On their way they met other people fleeing in the same direction: some families, but mainly young boys who had been lost, orphaned or, like John and his friends, told to run by their families from the civil war which the Islamic government in the north has waged on the Christian and animist south since 1983. "We travelled night and day, we just kept on walking. We'd have a short rest for a few hours only. We walked in darkness, no fire or torches."
The journey was long and dangerous, but John, now aged 18, describes it matter of factly; the same thing happened to most of the boys he knows. "We were attacked by bandits all along the road. They robbed us and killed some of the children. They took food and clean water from us." His group walked over 500 miles. By the end, they had joined up with an extraordinary flood of 17,000 unaccompanied boys who, by 1991, had left towns and villages all over southern Sudan and headed across Africa's largest country towards the SPLA camps in Ethiopia.
Between them, these Sudanese boys covered tens of thousands of miles on foot. Most of them were from the central African Dinka tribe, whose adults call themselves the "men of men" - models of strength and endurance against whom all other men can be measured. The wandering Dinka children - the Walking Boys, as they have come to be known - have proved to be some of the toughest survivors on Earth. Even Ethiopia turned out to be only a temporary destination for them. Their story is an epic of biblical proportions. And, as the conflict in Sudan enters its 14th year, and the Walking Boys approach adulthood, the journey which has already taken up more than half their lives is by no means over.
WRITERS have dreamt up a range of settings for children's kingdoms: Narnia, Never-never land, the tropical island in Lord of the Flies. But it would have taken a particularly cruel imagination to invent the refugee camp of Kakuma, in Kenya. From the air, the camp looks like a silted wreck lying on a sandy expanse of sea bed. Home to about 40,000 refugees, it clings to the banks of one of the dry rivers which trace their way across the vast semi-desert of northern Kenya. Twice a year, the river fills with seasonal rains. The camp floods. Huts are washed away. Malaria, typhoid and cholera flourish suddenly like desert blooms, and the people who live here long for the return of the hammering sun and blinding dust storms.
Some of the refugees are adults, but more than a quarter of them, set resolutely apart, are Walking Boys. They live in special villages, 20 in all, attached to but distinctly different from the rest of the camp. Ramshackle shelters belonging to adults and their families give way to neat rows of small mudbrick and thatch houses, built and maintained by the boys. Over the years, the boys have learnt to live and to work together.
The boys came here six years ago when Ethiopia's communist rulers, who had been sympathetic to the cause of southern Sudan's rebel armies, were overthrown in 1991. The new government saw the 17,000 Sudanese boys within its borders as a security threat and, the following year, it ordered the bombardment of the camps. The boys fled across the border back to Sudan and finally made it to the relative safety of northern Kenya and Kakuma. Here, much of their time is taken up with the tedious chores which lack of electricity dictates: fetching water, washing clothes, pounding their World Food Programme maize rations, preparing the lentil stew they eat day after day which they cook in strange-looking solar ovens. Once a fortnight, they save enough surplus food to sell on in the camp and buy one boy in their group a pair of shoes. "When you combine together, you adapt in the form of a new family," says one of the boys, Anthony Ubur. "Here we cooperate together. It is the crisis we experienced which taught us to help one another. For that we are a new generation.
"Boys who live in families develop cowardice, even in football matches," says Anthony dismissively. "In the minors' camp we are proud and fearless. If we have to go without food, we take it as something usual. I have developed to someone twice my age. I've developed a wider mind to think and to ascertain things quickly." Anthony feels so attached to his group that he continues to live as a minor, even though he is now 21. "If I leave the group, the younger boys will feel abandoned. It's a very long period of time that we have spent together," he explains. "We know each other. We don't get fighting here. It's shameful for you to fight. The other person is like your brother, someone you've stayed with for 10 years, so there's no need for fighting. This is our future. Why should it be spoiled?"
On the walls of their huts, the boys draw images in coloured chalk which tell a history of their lives in pictures. On one wall a boy is shown setting out on a journey - alone and on foot - with a small pack on his back. Next to that is a landscape showing the green hills of southern Sudan, then a boy being caught by a lion. That could be a story told by Santini Mathok, another of the residents of the Kakuma minors' camp.
Santini was seven years old when he set out with his older brother in 1987 for Ethiopia from his village in southern Sudan's Bahr El-Ghazal region, after their mother and father were killed by government forces. "It was a mad journey. It took us nearly six months. We didn't walk at night because there were wild animals that were dangerous to us. We were attacked by hyenas, lions and tigers." Meeting other boys on the road, Santini and his brother travelled in a group of 20. "At night, we lit a fire. Some people slept in the middle and three people stayed on guard. Any time when wild animals came, we would take sticks from the fire and scare them away. I thought, I wasn't going to be alive at the end of the journey," says Santini. "Some people died in the desert from hunger and were bitten by snakes. When we came to a village, we didn't know if the people would be friendly. Sometimes the village chief would give us food for the night so we could keep going the next day. Other times, the adults chased us away, but when we met boys on the road, we joined together and shared what we had between us."
To this day, the boys in Kakuma are haunted by memories of the friends they had to leave along the way. "They were my friends," sighs John Mangok. "All of us were tired. Your friend, he asks you to help him. You respond, I'm tired like you. What can I do?" And, tragically, having survived so much, some of the boys have perished in this place of supposed safety - up to 20 in the past year - and have been buried in the dust-blown graveyard outside the camp. Others have dwindled physically, becoming susceptible to disease on the World Food Programme ration of 1,600 kj per day. A few, like 18 year-old David Anyieh, have given up hope. By the age of 18, most Dinkas are 6ft, but David is well short of that; indeed, he seems to be shrinking, a boy-man trapped in childhood.
"I'm just living like an animal here. I want to study. I want to become educated and, if the war stops in Sudan, I want to go back and help my country to develop. But the education situation is very bad here. I don't have enough education. All these things make me think that I am still a child."
David's educational aspirations are shared by many. On one wall, the boys have chalked the slogan "Education is the Light of the World". But Kakuma has only one secondary school. Some of the teenage boys' schooling has been so disrupted that they now go to classes in the camp's school for disabled children - too embarrassed to sit with the children in primary school.
Although their lives have been so badly affected by the actions of the Sudanese government, none of the boys I talked to wanted to take up arms against it. The two rebel groups, the SPLA and the rival Southern Sudan Independence Army (SSIA), are volunteer armies, but those who join get a gun, food and a degree of status. "You can join the rebel army if you have completely failed in life and have nothing to lose," says Anthony Ubur. "You have to be desperate." The only other option is to sit out the war in the desert, waiting for peace. "People say it will be longer for us than it was for the Israelis," says Santini. "They waited 40 years in the desert, we could be here for 60." Faced with the prospect of living to old age in a refugee camp, it's not surprising that many of the Walking Boys are taking to the road once again.
THE past few months have seen a steady trickle of boys heading north on the road which leads out of Kakuma towards the Sudanese border. As before, they cross the flat dry country where herdsman from the Toposa tribe guard their cattle from rustlers with semi-automatic rifles. At the border they wait for the armed police convoy which escorts travellers three times a week across bandit-infested territory into southern Sudan. They are headed for a place called New Cush which is home to some 5,000 displaced Sudanese. This spot has, so far, escaped government air raids, being close enough to both Kenya and Uganda's northern borders to make Khartoum cautious with its bombs.
Boys from Kakuma have been arriving at New Cush since September when they heard that unaccompanied minors were being airlifted from there back to their homes. Set on a green plain bounded by rocky, purple-brown hills, the camp has recently been swollen by more than 350 boys. Their excitement is almost palpable; their constant laughter verges on mass hysteria as they await possibly the final leg of their epic journey, an airlift back to their homes and families.
The project is a collaboration between the humanitarian arm of the SPLA (the Sudanese Relief and Rehabilitation Association, or SRRA), UNICEF, and Radda Barnen (Swedish Save the Children). Three conditions have to be met before the boys can return home. They must have a living relative in the area who is willing to receive them, their village has to be deemed secure, and minimum services in the form of schools, health care and clean water supply must be in place.
Peter Manyang Akot left home when he was five. In a few days he will see his family for the first time in 12 years. Now over 6ft tall, he has no doubt that his mother will recognise him immediately. "We are very happy, more than happy, because we thought our families were dead. I tried to write to mine, but the letter didn't reach them." Today he knows she is alive because the Red Cross and Radda Bannen staff traced all the boys' relatives by flying to remote areas and then travelling round the villages by bicycle with lists of names and messages.
"My father had 200 cattle when I left," says Peter. "I don't know how many he has now, but I think our fathers will choose a bull to kill and there will be a big celebration."
Between distributing blankets, mosquito nets, fish hooks and school books to the returning boys, Rada Bannen's workers in New Cush try to temper the boys' euphoria with realistic thoughts about what they will find at home. "They talk about the land, the cows, the fish and they have very idealistic memories of home," says aid worker Kenton Sanke. "We have to remind them that they're going back to a war zone and there may not be crops in the fields or plenty of milk to drink. In fact there will be lots of mines on the roads. The situation in their villages could suddenly change and they may be bombed again."
The biggest risk to the boys is that after their initial homecoming they may have difficulty adapting to the Dinkas' traditional pastoral existence and may become restless. "We're trying to minimise future problems by familiarising the children with their traditional culture before they go back," says Sanke. The agencies have learnt lessons from previous returnees. "When children go home and it doesn't work out, they feel totally lost. They're so used to moving they just take to the road again, trying to find something without knowing what they're looking for. A lot of them do end up joining the rebel armies." In order to make it easier for the boys to resettle, teachers are being airlifted out to their villages with them to take up jobs in their local schools. Once the boys are getting the education they long for, they will be less inclined to move on again.
The first group of Walking Boys flew to back to their villages from New Cush in September. Flying for the first time in their lives, they made out familiar contours in the land and some even spotted their homes from the air. By the time the light aircraft touched down it was shaking with the noise of their clapping, shouting and singing. It would be a tragedy indeed if the war which has already consumed their childhoods should claim them now on the brink of adult life. !