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Sudan's 'Lost Boys' reunited with the past

By Aja Harris, CNN
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Lost Boys reclaim a piece of their past
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Sudanese "Lost Boys" were relocated around the world during the country's civil war
  • The Lost Boys Reunited Project has created a digital archive of some 13,000 refugee records
  • Most of the files include a photo - the only childhood picture many of the Lost Boys have
  • The project is working on getting the records to Lost Boys in Sudan

(CNN) -- The wall of Ajak Dau Akech's Tempe, Arizona bedroom is decorated with a basketball poster and pictures of his native Sudan.

On a small, cluttered desk, next to his Arizona State University diploma, sits one of his most prized possessions -- a framed document, with a small photo of a young boy in the upper right corner.

It is the only photo 29-year-old Akech has ever seen of himself as a child. "You could see the frightfulness of his eyes; like that kid is not happy. You could see there's no smile," he said looking at the small black and white photo.

Akech is a "Lost Boy" of Sudan, one of the thousands of orphaned and displaced children who fled Sudan's civil war and trekked thousands of kilometers through Ethiopia to find refuge in Kenya, before being resettled around the world.

For the first time, Akech and other Lost Boys have access to never-before-seen documents about their war-torn childhood.

The Lost Boys Reunited Project, based in Phoenix, Arizona, has created a digital archive of some 13,000 refugee records. The documents come from interviews that field workers with Save the Children conducted with the Lost Boys at refugee centers in Ethiopia in the late 1980s.

It has taken years to track down and scan all the papers. But last November, the Lost Boys were finally able to order their personal records from the website.

When they make trips back to their villages in Sudan, they'd be able to return those records to parents who lost their children so long ago.
--Ann Wheat, founder of the AZ Lost Boys Center.

"When I found out (about) the record, I was kind of nervous and so excited about what I was going to find out," Akech said.

Most of the files include a photo -- the only childhood picture many of the Lost Boys have -- plus notes on their health, family members left behind, travel companions and the names of people who did not survive the journey.

For Akech, it was a lot to take in. "I was surprised about what the writer wrote down about who I was," he said.

"In one of the pages, they wrote down that I was sick, and then I was admitted twice in the hospital. And then one of the guys wrote it down that I was crying, back when they took my picture, which I'm like, 'did I really cry?'" he continued.

As Akech leafs through the pages, he hesitates at the section where he named two of his uncles, who are no longer alive.

"I saw their names in the paper, so I had tears when I saw them," he said. "I don't know where it came from, but it's just because I lost a lot of relatives."

"But I hold on to it," he continued. "And I was just happy that I could see what I wrote in that paper a long time ago."

Word about the records spread fast in Phoenix, where about 600 Lost Boys currently live.

In its first month, the Lost Boys Reunited website, which was launched by the AZ Lost Boys Center, got nearly 4,000 hits from more than 30 countries.

The center is currently working on getting the records to Lost Boys in Sudan who do not have internet access or valid mailing addresses.

Project managers hope the documents will help reunite families and friends, and help others heal from their losses. They are especially eager to reach those who have lost loved ones.

Some Lost Boys have asked to access records for friends who died along the way, explained Ann Wheat, founder of the AZ Lost Boys Center.

"When they make trips back to their villages in Sudan, they'd be able to return those records to parents who lost their children so long ago," she said.

Kuol Awan, the center's executive director, was one of the first to receive his own records last November. Even today, as he looks over them in his office, he said it's still hard for him to read what he calls the "dark parts" of his document.

"I have two people on the top of my list who are not here anymore," said Awan, referring to the page where he listed the members of his family.

This document puts the cap on the history of the Lost Boys for me, that I went through what I went through.
--Kuol Awan, AZ Lost Boys Center
RELATED TOPICS
  • Sudan
  • Africa
  • Save the Children

"My dad died in '95 in the displaced camp in Sudan, and then my brother got killed in '91, in the war. So that part is not good," he continued.

Awan said he looks back, in order to move forward. For some of the Lost Boys who live in denial, he said, going through the records can be cathartic.

"This document puts the cap on the history of the Lost Boys for me, that I went through what I went through," Awan said.

Now, he has a piece of his past to share with others. "This is the highlight of my document," he said, with a wide grin on his face, pointing to the picture of himself as a child.

"I kind of know a lot about my childhood, but I don't have any picture to kind of tie it into it," he said. "All the time I carry it with me and show it to people."

For the Lost Boys who lost their childhoods to war, the documents will play various roles in healing and reconstructing stories. But for Ajak Akech, the records have become an inspiration.

"The thing that made me proud was my education," he said. "In the paper, they wrote I was in first grade. Some people didn't have that."

Akech holds a degree in economics from Arizona State University, and is now looking for a job in his field. He said having the records is important, just to be able to compare the child in the photo with the man he is today.

"I would not say I'm so successful, but I am," he said, staring at the picture from his childhood.

"It was just a dead, dead body out there. So ... one time, I wake up, and I'm like, how could this happen to this child at this age, leaving (his) parents? And look at it, see the eyes of that person," said Akech. "You could see the difference of the person of today."

 
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