Can you imagine seeing your best friend eaten alive only feet away from where you stand? I don’t know that I can, but the man sitting beside me is telling me how this happened to him, and that is only a small part of his amazing story.
The original Lost Boys of Sudan were some 25,000 mainly boys who fled their villages in South Sudan when government troops from the north systematically attacked their villages in the late 1980's during the Second Sudanese Civil War (1983-2005 with an estimated 2.5 million deaths). It is estimated as many as a third of them died due to starvation and dehydration, or at the hands of wild animals or enemy soldiers. Their epic journey over thousands of kilometres and three countries “ended” in 1992 when approximately 16,000 of them became the initial inhabitants of the Kakuma Refugee Camp in Kenya. They were given the Lost Boys of Sudan tag by the aid workers setting up the camp in reference to Peter Pan's Lost Boys.
I personally first became aware of the Lost Boys of Sudan via David Eggers book What is the What, which tells the story of Lost Boy Valentino Achak Deng, his journey through Sudan, Ethiopia, back into Sudan and finally to Kenya and Kakuma Camp before being repatriated to the United States. Then early last year I was commissioned to do a series of portrait photographs of the locals of the St Mary's district, in Sydney, Australia. In the course of this project I discovered that St Mary's had a significant South Sudanese refugee population.
How I came from being in St Marys, Australia to the Kakuma Refugee Camp in Kenya is a story unto itself, one that in all likely hood should not have eventuated, but needless to say it did.
And thus I found myself, sitting in Kakuma looking into the faces of a group of original Lost Boys. I say original because the Sudanese conflict has been an ongoing issue, and even as I type this more Sudanese refugees flood into Kakuma. But these men were the original Lost Boys of Sudan who arrived here in August of 1992. They have been in Kakuma for 27 years now.
Here is where words become insufficient. Sitting down and talking to these men was both a difficult and most astounding experience. Hearing a man tell you how he saw his best friend eaten alive, or watched as boys just sat down under a tree and waited to die...looking into the face of a 31 year old man, seeing the eyes of the 8 year old boy who arrived in Kakuma, the 4 year old who fled his village in terror. These aren't memories that you easily leave behind.
After my initial contact with the Lost Boys I did some more research. There are a number of very good documentaries, films and books that tell the feel-good stories of successful repatriation of Lost Boys. In 1999 the US took almost 4000 orphaned Lost Boys in a program that sadly came to a halt on September 11, 2001 for obvious reasons. The South Sudanese independence in 2005 saw many more return to South Sudan. But in all these stories I found not one mention that there remain these 200 original Lost Boys still in Kakuma.
By their own accounts these Lost Boys have had their applications for repatriation either lost, or they are being told to "be patient", some 27 years on. “I was promised resettlement to the US but nothing has happened. Our life in Kakuma was full of waiting but waiting for nothing to come. We are just left behind and forgotten." - the words of Taban Malwei's echoed those of all the Lost Boys.
To give you an idea of life in Kakuma, the camp has a capacity to hold 100 000 refugees. It is currently home to estimated 150 000 refugees and that number is rising. The temperature sits around 40 degrees, regular dust storms blow through the camp with limited natural shelter, and when the rains come they flood the camp and bring mosquitoes and malaria. Due to increased numbers rations have recently been cut. Standard rations make it a struggle for one small meal a day. Kakuma is the Swahili word for "nowhere".
To spend a year or two in Kakuma camp would be difficult. To arrive having survived the journey that these boys, now men, did, only to spend 27 years in these conditions “waiting for nothing to come” is incomprehensible. When one man, in a voice barely audible, looking meekly to the ground, said to me” “Maybe God sent you” I had no words...i still don't.
On behalf of the Lost Boys and on my own behalf, I would like to take this opportunity to thank you and every one who take his/her time/effort in this Lost Boys program and also a great privilege for me to be a member of this great Lost Boys group. I am particularly also impressed by the effort taken by everybody who is part of the exhibition.
We are part of the Lost Boys who traveled the Tiring Valleys and long distances of Sudan, Ethiopia and Kenya and the terrible sleepless nights and fear in the forests of Sudan and Ethiopia.
We have patiently lived in here in the desert of Kenya for over 22 years and have been constantly praying and hoping for any open doors but seems impossible.
Simon Adier Ayuel
These photos were shot in late 2013 (ages indicated are as of that date), and originally exhibited in 2014 at the Gaffa Gallery One, Sydney. The work would not have been possible but for the invaluable contribution and collaboration of Ethiopian journalist -in-exile Qaabata Boru.
Chris Peken is a Sydney born, Yangon based photographer. He has shot in Italy, Indonesia, India, the United States, Thailand, Malaysia, Myanmar, Kenya and Tanzania.
Website & graphic profile by fallckolm.com