TAMPA — The 7-year-old boy ran as militiamen destroyed his village. He trekked through the wilderness for hundreds of miles, dodging air raids, land mines, wild animals and killers, watching helplessly as others fell.
"Some of them died while the last person they had their eyes set on … was me," Valentino Achak Deng would live to tell.
Deng, who spoke at the University of Tampa Tuesday night, is one of the Lost Boys of Sudan, a generation of thousands who made an epic journey across borders and grew up in refugee camps without their families.
Some experts call the Lost Boys the most war-traumatized group of children ever examined.
Many of the memories are buried deep in Deng's head, still out of reach even after two decades. The rest are in Dave Eggers' bestseller, What Is the What: The Autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng, now required reading at universities nationwide.
"In 1983," he told a crowd at the Falk Theatre, "a civil war broke out. … Marial Bai was a very quiet and peaceful village. … But news about the war started coming. We heard that some villages were destroyed and we heard about a group called Murahaleen."
In 1987, militiamen rode in on camels and horses, and in trucks, killing and abducting children and burning the market to ashes.
Deng became separated from his family and joined a migration to Ethiopia. He thought the on-foot journey would last a few days. It lasted months. He remembers waking up one morning to find his friend dead.
"We could not bury him because we had to leave," he said. "To pay respect to the dead, we were told to get leaves … and drop them on their dead bodies."
Deng arrived at an Ethiopian refugee camp in late 1987, and he studied the English alphabet under a tree. But peace was temporary. In 1990, the Ethiopian government was overthrown. Deng set out for Kenya, amid the crossfire of warring factions.
Now only about 10 years old, he continued to witness horror: "We found a young woman who was shot dead. Her small daughter was crying and trying to breast feed."
In 1992, Deng arrived at the Kenya camp, where he would remain for the next 13 years. Here, he tried to forget about reuniting with his family, about returning to the Sudan. He focused on his studies and learned that becoming a leader made him feel less like a victim.
He became a social advocate and reproductive health educator for the United Nations. Talking about sex is taboo in his culture, so he learned how to work a puppet and let it give the lessons.
In 2001, Deng was among hundreds of Lost Boys relocated to the United States. The date on Deng's plane ticket? Sept. 11. He boarded a plane, but it never left. Here he was, a refugee of one war-torn land, going to what looked like another. Deng didn't know what to expect.
Two weeks later, he reached Atlanta, saw his first baseball game and heard the song God Bless America.
"I broke into tears," he said. "For me, as a Christian, God Bless America seemed like it was a cry for peace."
Deng got only a few months' worth of rent money. He had no car to take to his multiple jobs, so he commuted four hours a day on the train, sometimes sleeping through his stop.
Once, a woman at his apartment asked to borrow his cell phone. Next thing he knew, two of her friends were beating him and raiding his apartment. They knocked him out.
When he awoke, he stood up and looked at his bloody mouth in the mirror. He smiled. And he told himself, "I'm alive."
In the years ahead, Deng would attend college, reunite with his parents, marry and have a son.
But before he could go on with his life, he needed to tell his story. He wanted people to know the consequences of violence. He connected with the now-formed Lost Boys Foundation, speaking locally in Atlanta. But he really wanted to write. The foundation sent a letter to author Dave Eggers, who agreed to help. Now, Deng had to try to remember things so atrocious, he had made himself forget.
He would write things down as he remembered them, and e-mail long stories to Eggers. It was "retraumatizing," he said. But it paid off. The book published in 2006, and Deng used the proceeds to set up a foundation.
He returned to Sudan to build a high school. The Marial Bai Secondary School opened this spring, with 100 students enrolled.
It was his village's first.