PHOENIX – It has been 10 years since Malek Deng and thousands of other young men known as the Lost Boys of Sudan left war behind for new lives in the United States.
But a new digital archive of their refugee records is taking Mr. Deng and the others back to the harrowing days of their youth.
Sitting in a community center in Phoenix, where thousands of Sudanese refugees have resettled, Mr. Deng recently examined documents about his war-torn childhood that he had never seen. They were based on an interview that field workers with the Swedish branch of Save the Children International conducted with him in 1989 at a refugee camp in Ethiopia. He was just a scared boy of about 14 at the time.
The papers said he was born in a village called Thur Kuol in the Bahr al-Gazal region of southwestern Sudan. The documents listed Mr. Deng’s relatives and recounted how he tended cattle before civil war drove him from his family. He had explained to the interviewers that he fled with other Lost Boys to avoid being kidnapped by soldiers from northern Sudan.
“It’s amazing to see,” said an emotional Mr. Deng, now a medical technician in his mid-30s who lives in Phoenix. “It’s proof of my past. In my head, I knew what I went through. I can tell people verbally, but now I have some records to prove it.”
Attached to the eight pages of interview notes is a grainy photo of a young Mr. Deng at the Pinyudo refugee camp in Ethiopia, which was one stop on his long journey to a new life in the United States. It is his only photograph from that traumatic time.
“Back then, I was just living day to day,” Mr. Deng said. “I got malaria. I had diarrhea. I missed my family. I didn’t want to be suffering so much.”
The records from this childhood were nearly destroyed. But an American researcher, Kirk Felsman, recovered them in 2004 from a warehouse in Ethiopia. Eventually, the documents were scanned and turned over in digital form to the AZ Lost Boys Center in Phoenix, where about 600 of the Lost Boys now live. A group of volunteers worked to organize the documents in a way that makes them easy to search.
These personal war histories can now be ordered at a Web site (lostboysreunited.org) that has received thousands of hits from countries around the world. Requests for the records have come in by the hundreds in recent weeks.
Reading them is not easy for those involved.
“When I read it, it brings me back to that time,” said one of the Lost Boys, Diing Arok, who works as a traffic engineer and is in his early 30s, his exact birthday unknown. “I can still see the faces of the relatives I listed. I listed that I had had measles, and I remember how awful I felt.”
His records list exhaustion, injury, hunger and thirst as some of the challenges he faced on his long trek from his village.
Such reminders, although difficult, are a healthy part of addressing the trauma that has haunted the Lost Boys, say those who work with them.
“They like to keep their stories inside,” said Brenda Felldin, a board member at the AZ Lost Boys Center. “It is therapeutic for them to see their personal histories written down.”
Ann Wheat, founder of the center, added: “For these guys to recover, to heal and to make it in this new, bewildering country, they have to confront the past and also embrace their cultures. Healing comes not from ignoring the trauma, but also looking back at it and shedding tears.”
She and Ms. Felldin mentioned another potential benefit for the Lost Boys: reconnecting with their relatives. Although they have often been labeled as war orphans, some Lost Boys have been able to find their families since the fighting ended under the terms of a 2005 peace agreement, and others hope to do so now that people are rebuilding the region.
Even those whose relatives were among the staggering number who died in the war hope to return to the country one day, to see where they came from and, in some cases, to help the destitute region recover. In January, a referendum is scheduled in southern Sudan to decide whether it should secede and declare independence.
Phoenix will be among the handful of voting sites in the United States for Sudanese refugees who want a say in their country’s future.
In the meantime, they are remembering their pasts.
“This photo is all I have of my childhood,” Kuol Awan, executive director of the AZ Lost Boys Center and a refugee himself, said as he gazed at a snapshot taken when he was about 15. “I can show this to my grandchildren one day when I tell them stories about my life.”