Saturday, January 13, 2007

God Grew Tired of Us

Tonight I went to the premier of the new documentary God Grew Tired of Us. The film follows a group of “Lost Boys” of Sudan who had made their way on foot across 1,000 miles of the Sahara to a refugee camp in Kenya, and then were stuck there for about ten years.


Young black Sudanese boys were targeted for slaughter in Sudan’s civil war in 1987, causing some 27,000 of them to flee across the desert. Young boys suddenly became caretakers for even younger boys. Thousands died of disease or starvation. Roughly 12,000 eventually made their way to Kenya were they lived without family, unable to return to their wartorn homes, with barely enough food to survive on and no material possessions to speak of. Some two million people died in the war.

From Wikipedia:

Most of the boys were orphaned or separated from their families when government troops systematically attacked villages in southern Sudan killing many of the inhabitants, most of whom were civilians. The younger boys survived in large numbers because they were away tending herds or were able to escape into the nearby jungles. Orphaned and with no support, they would make epic journeys lasting years across the borders to international relief camps in Ethiopia and Kenya evading thirst, starvation, wild animals, insects, disease, and one of the most bloody wars of the 20th century. Examiners say they are the most badly war-traumatised children ever examined.

When villages were attacked, girls were raped, killed, taken as slaves to the north, or became servants or adopted children for other Sudanese families. As a result, relatively few girls made it to the refugee camps.

In 2001, several thousand Lost Boys—now men almost 15 years after first fleeing Sudan—were resettled in the United States. The movie follows three in particular who appeared to be in their twenties.

While the opening scenes of the movie in Africa were heart-rending, the men’s arrival in the U.S. showed in stark contrast the differences in daily life between impoverished Africa and the U.S. The men had never before used electricity. They did not know what a shower was. They had to be shown how to turn on and off the light switches and how to use the toilet. The concept of pre-cooked, pre-packaged food had to be explained. Seeing how they reacted to their new surroundings reminded me of Doug Bruce, the title character in the documentary Unknown White Male about a man who experiences total amnesia, not only forgetting details of his personal history, but also forgetting things like the ocean and Star Wars. The Lost Boys’ sense of newness and wonder was profound and encouraging, especially when contrasted with the horror and depravation of their past.

The men followed by the filmmaker soon got jobs and began sending everything they could not only back to their families, for those who had managed to locate them, but also to their “families” back at the refugee camp, their brothers in suffering. One Lost Boy was about to enroll in a community college but then got word for the first time in 15 years that his family was alive. He dropped his plans and started working three jobs in order to support his family.

The Lost Boys experienced loneliness and alienation from their new society. One, speaking of his “brothers” left behind in Kenya, asked “why me and not them?” Why had he been so fortunate while they continued to suffer? He spoke of how he’d been thrust into a position of responsibility at age 13, leading others and burying the dead.

The Lost Boys began organizing to help each other and network. Some began advocating for action to stop the killing in Sudan. In Syracuse, NY, they staged a march symbolizing their trek across the desert to raise awareness of the conflict in Sudan. One Lost Boy spoke at a packed church and asked for help for his compatriots back home.

Director Christopher Quinn, George Biddle of the International Rescue Committee, and one of the Lost Boys (whose name escapes me) were present after the screening to answer questions. Quinn said he’d been inspired to make the film after learning about the genocide in Rwanda and how no one did anything to stop it. A man from Sierra Leone in the audience asked about the causes of the conflict. I asked them what kind of impact the advocacy efforts of the Lost Boys in the U.S. had on the involvement of the U.S. government in the peace settlement nearly two years ago. Biddle said that U.S. participation in the negotiations was primarily attributable to pressure on the administration from U.S. churches. He said that the government had sent good people like John Danforth to the talks, and that it had been helpful to have a human face close to home to represent the issue to the public. He worried that the peace in Sudan could be lost again due to neglect from the international community, and described the delicate line his organization walked in drawing attention to the crisis in Darfur without jeopardizing gains elsewhere in Sudan. I think it’s fascinating that an unintended consequence of bringing the Lost Boys to the U.S. may have been to help end the conflict there (if somewhat incompletely). One thing is clear about our political system: nothing puts a foreign policy issue on the government’s radar like a domestic constituency making a stink about it.

Now that I think about it, the men I saw at the Day for Darfur rally in Central Park (bottom photo) were probably Lost Boys.

When the Lost Boy at the screening told the audience he had received his U.S. citizenship last year, the crowd broke into applause. This bothered me a bit for reasons that are complicated, but it’s true that U.S. citizenship in his case is a golden ticket, likely meaning financial stability and the ability to bring his family here, if he can find them.

This movie shook me on a core level. Knowing about extreme suffering on an intellectual level is not the same as seeing it unfold and watching how lives are shattered by needless conflict and blinding poverty. It’s like the pictures of detainee abuse at Abu Ghraib; there’ve been much worse abuses documented—including torture and murder—but they have not registered in the national consciousness because there weren’t any pictures. I hope this movie gives the conflict in Sudan visibility it would not have otherwise had, and opens up people’s minds to the idea that we should be more involved in bringing peace to the region.

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