Former child soldier Deng Lueth tells of the day war came to his village and how he’s rebuilding his life
Deng Lueth, 6, woke up on a particularly sunny day. It had been raining in his village the past two days, keeping him indoors and close to his family. But today there would be sunshine — so Deng jumped out of bed, shoveled breakfast into his mouth and told his mom he was going out to play.
Deng’s village, a close-knit community of 2,000 people, was in what is now South Sudan. Each member of the community had a role to fill. Deng’s job today was to help the older boys take the goats to graze.
The boys made their way to a large open field west of the village and let the goats roam while they divided into teams and constructed makeshift hockey barriers. Deng took off his shirt and shoes and laid them on a pile of dirt to function as a goalpost.
The game started, and the boys shot balls and ran in the sun as the goats ate idly nearby.
Chasing down a ball, Deng heard thunder. He stopped in his tracks. It had been such a sunny day — he made a face at the sky, expecting another rainfall.
But the sky was blue, with only a few small white clouds spread across it. Whatever the sound was, he didn’t care. Play resumed.
Then, again, BOOM. Deng looked at the players around him. They too had stopped playing; sticks hung motionlessly by their sides. They met each other’s eyes, each boy with an indeterminate expression.
Soon it became clear that this was not thunder. But the sound was close. The boys gazed back towards the village. Deng kept hearing something that sounded like someone hitting a tin can, over and over.
And then suddenly, songs sung around campfires and stories told by survivors of massacres came back to him. These stories told of entire villages wiped out by rebels of war, whose actions Deng did not understand.
The boys dropped their sticks and began sprinting back to the village. Deng grabbed his shirt and shoes and followed.
Crossing through bushes on the outskirts of the village, a line from one of the songs sung about the attacks struck him.
“You should not run back to your village.”
He froze, watching other boys wildly running, terrified, towards the roar of gunfire.
He turned on his heels and sprinted the other way, back through the open field, over the makeshift goalposts, past the agitated goats, into the forest on the other side. When he could run no more, he found a tall tree and climbed to the top.
Scared, thinking about his mother and his grandma, Deng cried. From the trees he could hear the sounds of bombs falling, the screech of vehicles, the sound of burning brush and trees, shooting and wailing.
Gunfire continued for two straight days. Finally, he heard engines start and vehicles pull away. On the afternoon of the third day Deng came down, scared, hungry and thirsty, to ghastly and empty silence.
He made his way back to his village through burnt fields and trees. Slowly, he made his way down a path when he stumbled on a dead body, killed gruesomely. Tears filled his eyes as he ran back into the bush.
He circled aimlessly from the southwest of the village to the east, weeping and lost. Each path he tried would bring him upon more bodies, and he would turn to run.
Finally, he found a clear path. He approached. Smoke billowed into the air from the only home he had ever known. Suddenly, someone grabbed his hand. He looked up and saw a familiar face, a young boy from the village. He looked down at Deng.
“You’re not going back in there.”
Civil war wracks Sudan
Deng, now 32, clicks through photos on his laptop at Mount Royal University.
“This is a photo of the Lost Boys,” he says, pointing at a photo of a group of Sudanese refugee children. “The Lost Boys came from different tribes in South Sudan, tribes that were enemies in South Sudan. We met in the battlefield. It brought us together.”
Photo by Joel DrydenDeng is a Lost Boy. The Lost Boys and Girls are a group of more than 20,000 children who were displaced from their villages and families during the second Sudanese civil war. This war, which lasted from 1983 to 2005, saw an estimated two million people killed.
The war began when Deng was only a toddler. According to stories told to him, the war was mostly a fight over resources and the marginalization of people to the south, and was primarily fought between Christians and Muslims.
“I know it’s not the same there anymore,” Deng says. “But the visual I have in my mind is still really difficult.”
Life as a refugee
Deng was travelling with a group of adults from his village who had escaped the massacre. They decided to move to a place called Ethiopia. It would take a month or more to get there.
They moved lethargically – tired, hungry and exhausted. They could only travel at night, as government militia ambushed those who travelled in the day with helicopters dropping bombs on paths. Eventually, the group neared an outpost of Bor, the capital of the Jonglei state.
Separating them from the outpost was a river. They decided to cross the river in the morning, as crossing at night would not be safe.
At midmorning, Deng moved with the others towards the river. A man came alongside Deng and grabbed his hand to help him cross. The group froze as they heard voices from the other side of the river. A group of militia appeared and opened fire on the group.
The man holding Deng’s hand dropped to the ground. He looked up at Deng and shouted, “Run!”
Shots fired, POP-POP-POP-POP, across the river. Deng ran to the shallow end of the water and dove into tall grass. He lay silent, breathing deeply for hours as militia picked off those who fled.
Photo by Michelle Thomas & Pauline ZuletaDeng’s laugh is infectious, his smile rarely leaving his face.
He’s enrolled in his last year of the cellular and molecular biology science program at Mount Royal University. His ambitions are lofty: to understand cancer.
“If you understand the interaction between cancer cells and non-cancer cells, that’s what the answer is,” he offers, musing freely. “Understanding cancer at the molecular level means understanding how to treat it.”
He promised himself, growing up surrounded by war, death and misery, that if he ever got the opportunity to get an education, he would dedicate himself to it. While seeing his friends die around him in Sudan, he cried, unable to stop their bleeding or cure their infection.
Mark Bol, a long-time friend of Deng and fellow Lost Boy, says Deng is resilient.
“What we went through as children,” Bol says, “it made us all resilient.”
Deng was 11 when he was taught to use guns. His AK rifle was taller than he was.
His group of refugees had made it to Ethiopia. They settled in Dimma, a refugee camp home to thousands of women, children and elderly. Deng signed up to fight for the rights of Southerners by joining the army in 1992.
He was barely able to carry his rifle and ammunition, and was put through a brutal training program. Many boys did not survive.
After completing the training, bruised and exhausted, Deng was assigned to find safety. As many of the boys were in their late teens and even 20s, 11-year-old Deng struggled to keep up.
Crying, he felt as though he was being dragged behind a car lagging behind the much larger boys. Some of his friends would occasionally drop back and carry weapons for him.
Eventually the company met combat. In war, everything came down to survival for Deng. Struggling to keep his AK rifle upright, the only thing Deng knew in battle was that he had not yet been hit. As long as he hadn’t been hit, he was all right. He fought, knowing it was either the enemy or him.
The Lost Boys and Girls of Calgary
By DANIELLE SEMRAU
Between 1983 and 2005, a civil war swept through Sudan, leaving thousands of children displaced from their homes and forced to flee to refugee camps in Ethiopia. At these refugee camps, the United Nations christened children as Unaccompanied Minors or, as they are now more commonly known, Lost Boys and Girls.
Mark Bol, a Lost Boy himself, says that all these displaced children lived in camps together until the early 2000s, at which point many immigrated to Canada, the United States and Australia. Bol arrived in Canada on the same flight as Deng Lueth in 2004.
Mark Durieux, a sociology professor at Mount Royal University and the University of Calgary, has worked extensively the last eight years with Lost Boys and Girls and their local association in Calgary. He said that initially, only about 600 Lost Boys and Girls came to Canada but because of work opportunities in Fort McMurray and at the meat packing plant in Brooks, many ended up making their way to other parts of Alberta, including Calgary.
Today, the Lost Boys and Girls are in their late 20s to mid 30s. Many, like Bol, are married with children, working and going to school.
He would not be the one.
But as time went on, the company’s ultimate goal became diluted. Attacks against government militia started to include attacks against South Sudanese villages. In the course of liberation, their enemy had changed. Deng could no longer see a clear enemy. It was time for him to leave the army. Time to leave South Sudan.
The move to Canada
Deng has lived in Calgary for nine years. The Canadian government paid for his flight from Sudan in 2004 and provided financial assistance to him for one year. He first lodged in an immigration centre in Bridgeland and a church helped him pay off his debts to the government. Since then, he has worked to pay the church back and support himself. He eventually moved in with roommates and saved enough to attend school, first upgrading at Bow Valley College before beginning at Mount Royal University in 2008.
Mount Royal University professor Liam Kavanagh noticed Deng on the first day of class.
“I knew there was a story behind this man. How did I know? The aura of curiosity and energy and warmth emanating from him could only come from some sublime place. When weeks later he told me his story, ‘sublime’ took on a new meaning for me,” Kavanagh said.
Deng says his experiences make him grateful for his studies, the opportunities he’s had and for the friends along the way who have become his new family.
“When I woke up this morning, I was so pleased and humbled that I’m alive and here,” he smiles wide. “If I woke up, it’s an opportunity I have not had before.
“I have never had a picture in my mind that my tomorrow, no matter whatever that tomorrow is like, will ever be the same as the years I went through in South Sudan. That, in itself, is satisfying to me.”
Deng hopes to return to South Sudan when he graduates university. Among the survivors of the attack on his village was his mother, who he has not seen since he fled.
When he returns, he will be reminded of a life and an experience marked by tragedy and hardship. That memory, never forgotten, continues to inform Deng’s ever-positive appraisal of his new home.
“Calgary, and Canada,” he says earnestly. “It’s half of heaven.”