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War orphans get look at childhood records

Ajak Dau Akech, one of the Lost Boys of Sudan, finds a copy photo of his refugee identification document, thought lost for many years, at the Arizona Lost Boys Center in Phoenix. 

Associated Press

Ajak Dau Akech, one of the Lost Boys of Sudan, finds a copy photo of his refugee identification document, thought lost for many years, at the Arizona Lost Boys Center in Phoenix. 

PHOENIX — When a humanitarian worker asked Ajak Dau Akech in 1988 why he fled civil war in Sudan and walked 1,000 perilous miles to a refugee camp in Ethiopia, the boy answered with words few 8-year-olds know.

"We ran away from massacring and butchering of the people," the boy said.

More than 20 years later, Akech had no idea he had spoken those words until he read them from a document he didn't know until recently even existed.

Akech and other Sudanese war orphans, known as the Lost Boys of Sudan, are starting to receive eight-page records that include their family histories, the names of people they traveled with on their flight from war, the names of those who died along the way, medical information and observations about their well-being and photographs of themselves.

For many of the Lost Boys, the roughly 13,000 documents are the only record of their childhood and families, the photos the only ones taken of them as children.

The records were a project by Radda Barnen, the Swedish branch of Save the Children International, and were meant to document the histories of the boys who arrived at the refugee camp without parents in hopes they could be reunited later.

But the war lasted 21 years, more than 2 million people died, mostly from war-induced famine and disease, and many villages were destroyed, leaving reunions virtually impossible.

The civil war between Sudan's Arab and Muslim, northern-dominated central government and rebels in the mainly Christian and animist south ended with a 2005 peace agreement establishing an autonomous southern Sudan. Southerners are scheduled to vote in an independence referendum in January that could split Africa's largest country in two.

The Lost Boys' records had been moved repeatedly, were nearly destroyed by another agency intent on throwing them out, and were languishing in a Radda Barnen warehouse in Ethiopia, when Kirk Felsman learned of them.

Felsman was a senior research scholar at Duke University and was working on a children's rights project with Radda Barnen when he saw the documents in 2004.

Felsman obtained a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, and a team of anthropologists and others scanned more than 100,000 pages over four months before giving them to the Arizona Lost Boys Center in Phoenix, where about 600 Lost Boys have resettled.

It took the center and a team of mostly volunteers six more years to sift through the scanned documents, but all are now digitized and searchable online at

Of the 30,000 children who began the trek, only about 11,000 survived, according to the Lost Boys Center. In the first month the database was available, the website got 4,000 hits from 32 countries and orders for 400 personal histories, which started going out in the mail from Phoenix last week.

A stolen childhood

Ajak Dau Akech wept as he looked through his personal document recently in Phoenix. He listed his activities before the war as tending cattle and playing, and said that he had finished the first grade. The humanitarian worker who conducted the interview in 1988 noted that Akech was crying and frightened. Akech's father died before the war. His mother and most of his siblings scattered to different parts of Africa. Akech not only had escaped war and left all but one brother behind, he also had survived famine, thirst, sickness, ambushes, unforgiving desert conditions and attacks by wild animals during the months-long walk to Ethiopia. "I didn't have my parents, and I was afraid the whole time that I wasn't going to survive," he said. The photo taken of Akech at the refugee camp is quite the opposite of Akech now, whose ready grin led one of his former teachers to nickname him Mr. Smile. "I can't imagine that was me," Akech said as he looked at the photo. "How can a young little kid like that survive all these tragedies?" Akech said he's grateful to have his document. "It commemorates what went wrong, who I was, where I was," he said. "It's historical."

Associated Press

War orphans get look at childhood records 11/13/10 [Last modified: Monday, November 7, 2011 1:21pm]
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