new to him, and was haunting him nightly. He wanted to leave Atlanta, to be away from the chaos of that and any other city.
He showed me the complaint card that the police had given him. It was a business card with a phone number on it. That was the extent of their worry about a gun to the head of an immigrant from Sudan. They would not, it was clear, be investigating the crime. We would walk in silence those days, Valentino and I, the baby sighing. We had no answers for anything.
It was at this time that I knew the book needed to be not only about Valentino's experiences in Sudan and the camps, but also about the many unforeseen struggles of his life in the US. The attack became the framing device for the book, and connected to something he had told me during our first weekend together. We had been talking about the small indignities he'd experienced taking the bus around Atlanta, trying to get to work. He had been pushed, ignored, disrespected. And each time he would think, silently, "If only that person knew what I'd already been through ..." He would direct his thoughts to whoever had treated him less than humanely, and hope for a day when his story was known far and wide, and that perhaps then his sufferings small and great would end.
This, in turn, connected with the creation myth that eventually became the title of the book. The book had originally been called It Was Just Boys Walking, then, for a while, Hello Children (after a textbook used in the camps), but soon those titles seemed inappropriate. Valentino had been a man for a long time now, and he and the other so-called Lost Boys were tired of being known as boys. The story of Valentino's life would need to be equally, if not more so, about the issues he faced today.
We had agreed that we would include in the book an ancient creation myth known in southern Sudan. In the story, God, pleased with his greatest creation, offers the first Dinka man a choice of gifts: on the one hand, the cattle, visible and known, an animal that can feed and clothe him and last for ever; on the other hand, the What. The man asks God, "What is the What?", but God will not reveal the answer. The What was unknown; the What could be everything or nothing. The Dinka man does not hesitate for long. He chooses the cattle, and for thousands of years Dinka lore held that he had chosen correctly; the cow is thus sacred in southern Sudanese culture, the measure of a family's wealth and the giver of life.
It was not until the torment of the southern Sudanese in the 20th century that the Dinka began to question this choice. What was the What, they wondered, and speculation about the answer abounded: was it technology? Education? Sophisticated weapons? Whatever the answer, it was assumed that the Arabs of the north - who, legend had it, had received the What - might have got the greatest of God's gifts, and were using this What to inflict unending pain upon the southern Sudanese.
Valentino and I had long thought the legend an apt expression for the themes of the book, and we planned to include the story in some way, but it was not until he was attacked in his home, amid the ongoing killing in Darfur, that this creation myth became the title of the book. It was clear then that not only did Valentino and the people of Sudan not know what the answer to the question was, but perhaps they weren't even asking the right questions.
Questions we might ask now: can influence be exerted in Sudan? Does the US, Britain and the rest of Europe have a responsibility to influence the Sudanese government? Absolutely. This is not an administration content to be an international pariah. But thus far there have been few adverse consequences for its actions in Darfur, few punitive measures. The US has proved that, when it wants to, it can have great and swift authority over the Sudanese government. It was the US, with Bush himself spearheading the process, that made a priority of negotiating a peace between the SPLA and Khartoum.
Why, then, are we moving so slowly and treading so gently with regard to Darfur? One possible explanation for Bush's apparent reluctance to intercede as quickly in Darfur as in southern Sudan is that there are hundreds of thousands of Christians in southern Sudan, whereas Darfur's victims are mainly Muslims. The war in Iraq has drained much of Bush's credibility abroad, and has clearly put a severe strain on his ability to negotiate for peace elsewhere. Perhaps most crucially, since 9/11 the Sudanese government has become an important ally - and source of information for the intelligence agencies - in Bush's war on terror. When What Is the What was published in the US, Valentino and I began to tour, feeling that its release coincided with a new and powerful wave of awareness and action directed towards Darfur. We spoke to students, to activists, to the informed and the uninformed.
One of our most trusted advisers in Sudanese affairs, John Prendergast of the International Crisis Group, told us that the worldwide temperature, in terms of pressure on the Sudanese government and awareness of the genocide, was at 101 degrees Fahrenheit. It needed, he said, to get up to 103. Then and only then, he said, would the genocide be stopped.
There were campaigns and protests around the country, and a range of innovative ways to hit Sudan's economic interests. Dozens of colleges divested from any holdings they had in Sudan, and cities and states followed. About 70,000 people removed their holdings from Fidelity, a mutual fund with holdings in China's oil interests in Sudan. Letters were written, congressmen were lobbied, films were shown, celebrities appeared on CNN. At the end of each talk we gave, Valentino and I implored the audience to do what they could to help Sudan generally and Darfur in particular. We offered the latest methods to make one's voice heard - including the most recent innovation, a phone number, 1-800-GENOCIDE, that linked directly to the White House switchboard. But as month after month went by, my own faith in what I was advocating began to diminish. I began to see change in Darfur as something perhaps beyond our grasp. I felt what I think many people felt at the time: utterly powerless, and quite close to without hope.
Then, what might very well be the most effective tactic yet was unveiled by none other than Mia Farrow. I was aware of Farrow's work as an ambassador with the UN over the years, but I was unprepared for the editorial she wrote in the Wall Street Journal, on March 28, in which she made a connection that I had not heard before, and one that, at first, seemed a bit extreme. Because China is the major buyer of Sudan's oil, and supplies the Sudanese government with cash and weapons, it has been a focus of Darfur activists for a long time. Farrow knew that the Chinese are very much looking forward to the Beijing Olympics in 2008. They even asked Steven Spielberg to film the opening ceremonies. So Farrow wrote an open letter to Spielberg in the Wall Street Journal, noting that if he continued to work with the Chinese without holding them partially to account, he might "go down in history as the Leni Riefenstahl of the Beijing Games".
It seemed like an almost cruel gambit, but it worked. Spielberg was unaware of the connection between China and Darfur, and he was outraged. He wrote a letter to President Hu, urging action. President Hu dispatched his foreign minister, Zhai Jun, to meet with Sudan's president, Omar al- Bashir. No one knows what was said behind closed doors, but the meeting revealed China's Achilles heel. Khartoum has now agreed in theory to accept UN peacekeepers in Darfur, and there are other encouraging developments. If the temperature was at 101 a few months ago, it's certainly at 102 now. And I was happy to be reminded, by the cumulative effect of all these efforts, public and private, obvious and cunning, that every one of them matters.
People have asked Valentino if he knows what the What is, if now he feels any closer to an answer. He doesn't feel any closer, no, and I don't feel any closer, but for now it's clear we need to continue to focus on the tangible, on doing the tough but obvious work right before us.
With a peace in place since 2005, Marial Bai has been able to rebound - cautiously but measurably. Valentino's father has rebuilt his shop, there are cellphones everywhere, roads now connect the town to trading centres throughout Sudan, Kenya and Uganda, and optimism abounds. In July, Valentino will return, this time with more than a burdened conscience. He intends to listen to the needs of the people, and then meld their ideas with his plans to build a 300-student high school, a library, a community centre, a teachers' college. The plans go on and on. The school should be first, it's been decided - bricks are already being made and stacked. It's estimated that about 150,000 bricks will be needed, so the work ahead is clear. The wet season is on the way, so they're working quickly to do what they can before the rains come.