Written by Sgt. 1st Class Peter Mayes
101st Sustainment Brigade, 101st Airborne Division (AA) Public Affairs
Forward Operating Base Deh Dadi II, Afghanistan – First Lt. Gabriel Chol Deng said he does not envy his fellow officers when they speak fondly of their childhood memories, but he does find himself having to walk away from those particular conversations.
Instead of enjoying a carefree youth and adolescence, Deng spent several years as an orphan separated from his family and as a guerilla fighter in his native Sudan. He was one of the infamous, “Lost Boys of Sudan,” one of thousands of displaced boys whose youth was marred by violence, brutality and survival.
And while Deng admits it’s sometimes hard to remember those hardships of his past, he said he chooses not to dwell on them.“I told myself if I can go through this, God would guard me and I can grow up. It was always the hopes and dreams of my parents that I would get through this.”
Deng was one of the 3,800 boys who were allowed to enter the United States under refugee status in 2001. After settling in the U.S., he went on to obtain a degree in Political Science from the University of Missouri and join the Army.
He is assigned to the 530th Combat Sustainment Support Battalion, 101st Sustainment Brigade, where he works in a variety of support elements, including working with the Combined Action Team, and pay agent for the Command Emergency Response Program.
The story of Deng and his fellow “Lost Boys” is well-known: more than 20,000 boys from Southern Sudan were forced to flee from their villages during a Civil War in their country. They faced many hardships, including disease, starvation, wild animal attacks and enemy soldiers as they walked more than 1,000 miles to safety at villages in Ethiopia and Kenya.
Deng, 32, said he was nine-years-old when his ordeal began. Sudan had long been divided into two separate nations where the Muslims occupied Northern Sudan, and the Christians were located primarily in the Southern region.
According to the website, “The Alliance for the Lost Boys of Sudan,” Northern Sudan sought to unite the country under Islamic rule, prompting Southern Sudan to rebel.
“The government was going through political difference, which intensified in 1983 when the Southern Sudan decided not to cooperate with the Northern government anymore,” he said.
Deng said from that point, the Southern Sudanese began fighting back, going to Ethiopia to train as guerilla fighters. By 1987, the guerillas had increased their numbers from 500 to 20,000 fighters, Deng said. At that point, they begin to use intimidation tactics on the southern villages.
Boys from the Southern were quickly recruited into the war effort, he said. “That’s when we were told by the government that all the boys in Southern Sudan were to be taken away from their villages and sent to the guerilla camps to train as fighters,” he said.
Deng said that he could not fight against his own people, and decided to flee. “You had to make a choice to either run away to where you believe is more secure or go back and fight against your own village,” he said. “We had some adults with us who said, ‘we don’t know where we’re going, but we’ll guide you all the way until you get to Ethiopia.’”
Deng said he left with the other boys for Ethiopia in 1987 and stayed there for five years. While there, he said if the boys who started getting taller were conscripted to join the guerilla fighters.
“I had an older brother with me who told me my father, uncle, and other two older brothers were fighting, so let’s wait until you grow up and turn will come,” he said.
The government was overthrown in the 1990s, Deng said. That is when he decided to go back to Southern Sudan. Heading back, he said he and his group ran across with a group of soldiers near a small town who warned there were government troops who were waiting for them ahead.
“We did not have weapons, and the town leader said they had weapons. So we got AK-47’s and from there we never gave them up,” he said.
Deng said it was at that point that the boys decided not to go back to the refugee camp or the village, opting instead to become guerilla fighters. He was 16-years-old, and spent several years fighting and enduring hardship, he said.
One of those hardships was the death of his brothers, Deng said.
“I thought they were just asleep in front of me,” he said. “I’m just sitting next to them, and all day long they would not wake up.”
He said some of the people who realized what actually happened took him away from the site where his brothers were laying; telling him to let them sleep and that they’d wake up at any time. “When I came back, their bodies were gone,” he said. “So I sat down there and waited for them to come back. Three days later, I realized what happened, so I just focused on myself and what to do.”
In 1995, Deng said he and 30 other fighters were told to attend school at a refugee camp with the purpose of returning to the battle. He and his group were ambushed by government troops while enroute to the camp.
“A grenade was thrown and some of the shrapnel went into my leg, and some in stomach,” he said.
Deng said many in the group were injured. They were taken to the refugee camp where they received medical attention. He also received an opportunity to attend school while there. Then in 1998, a representative from the U.S. arrived.
“He saw there were a lot of boys hanging around and then to the far side of the camp and found the girls over there,” he said.
Deng said one year later, the “Lost Boys of Sudan” project started, where medical experts were sent to the camp to interview the boys about their experiences as refugees. “They looked to see what experiences we had gone through, and decided if we send them to the states for help, it might help them,” he said.
“The Lost Boys” began arriving in the U.S. in December 2000. Deng himself finally arrived in the U.S. in May 2001. He said at the time he believed only white people lived in the U.S., so he was surprised to be greeted at the airport by a black person.
“He was light-skinned, and kept calling my name, but I wouldn’t respond back,” he said. “I started to walk away and he kept following me. I finally stopped and asked him why, and he told me he was my sponsor. But because he was light-skinned and shaved head, I thought he was Arab.”
The man took Deng to his church, where he began the slow process of re-building his life. He lived in an apartment with fellow Lost Boys and began to adjust to life in America.
Deng joined the Army in 2009, opting to go into support instead of the infantry. “I had already done infantry stuff, and I wanted to be a job where I could help people,” he said.
Deng said when he received his commission, he showed it to his fellow “Lost Boys,” which resulted in some of them joining the Army as well.
The Civil War in Sudan has ended, and the young lieutenant said eventually he wants to return to Sudan and help his people. The one thing he wants people and his fellow “Lost Boys” to learn from his story is faith and perseverance.
“Even though things were hard, I never lost focus on my dreams and goals,” he said. “My goal was to make my family proud and carry on our name. If you don’t let the past control you, you will make it.”