They Poured Fire on Us From the Sky

The True Story of Three Lost Boys from Sudan


By Benjamin Ajak

By Benson Deng

By Alephonsion Deng

By Judy A. Bernstein

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The inspiring story of three young Sudanese boys who were driven from their homes by civil war and began an epic odyssey of survival, facing life-threatening perils, ultimately finding their way to a new life in America.

Between 1987 and 1989, Alepho, Benjamin, and Benson, like tens of thousands of young boys, took flight from the massacres of Sudan’s civil war. They became known as the Lost Boys. With little more than the clothes on their backs, sometimes not even that, they streamed out over Sudan in search of refuge. Their journey led them first to Ethiopia and then, driven back into Sudan, toward Kenya. They walked nearly one thousand miles, sustained only by the sheer will to live.

They Poured Fire on Us from the Sky is the three boys’ account of that unimaginable journey. With the candor and the purity of their child’s-eye-vision, Alephonsian, Benjamin, and Benson recall by turns: how they endured the hunger and strength-sapping illnesses-dysentery, malaria, and yellow fever; how they dodged the life-threatening predators-lions, snakes, crocodiles and soldiers alike-that dogged their footsteps; and how they grappled with a war that threatened continually to overwhelm them. Their story is a lyrical, captivating, timeless portrait of a childhood hurled into wartime and how they had the good fortune and belief in themselves to survive.


"[T]he soft plainness of the young writers' voices, combined with their moral insight, throws the surreal danger and strife into sharp relief. They speak for the Sudanese who cannot, to attest that 'although people always hoped and prayed for peace, peace never came.'"
San Diego Union Tribune
"Although the experiences themselves deliver an indictment, the account is remarkably without condemnation or self-pity, and the boys exhibit an underlying innocence and purity."
Los Angeles Times
"[F]ascinating and immediate, not least because of the guilelessness of the language and the particularly African use of metaphor and imagery."
New York Review of Books
"In the same way that the Diary of Anne Frank will forever keep the plight of the children of the Holocaust alive, this book speaks on behalf of the millions of children in Africa who are victims of its genocides and witnesses to its atrocities."
North County Times
"An amazing account of boys who managed to survive a terrifying ordeal . . . there's a kind of haunting beauty to their story . . . this book is an eye-opener."
Rocky Mountain News
"[T]he book is at once an important addition to the contemporary dialogue on world affairs and a surprisingly lyrical account of coming of age under adverse conditions. . . . [This] is no mere historical document; it is a wise and sophisticated examination of the arbitrary cruelties and joys of being alive."
Minneapolis Star-Tribune
"A powerful first-hand account of war as seen through the eyes of children. In an era of remote, televised wars, it is an important reminder of the immense devastation and impact on innocent victims."
—Deepak Chopra
"[The book] represent[s] genuine, heartfelt examples of what war does to young people and how they may adjust to life outside the country of their birth, especially the social and intellectual problems they experience."
Deseret Morning News
"[A] harrowing account of war."
"[W]ell written, often poetic essays . . . this collection is moving in its descriptions of unbelievable courage."
Publisher's Weekly

Dedicated to Monyde
and all of the children throughout time
who've been caught up in adult wars

2 4 6 8 10 9 7 5 3 1

When two elephants fight,
it is the grass that gets trampled.
The name Lost Boys came to be when our village was attacked by fierce Arab horsemen. We, little boys, spewed out of the blazing village like a colony of ants disturbed in their nest. We ran in different directions not knowing where we are going. We gathered some fruits for our breakfast and lunch. We, little boys, were so messy, all chaos and cries filling the dark, fiercely lightless night.

An Introduction to the Lost Boys
It was Joseph Jok, a caseworker in the San Diego offices of the International Rescue Committee, who introduced me to the authors of this book when he asked if I'd like to mentor some Lost Boys of Sudan. I'd read how twenty thousand or so boys, many no more than five or six years old, fled a thousand miles across Africa's largest country. I was intrigued.
"I'd love to meet them," I told Joseph, who is a Sudanese refugee himself. "But I have to be honest with you: I'm not sure about the mentoring part."
I didn't want to admit that mentoring scared me. It was such a serious commitment—and to three young men who might need a great deal of help.
"You could just show a couple of them around San Diego," Joseph suggested. "You know, the zoo or Sea World. They need acculturation."
Being a part-time tour guide sounded much less threatening. Still, I worried about what I was getting into. They wouldn't be boys now, but young men, nineteen years or older, who had grown up in refugee camps without parents. I conjured up visions from William Golding's Lord of the Flies.
Relax, I told myself. You're just showing them around town for a day or two, not adopting them. Acquainting these young men with our culture will be fun. They're coming from a place without cars, running water, or enough food to survive, to a land of freeways, faucets that spout water without being touched and so much food it's probably our biggest health threat. They're being dropped from the sky into an utterly alien place, like that Coca-Cola bottle that shows up in South Africa in the movie The Gods Must Be Crazy.
So I set off with my twelve-year-old son, Cliff, to wait, rather nervously, on a couch in the International Rescue Committee offices to meet three refugee Lost Boys from Sudan.
"Will they speak English?" Cliff asks.
"Oh yes," I answer, but becoming less sure as I look around the room at the eight or so desks that surround us, and the refugees, mostly families, huddled on chairs, muttering in strange tongues. It's a colorful scene, a full palette of skin tones and an Epcot of clothing and languages. Cliff is quiet and wide-eyed. The menagerie of people is nothing like what he's used to, where the faces are mostly white and occasional Spanish the only foreign language.
A few minutes later Joseph arrives with three Lost Boys. I don't know what I'd expected, but they are not it. Tall, around six feet, they are dressed like prep students, have short-cropped hair, and beautiful, impossibly black, flawless skin. Cliff and I stand across from the three of them. I extend my hand to one young man who is wearing a bright yellow neon shirt and introduce Cliff and myself. He shakes my hand and Cliff's and says his name is Benson. The Lost Boy beside him, who looks so much like Benson they could brothers, holds out his hand. It sounds like he says Alfonso, but I'm not sure, and it seems an unlikely name for someone from Africa, but then so does Benson. The third Lost Boy, who is the tallest by an inch or so, shakes our hands too. I understand his name clearly; it's Lino.
As planned, we head for the car and something to eat. I whisper to Joseph to give me the names again and he tells me the one who looks so much like Benson is his brother, Alephonsion, and that I can call him Alepho.
"Please put on your seat belts," I say when they climb into the back of my Explorer. As I prepare to pull out, I hear shuffling and look behind me. "Would you like help?"
Benson lifts the strap. "Please, may I just hold it?"
Cliff climbs into the backseat and helps them get snapped in. Accustomed to teenagers demanding reasons for things, I caution them about the seat belt law, police stopping us if they don't wear them and the threat of a ticket. My voice trails off when it dawns on me that I'm painting America like some sort of police state. I must sound silly to young men who've just spent fifteen years surviving in a war zone.
As we drive toward the east part of San Diego, the avenue roughens with potholes that have sprouted like garden weeds. I haven't been in this part of town for years and notice that the larger businesses, such as Sears and car dealers, have gone and the small stores have signs—some handpainted—in more foreign languages than I can identify.
Alepho suddenly asks, "You know Payson?"
"Does he live here?"
"Yes, he live here," Alepho confirms.
"No, I'm sorry. I don't know him." I assume Payson is a Lost Boy who arrived here earlier.
"How do you know Payson?" I ask.
"He is my friend."
"Where did you meet Payson?"
"I met him in the airport. He gave me his phone number. He want me to call him. I cannot find the piece of paper. You do not know Payson?"
Alepho sounds a bit desperate, and I realize he hasn't quite yet fathomed the size of this city. "No, I'm so sorry," I say. "I hope you find the piece of paper again."
Our first stop is a fast food restaurant. Nothing on the menu is familiar to them except the word "chicken," so we order chicken strips. We each receive an empty cup and it is the moment Cliff has been looking forward to—teaching them the finer points of a soda machine. As he demonstrates, the young men tower over him, watching his every move with the levers and buttons. When Cliff steps aside, his protégés jostle to be next. Alepho gets in there first, jumping a bit when the ice bursts into his cup, but completing the task like a pro.
Lids and straws in place, they all join me and Joseph at the table. Cliff looks pleased by his successful soda lesson.
Alepho eagerly dives into his box of chicken, only pausing momentarily over the barbecue sauce before plunging the strip into it. His next bite is drenched in ranch dressing. I imagine these must be strange and exotic explosions to a palate that's known only cornmeal and water for ten years. Undaunted by the foreign flavors, he dares even the sweet and sour.
I haven't touched my salad and can't take my eyes off the young men across the table. They've been in America for three days only, coming from a place 60 Minutes described as "stone age," yet their manners are impeccable. They are like finishing school graduates as they hold the food delicately and wipe their mouths with napkins after each bite.
"Do you like the chicken?" I inquire.
"It is good," Alepho declares and goes back to his dipping sauces.
I can't stop grinning. They make a routine event feel like a wonderful adventure. Although the restaurant is crowded and noisy, communications flow easily, buoying my confidence. Their English is good, their vocabulary extensive, but their accent is like nothing I've heard before. I'd anticipated a primarily British influence and there is a tinge of that; however, something totally foreign dominates.
"Were you in school in Kenya?"
"That is where we studied English," Benson says. He has delicate features and it's difficult to imagine anything other than a warm smile on his kind face. "Now we come to America to get education."
Still curious about the accent, I ask, "What language did you speak before?"
"I speak Dinka at home in our village then learn Arabic and Kswahili."
So English is their fourth language. The more I listen to them speak, the better I'm able to follow. Lino, who has only said a few words, has broad shoulders. Although none of their bodies are much more than bones and wiry muscles, Lino looks like a particularly strong fellow and is poised at the edge of his seat, constantly looking around, as though he's ready to head off for the next thing.
For all of his bravado with food, Alepho seems the most reserved of the three. His slightly distant manner could easily be mistaken for aloofness or even arrogance. His expression is serious; his eyes wide-set, especially dark and heavy lidded as though shadowed by sadness. I have the instant impression he's seen too much for his age, regardless of what that age is. He looks up at me. "Do you only have one son?"
I sense that is a surprising idea to him. "Yes, only one," I answer, but am left with the feeling that he wants more explanation. "I was working until I was thirty-six. My husband, Paul, was in medical school for many years." I'm not sure this clarifies anything for him, but I'm getting the impression he won't be too shy to ask if he wants to know more. With his question, I become braver and ask what is really on my mind. "How old were you when you left home?"
"I was seven," Benson says. "I was away at my sister's house in her village. Alepho was only five then. He was at home with our mother until he was seven."
"I was five," says Lino.
"Lino is our cousin," Benson adds.
Five and seven years old. I've been worrying, five years ahead of time, about the day Cliff will go off to college. How does a mother bear letting her child go at any age, much less seven? Benson is twenty-one now. He's been gone from his home and parents fourteen years.
"Our cousin, Benjamin, is coming next month," Benson says. "He was with us going to Ethiopia. Just a little, little boy, like five years."
Benjamin and Lino, five years old, crossing that desert. "So young," I say, and thinking of nothing to adequately express my feelings, add, "I look forward to meeting him."
"He is very, very tall now and the most black. He talk a lot too."
I sip my tea, touched and in disbelief that these heroic survivors are across the table from me. It is as though Lewis and Clark just stopped in for a bite. "Would you like to go to the store?" I ask.
We climb into the car and the seat belts snap in place. Traveling farther east we pass scattered tattoo shops, liquor stores and a tacked up cardboard sign that reads "Big Ass Yard Sale," before pulling into the Wal-Mart parking lot.
As we walk across the lot, Benson says, "Cars stand here like cattle in cattle camp."
Just ahead of us reverse lights go on. With a mother's instincts, my arms reflexively spread to protect them. "Be careful in parking lots," I caution. "Those white lights mean the car is backing up."
"Oh!" Benson exclaims. "It is like when walking among the cows. One must use caution. A cow may swing her head very, very fast to get a fly. The horns, very long, can injure a boy."
"That must be dangerous. Why don't you remove the horns of the cows?"
"Cows need horn to fight lion."
Cliff's eyes widen and he mouths, "Lions! Real lions?"
Inside the store, they stop and crane their necks up at the voluminous space above. Benson reaches his arms toward the ceiling and with reverential awe in his voice declares, "This is like a king's palace."
A king's palace. It's a Wal-Mart—an old, small one.
"What do you need most?" I ask.
They aren't interested in jeans, which surprises me. After examining all the options, each one selects a pair of Dockers. As we cruise down other aisles, Cliff has a great time showing them things, bouncing excitedly from one mysterious object to another.
"This opens cans."
"Is that gun?"
"No! It dries your hair."
"Why? It dries by itself."
When Cliff explains something, they gather closely around him, listening intently, as though it is a chemistry lab demonstration and they mustn't miss a thing. Then Cliff reminds me that he needs some back-to-school supplies. The two aisles full of notebooks and folders excite them more than anything we've seen yet. They focus on the composition books and I'm amazed and impressed that of all the things we'd seen and touched in this store, these sixty-nine-cent spiral notebooks captivate them the most.
"Would you like to get one?"
Their eyes light up.
"What will you use them for?"
"Write down what we see," Alepho says.
"Do you like to write?"
"Yes. I wrote stories when I was in Africa."
"I hope you write some stories about your experience here, too."
"We will do that," Benson replies. "And about Africa too."
Once I've delivered them at their apartment with their Dockers and composition books, I return home with many more questions about the situation in Sudan. What happened to the girls? Their parents? Where did the boys walk to? And what did the refugee camp look like? The Internet provides more historical background, and I watch a Sixty Minutes segment tape I ordered.
Fourteen years ago the fundamentalist jihad of the northern government drove an estimated twenty thousand boys from their families and villages in southern Sudan. Walking barefoot without food or water, they crossed a thousand miles of lion and crocodile country, eating mud to stave off thirst and starvation. In an interview, one boy says that because he was older—eleven at the time—he kept the lions away from the younger ones. Wandering for years, half of them died before the others at last found sanctuary in a Kenyan refugee camp.
Ignited in 1983, Africa's longest-running war is still going on. North against south, Muslims against animists and Christians, Arabs against blacks. Huge oil reserves in southern Sudan being held by the northern Muslim government fuel the war. Race, religion and riches. The same things people always kill each other over. With no solution in sight, 2 million blacks in the south have already died. More casualties than Angola, Bosnia, Chechnya, Kosovo, Liberia, the Persian Gulf, Sierra Leone, Somalia and Rwanda combined. Two million dead. Five million displaced and at risk. A holocaust happening today. I recall the news stories over the years of famine related to drought and war somewhere in Africa, but somehow I thought it was mostly in Ethiopia. These boys fled to Ethiopia. Who flees to Ethiopia? I read two papers a day and three weekly news magazines. Why don't I know more about this war? Bosnia was in the headlines for months, but the only thing I've read recently about Sudan was that Osama bin Laden was there for five years.
Sixty Minutes reporter Bob Simon says the boys survived because most of them were outside their villages tending herds of cattle and goats when their villages were invaded. However, their parents were killed and many of their sisters sold into slavery and taken to northern Sudan. Slavery? In our time?
Sixty Minutes concludes, "If ever there were tired, poor, huddled masses yearning to breathe free, it is these boys, and that so far a thousand of Sudan's best and brightest were coming to the U.S."
At Joseph's suggestion, we have a couple of acculturation sessions a week—going to the zoo, beach or museums. My hesitation at accepting the mentoring responsibility dissipates immediately, and Benson, Alepho and Lino become very dear to our family. Soon we're searching for jobs and investigating educational options for them.
One day, over a month later, when I'm visiting them in their modest apartment, Benson and Alepho hand me several sheets of light green composition paper with spiral-ripped edges. "These are stories we wrote."
I want to sit down and devour them immediately, but, anticipating the emotional wallop they might pack, I am afraid to do so in their company. "May I take them home and read them when I can really concentrate?"
"They are for you."
"Thank-you. I can't wait to read them."
"Benjamin, our cousin, is coming now," Benson announces.
His flight had left Nairobi on September 10, 2001, and his plane into New York on September 11 had been diverted to Canada. Ten days have passed since the 9/11 disaster without word from Benjamin, and where he has been is a worry and a mystery.
I wait around for a while but Benjamin doesn't arrive. "Are you sure he's coming?"
"He is coming now."
I sense we have differing concepts of "now." "Do you mean right now, at 2:00 P.M. or sometime today?"
"He is walking from IRC."
That's five miles away, assuming he doesn't mistake the route.
"I'm sorry," I say. "I sure hope he arrives safely, but I'm going to miss him. I must leave to pick up Cliff at school."
As I pull out of the parking lot, two unmistakably Sudanese young men, one very tall, are walking down the other side of the street. I'm relieved to see they've made it safely. I pull to the side of the road, roll down my window and yell, "Hello!"
They stop and eye me warily from afar.
"Is either of you Benjamin?"
The taller one cocks his head cautiously—like a forewarned child offered candy from a stranger—and says nothing. I recall what Benson had relayed to me once. They'd been warned while still in Africa that because American men marry only a single wife, there are many women here who are not married and looking for husbands. "Whatever your skin color," they were told, "it doesn't matter. You must be careful about going with American women. Stick to your education. Some American women may kidnap men by threatening them with weapons like a gun or a pistol to make them be their husband. It may be very difficult to escape because she may hide you in a most dangerous mountain or on an island."
I shout, "I know your cousins, Benson, Alepho and Lino."
The taller one raises his arms into the air, "Oh! Yes!" and takes sweeping strides across the street with the shorter man trailing behind and comes around to my passenger window. "I am Benjamin!" His face lights up with a huge smile that unveils a dazzling set of the whitest teeth.
"Hi, welcome." I extend my hand to his outstretched one. "I'm a friend, well, mentor, of your cousins."
"Ah, yes, Ju. . . dee!" He is exuberant, flashing that smile all over the place and pumping my hand.
"You went to Canada, I hear."
"Yes. We fly to New York but captain say we cannot be permitted to land. Smoke everywhere covering the city."
I shake my head wondering at his upbeat attitude, especially since the same zealotry that had driven him from his home fourteen years ago greeted him in this new one.
"You are my mentor, yes?"
He's caught me off guard. "Yes, of course," I agree and think a second later that he will be a lot of fun to mentor. "But I'm very sorry, I must leave now and pick up my son from school. I will see you soon, okay? You can tell me about your trip."
He lets go of my hand. "Okay. I see you later. Bye, bye, Ju. . . dee."
The first thing I do when I arrive home is settle onto the couch with the stories Benson and Alepho have given me. They have both written about the attack on their villages and the beginning of their journey across Sudan. Hearing the accounts from them individually, how they experienced it as such young children is nothing like seeing the newsreels of thousands of boys. Their stories take my breath away and break my heart.
Soon Benjamin is writing too, though not as fluently. He was so young when he fled, but his indomitable spirit is evident even at that age. Their telling comes to me randomly, but from the threads and pieces, an amazing story emerges. Surviving that thousand-mile trek at the age of kindergartners is beyond belief, but the tragedy didn't end there. War separated the two brothers, Benson and Alepho, for five years, neither knowing if the other was alive. When they were reunited, it was only briefly. War thrust them apart and once again they were running for their lives.
Between struggling for employment in the post 9/11 economic downturn and dealing with daily life in an alien land without family, they continue to write. In the beginning, their accounts came on pale green composition book pages produced folded or crumpled from their pockets. But crisp white computer paper and Internet files soon replaced those first precious pieces. Touched by their accounts and outraged by the situation, I want the world to hear of their tragic and remarkable experiences and to know what is happening in Sudan. I begin to dream that if we can weave their stories into a tapestry and if we're granted a great stroke of luck, the resulting book might pay for some tuition and they can fulfill their dreams of getting an education.
An Introduction to the Lost Boys
Judy A. Bernstein
Rancho Santa Fe, January 2005

Part One
The Village of Juol

The Blade Is Blunt
Since my wandering began, there hasn't been a day or night that I do not think back to my family, our people and lovely Dinkaland. I am the fifth child from a big family with five brothers and three sisters. My parents were pastoralists and subsistence farmers of the Bahr al Ghazal region of southern Sudan. We call ourselves Dinka now, but according to our elders' stories there was no such name before the British arrived. When an explorer came to our remote area and met a group of Monyjeng men hunting, he stopped them. "Who are you young men?" he asked in a strange language.
"Ding Kak," they replied, calling themselves by the chief's name according to the tradition of our people.


  • “Their words speak for those who no longer have a voice. Their story will take the reader on a trip not soon forgotten of spirits unwilling to be broken.”—San Antonio Express-News

    “Their serious tone, broken by the occasional wry smile, memorializes their parents, the land and animals that wove the tapestry of their early childhoods… One reviewer called the book ‘deceptively understated,' But the soft plainness of the young writers' voices, combined with their moral insight, throws the surreal danger and strife into sharp relief.”—San Diego Union-Tribune

    “[They Poured Fire] is an amazing account of boys who managed to survive a terrifying ordeal… there's a kind of haunting beauty to their story… After reading this book, readers may feel like they've been on an adventure—or in hell, depending on your point of view. Whatever the case, this book is an eye-opener.”—Rocky Mountain News
  • “A moving, beautifully written account, by turns raw and tender…”—Los Angeles Times

    “[The authors'] accounts, written first in lesson books and then on computer have been skillfully put together in a narrative, each boy carrying both history and that of their joint flight and reunion forward. The result is both fascinating and immediate, not least because of the guilelessness of the language and the particularly African use of metaphor and imagery….They Poured Fire…conjures up a world of marabou storks, acacia trees, termite mounds taller than men, scorpions and snakes that move in the dark, a world governed by traditions, rituals, seasons, weather, and obligations.”—New York Review of Books

    “[T]ender and lyrical…one of the most riveting stories ever told of African childhoods—and a stirring tale of courage….Anyone interested in Africa, its children or the human will to survive should read this book. This beautifully told volume…will remain on my desk for years to come.”—Washington Post

    “[L]ovely and unusual….[V]ital stories…that can help readers understand events in Sudan on a human level. But They Poured Fire on Us From the Sky is no mere historical document; it is a wise and sophisticated examination of the arbitrary cruelties and joys of being alive.”—Star Tribune
  • “[T]he book is at once an important addition to the contemporary dialog on world affairs and a surprisingly lyrical account of coming of age under adverse conditions… These folkloric memories—replete with lions and circumcision rituals—describe a world centuries removed from the high-tech industrialization of Western society. But they years of war also have bestowed wisdom, and simple observations of childhood are seen now through different eyes…” —Minneapolis Star-Tribune

    “[The book] represent[s] genuine, heartfelt examples of what war does to young people and how they may adjust to life outside the country of their birth, especially the social and intellectual problems they experience.”—Deseret Morning News

    “In a harrowing account of the war, three young refugees in California… remember how they were driven from their homes in Southern Sudan in the ethnic and religious conflicts that have left two million dead. They tell their stories quietly with the help of their mentor, coauthor Judy Bernstein, in clear, interwoven, narratives that put a personal face on statistics.”—Booklist

    “[W]ell written, often poetic essays…this collection is moving in its descriptions of unbelievable courage.” —Publisher's Weekly

On Sale
Aug 11, 2015
Page Count
352 pages

Benjamin Ajak

About the Author

Alephonsion and Benson Deng and their cousin Benjamin Ajak left the Sudan in 1987, and were relocated in 2001 from the Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya to the United States as part of an international refugee relief program. Today, Alephonsian Deng attends San Diego City College and works in the Medical Records Department at Kaiser Permanente Hospital. He has spoken to many schools, universities, clubs and organizations about his extraordinary story in Africa and adapting to his life here in America. Benson Deng runs the computer and digital photography system at Waste Management in El Cajon, CA. Benjamin Ajak resides in San Diego and speaks full time to organizations and schools, sharing his amazing life and insights into surviving as a child of war and a newcomer to the U.S. Judy Bernstein is a mother, writer, Student Advisor for the Community Economic Development Department at San Diego State University, volunteer mentor and Chair of the Advisory Committee of the San Diego International Rescue Committee and co-founder of the IRC Lost Boys Education Fund. She speaks with her co-authors to community groups, temples, churches, and schools.

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