From Horror to Heroes

For these Sudanese refugees, just surviving makes them real comic-book supermen

In the field outside the village, where he and some of the other young boys from the tribe spent long, hot days tending to the cattle, there was a tree Michael Ngor liked to sleep under, sitting on the ground with his head and back resting against the trunk. That's where he was when he heard the first gunshots. He may have thought he was dreaming, but the nightmare didn't begin until he woke up.

Civil war erupted in southern Sudan in 1983, pitting the Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM) against the Arab government. Michael and his family had been spared from the conflict for the most part--until now, four years later. The Arab army was swooping in from the north, capturing village after village, killing every man and boy in its path. Now they were at Michael's village. Now they were in the field where he had been sleeping.

Now Michael was running for his life. Any doubt he had about that fact had been quickly, violently, removed. Before Michael had even left the shade of the tree, Arab soldiers shot and killed his older brother. If he looked back, if he stopped, he would be next.

Gabriel Akol, one of Sudan's "lost boys," whose flight from civil war in Africa is captured in a new comic book
Mark Graham
Gabriel Akol, one of Sudan's "lost boys," whose flight from civil war in Africa is captured in a new comic book
Michael Ngor saw his brother murdered by soldiers before he fled for Ethiopia.
Mark Graham
Michael Ngor saw his brother murdered by soldiers before he fled for Ethiopia.

"At that time, if Arab got a woman, he don't kill the woman," Ngor says. "But if you're a boy, even though you're a kid, right? Even though you're a boy, they kill you. So we ran away."

He didn't know where he was going or if his mother and sister would be there when he arrived. He just ran, as fast and as far away as he could. He ran for hours, hungry and tired, thirsty and alone. More than anything, he was scared. But he couldn't stop running.

The next day he reached the forest, the only destination he had considered when he left the village. He wouldn't exactly be safe there--not from the lions and hyenas and other animals--but at least they didn't have guns. When he arrived, he found other boys were in the forest, boys like him, forced from their villages while they were in fields tending cattle. They were boys without parents, without brothers and sisters. Lost boys.

They had heard there was food and water in Ethiopia, a safe place to sleep, so they set out, even though it was 450 miles away. They had no other choice.

"It was hard, really hard," Ngor says. "When we walked to Ethiopia, we just walked by foot. We spent, like, two months walking by foot. We don't have food, and your shoes, they tear, so your feet will be, whatever, they'll be cracked."

They walked mainly at night, subsisting on leaves and roots and dirty water. They were hungry, but going into one of the villages was too dangerous. More boys joined them as they walked to Itang, a refugee camp just across the border. There were dozens, hundreds of them. They continued on, always quiet, always scared.

Ngor doesn't know how old he was then. Maybe 6 years old, maybe 7. This detail, he can't remember. Everything else, he can't forget. None of the "lost boys" can. They remember crossing the Nile, even though some of them couldn't swim, how the fishermen betrayed them, leaving some of the boys stranded on an island in the middle of the great river. They remember leaving Itang when the Ethiopian government was overthrown and being forced to walk across Sudan to the Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya. They remember the harsh life in Kakuma, the crime and stolen food, and also the good friends and brotherhood formed there. They remember the decade they spent there, never knowing what the future would bring, where home would be. They remember all those lost along the way, to bullets and empty stomachs.

They remember every step of the long, impossible trek that eventually led more than 3,800 lost boys and girls to the United States and brought Michael Ngor to Dallas, where he arrived in 2001. And it led Ngor and three of the boys he met in the forest--Gabriel Akol, Santino Athian and Matthew Mabek--into the pages of a comic book, Echoes of the Lost Boys of Sudan.

Conceived by local publisher James Disco, the "non-fiction reality comic book," as he calls it, gives Michael, Gabriel, Santino and Matthew (as well as refugee artists Dut Benjamin and Gabe De Aganyni) the opportunity to be the voice for people who have suffered in silence for two decades. Echoes--the first issue of which was released a month or so ago--tells their harrowing stories so the world will understand what they went through to get here, to make readers aware of what people in southern Sudan and Darfur (the western region of Sudan) are still going through, the genocide and ethnic cleansing against animist, Christian and Muslim blacks. More than 2 million have died in Sudan since 1983. With the death toll in Darfur still mounting, it is the perfectly imperfect time for a book like Echoes.

But raising awareness is only part of the purpose for Disco and the team behind the comic. They want to sell enough copies of Echoes to provide the boys in the book with some comfort that minimum-wage jobs do not provide, maybe earn enough money to make a difference for other lost boys and girls, resettled all over the country in unlikely locales such as Sioux Falls, South Dakota. Even if they do none of that, Disco and the others are happy with the smaller goal they've already achieved: helping the boys feel human again, after surviving inhuman conditions for more than half of their lives.

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