Bol Aweng was forced from his home in Sudan when he was 6 years old, uprooted as a child to face gun violence at the hands of government soldiers, along with wild animals, starvation and disease. It was an odyssey that eventually led him to the United States, where he now uses his experiences and education to help others.
Aweng, one of the “Lost Boys of Sudan,” recently spoke at Holy Family Church in Stow, and is an Ohio-based artist who has used his own personal success to give back to those less fortunate in his native country. The Lost Boys of Sudan are 35,000 orphaned and displaced people from the Second Sudanese Civil War.
“I spent 20 years not knowing if my family was alive or not,” said Aweng, who traveled on foot 1,500 miles to Ethiopia and then to Kenya, all in all spending 14 years in refugee camps. He came to the United States in 2001, eventually becoming a U.S. citizen and earning a college education.
A harrowing childhood
As a 6-year-old, Aweng’s job in his village was taking care of the 100 or so cows, providing water and food, among other chores. It was caring for these cows that may have saved his life as the soldiers descended upon his village in 1987.
He fled along with a group of survivors after hearing the gunshots, violence and havoc erupt, but the journey became dangerous almost as soon as it started. For one thing, there was a lack of water. “Many who could not make it were left behind,” Aweng said. “And everyone who was left behind was left behind forever.”
Lion attacks were on their minds, so the villagers would climb trees or make a lot of noise as a group, said Aweng, adding that although they were safe from lions, other animals could still climb the trees. It was at this point that he realized, “Only God would provide a safe place.”
Starvation and disease also were following this group of South Sudanese. They had to grab whatever was available, which usually included leaves, roots and wild fruit. Some of these things, however, were poisonous, which Aweng found out the hard way as he accidentally ate something that made him so sick he was unconscious for almost 24 hours.
He shared an especially touching story about an older child who looked out for him when he was 6. The 9-year-old kept telling him there was candy in the next village, which would give Aweng enough motivation to keep going.
The older boy looked after him but he eventually contracted the measles and didn’t make it, dying during the group’s pilgrimage. “Me and some other boys took him to the crypt,” said Aweng, tearing up over the memory. “That was painful.”
After four years at a refugee camp in Ethiopia, the country was facing its own civil war and Aweng and his fellow villagers were forced back to Sudan. He recalled a poignant moment as they were forced to cross the Gilo River to go to the other side.
Those who could not swim drowned, “just like that.” Some of them were dragged by the current, then eaten by crocodiles. “Crossing the Gilo was the largest moment of my life,” said Aweng, who admitted he wasn’t a good swimmer and his choices were grim: either face gunshots or jump into the river.
The walk back to Sudan was as dangerous as the earlier journey. One night the group dropped down in a dried up riverbed to sleep, and they were ambushed by government soldiers. Many of the villagers were shot during the night. Aweng awoke with blood on him, but it wasn’t his. The blood belonged to a friend sleeping nearby, who never woke up.
This time, the group fled to Kenya, and the road was rocky and painful, especially for those without shoes.
“When our number was counted again, we ended up with 16,000,” he said. “19,000 were missing, because of the gunshots, because of the crocodiles, because of lions, because of hunger, disease.”
Aweng stayed in Kenya for 10 years, and for the first time in a long time, his community could celebrate in a larger group for events like Christmas and marches. Before, if they congregated in groups that were too large, the government would target them.
Destination: United States
“In 2001, I made it to the United States,” he said. “I was so excited when I received the letter.”
His trip to New York City, however, was held up by something unexpected and monumental, and he was detained in Sudan for four days. “That was Sept. 11, 2001,” he said, adding he couldn’t help but feel like war was following him, even all the way to the United States.
Eventually, Aweng resettled in Nashville, Tenn., when he was 20. Adapting to the modern world in the U.S. presented its own set of challenges in so many ways, he said. He saw a computer for the first time, and then learned that he could perhaps use this technology to help people around the world learn about the crisis in Sudan, in the process helping his countrypeople in South Sudan.
Aweng decided to express himself and his journey using art. He began painting wild animals of his native country on rocks. He graduated from the Ohio State University in 2009 with a degree in digital art and went on to illustrate a children’s book titled, “Maluak’s Cows,” which tells the story of the “Lost Boys of South Sudan.” He now lives in Columbus.
After he became a U.S. citizen, Aweng said he finally felt like he had an identity and he could stop looking behind his back for looming danger.
Aweng returned to Sudan during a visit in 2007, to his village of Piol, and he found his parents and reconnected with family members. But other parts of the trip weren’t so positive. There were no buildings left due to bombing — only huts, and there were no schools and little food. “When I looked at what used to be my village, it was just a blank background,” he said. There was nothing left. “Everything was destroyed.”
While back in Sudan, he also noticed that the local health care worker only had a second-grade education — the same person in charge of reading prescription drug labels and dispensing medicine to the community.
Said Aweng: “One out of five children in South Sudan do not live to age 5.” He became part of a group dedicated to founding the Buckeye Health Clinic, which focuses on maternal and child health. In June, 2012, the Maternal and Child Health Care building was completed.
As an aside, villagers were given Ohio State Buckeye T-shirts, and the villagers told Aweng, “If you bring us a medical clinic, then we could call that medical clinic a Buckeye.” The villagers were skeptical at first because others had promised similar improvements, but Aweng’s team made good on their offer.
Villagers then saw medical advancements, like installation of a “cold chain” in order to keep vaccines and other medications at safe temperatures, and proper care for mothers and babies.
South Sudan is still in crisis, however. Aweng said the country separated from North Sudan in 2011, but internal strife developed within South Sudan’s government, leading to armed conflict in 2013, and displacing 500,000 civilians.
His message to the audience: “Go out and help.”
The project’s website can be found here: http://southsudanclinic.org.