From Horror to Heroes

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

This is the kind of life you lead when you commit your time and money, heart and soul, to helping thousands of people. Disco's vision never stopped at the four boys in the book, though he wouldn't be here if it wasn't for them.

"This had become kind of like a movement," Disco says. "I always liked the '60s, and all of a sudden, I'm thrown back in it. I'm part of this movement."

That movement found people before the first issue even went to press. There was Gabe De Aganyni, for example, a lost boy in Sioux Falls. Disco came in contact with Gabe through Tami Trussell, a volunteer and tutor in Sioux Falls. Trussell is active in the burgeoning Sudanese community there, where about 130 lost boys live. She's trying to add Echoes to the school district's curriculum.

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.

Trussell was in Dallas for a meeting about helping some of the boys return to Sudan. She met Disco, and he told her about the book he was working on.

"I said, 'Well, I have a young man up in Sioux Falls who's an artist who I'd love to get going again, and maybe this would be a way to do it,'" Trussell says. "Because Gabe had quit his art because, oh, I guess it caused emotional memories and stuff like that. He had just decided it was time to move on. So I came back and pled with him for a while, and finally he said yes."

"Before I came to America I loved painting pictures, especially from my memory, and therefore I used to paint pictures of what things looked like when I was back home in Sudan," Gabe says, in a message printed on the inside of the back cover, laid on top of one of those paintings of his former home, a stark, graceful image of little boys around a fire. His paintings don't depict specific scenes from the book. They're there to give readers a sense of the tribal life Gabe and the other boys left behind. "It has been good for me to paint again and especially for you who will learn more about why I am here in America."

Some of Dut Benjamin's detailed pen-and-ink drawings appear in Echoes as well, acting as a preview for the next issue, which will follow the boys on their way to Ethiopia. He's another boy they found along the way, but he was there the entire time, just under their nose; Clark is friends with Dut's mother, Abuk Makuac, as well as her biographer. Like Gabriel, Michael, Matthew and Santino, he is a Sudanese refugee, but Dut's drawings don't tell his story about leaving Sudan or his recollections about life before the war. He has no memory of these things. He was only 2 years old when his mother took him to live in the camps.

"Oh, it was so hard," Abuk says. She was just out of high school, preparing to study journalism. They lived in the city, not in one of the villages. "He's supposed to be one of the 'lost boys,' but thank God he's found." She laughs. "He was with Mama. But we went through a lot of terrible problems and seeing a lot of death and hunger. It was really so bad. It was a very, very hard moment, and I was young at that time, to have a small child. The only thing I can say, it was God's help, because I didn't know how to take care, really, how to take good care of the child. But it was a work of God."

Clark gives Abuk more credit than she gives herself.

"I really believe in high school education now," Clark says, "because she knew science, and she knew enough to keep him alive, to boil water and do things. People from the countryside died, and she kept him alive."

Both versions of Dut's survival ring true. He was dying of asthma. He probably should have died. People in the camps said "he had the blood of a dead man." But Abuk's education and, she believes, help from a higher power carried him through. They lived almost 10 years in camps in Ethiopia and Kenya before their application to the United Nations for refugee resettlement was approved, and they arrived in the United States on August 31, 1994.

Abuk's strong faith flows through her son now. He grew up loving biblical stories. Now he's studying to become a pastor. Dut says he had a personal encounter with Jesus Christ when he was a teenager, and he's known the road he would follow ever since. Contributing his artwork to Echoes is just part of that calling.

"We're all coming at it from different angles," Dut says. After a decade in America, there remains only a trace of an accent. "Some are bringing their experience to the table. Some are putting it together intellectually. And I'm also completing it spiritually. That gives it a full package. So when the people do receive it, they receive the full thing. Yes, sir. So I believe that I have a big role that I'm playing, too."

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