Sudan’s Lost Boys and "The Good Lie"

As children, Sudan’s Lost Boys walked 1000 miles to escape an Islamic State that was the precursor to ISIS.

zxISIS is late to the Caliphate-building party. Long before the “Islamic State” was on the scene slaughtering Christians and other infidels by the thousands with inconceivable violence, the government of Sudan was well into implementing its version of Islamic/Arab supremacism in Africa’s largest nation. Sudanese schoolbooks prophesy the coming Caliphate and Mahdi.

For decades, Sudan’s National Islamic Front (NIF) has warred against its own citizens of African ethnicity and/or Christian faith who resist the forced imposition of Sharia and Arab hegemony. And just as thousands and thousands of Christians, Yazidis, and others targeted by ISIS have become refugees, attempting to find safety from the genocidal jihad being waged against them, Sudan’s genocidal jihad has displaced millions of people, including almost thirty thousand children who became known as the Lost Boys.

The Good Lie, opening in 40 cities this Friday, October 3, (with national release on October 24) tells the story of Lost Boys Mamere, Jeremiah, Paul, and Mamere’s sister Abital (played by the very talented Ugandan Arnold Oceng, and South Sudanese Ger Duany, Emmanuel Jal, and Nyakuoth Wiel). The three young men and the “Lost Girl” come to America in a U.S. government/United Nations resettlement initiative from the dusty Kenyan refugee camp where they have lived for ten years. There have been other films – The Lost Boys of Sudan, God Grew Tired of Us, and television documentaries like Sixty Minutes about the journey from Kakuma camp, and how the southern Sudanese negotiated the resulting culture shock. But The Good Lie, which also stars Reese Witherspoon as the boys’ initially-somewhat-indifferent employment counselor, is the first film to drop you into the beginning of their story.

In 1987, then Sudanese Prime Minister Sadiq al-Mahdi employed and armed “Baggara” or murahaleen (“travelers”) nomadic Arab Sudanese mercenaries to bolster Sudan’s armed forces by attacking the civilians of Bahr al Ghazal in southern Sudan. In Day of Devastation, Day of Contentment: The History of the Sudanese Church Across 2000 Years, Roland Werner, William Anderson, and Andrew Wheeler write that at that time there “was a bloodbath across wide areas of Bahr al Ghazal. Countless villages were destroyed and their populations massacred. Crops were destroyed, cattle killed or looted, young children and women taken off as slaves.”

The two-pronged attack by Sudan’s helicopter gunships and murahaleen on horseback is heartbreakingly authentic in The Good Lie. As the film opens, a description runs across the screen explaining that Sudan was fighting a war “over religion and resources.” There is an idyllic pastoral scene – young Dinka boys watching herds of cattle – until thudding helicopter propellers signal the end of everything they have known. From afar the terrified boys and their sister see the galloping murahaleen torching houses and killing everyone in sight, including their own mother and father.

Over 26,000 Dinka and Nuer children – some as young as 4 years old – mostly boys, but also a small number of girls, began a dazed, then determined journey to find safety. One Lost Boy, asked how they found their way to Ethiopia recounted, “We followed the bones.” And indeed, only some 17,000 out of the 26,000 of the children survived to reach Ethiopia.

Thousands died on the 6-10 week, 400-mile walk towards Ethiopia’s refugee camps. The Good Lie is faithful to every detail of this trek, including how survival sometimes comes down to drinking one’s own urine. The film’s children, powerfully depicted by South Sudanese child actors Okwar Jale (Theo), Peterdeng Mongok (Mamere), Thon Kueth (Jeremiah), Deng Ajuet (Paul), Keji Jale (Abital) and many others, lose brothers and friends (including Theo) first to hunger, dehydration, attacks by wild animals, and attacks by Khartoum’s forces. Others drown or are eaten by crocodiles crossing the river.

The sojourn in Ethiopia, lasting from 1987 until 1991, is not covered by The Good Lie, but the effect that the time in Ethiopia had on all of the Lost Boys is depicted in the film’s characters. Both “intense military training” of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), and “daily immersion at school and in church in the narrative and the images of the Bible” were strong influences in Ethiopia. Many of the Lost Boys became Christian leaders there.

While, sadly, some of the former Lost Boys have not yet found healing from the horrible trauma they suffered – an experience alluded to in Paul (Emmanuel Jal) in The Good Lie – those who found a healing relationship with Jesus Christ saw themselves as “a chosen generation.” Even those who entered the SPLA as soldiers brought “a Christian presence,” including Bible study, prayer meetings, and Sunday worship into its ranks. Day of Devastation, Day of Contentment reveals that in 1988 when British Minister for Overseas Development, Chris Patten, visited the camp, he “was moved to tears as southern Sudanese school boys sang a song they had composed themselves based on Isaiah 9: 2.”

The impact of this spiritual growth is particularly depicted on the adult Jeremiah (Ger Duany), who is shown as an evangelist at Kakuma Refugee Camp. This realistic detail in the film honors Lost Boys who maintained their faith in a God of love and goodness in spite of the hellish conditions they endured. Many Lost Boys became pastors in various denominations. And in 2010, The Rev. Abraham Nhial Yel was the first former Lost Boy to be consecrated as a bishop in the Episcopal Church of Sudan (ECS).

The Lost Boys and Girls were forced to leave Ethiopia in 1991 with the fall of President Mengistu Haile Mariam when the country changed its sympathies from the SPLA to the Islamist regime in Khartoum. They had to walk another 400 miles back to southern Sudan – once again losing children as they crossed rivers, encountered wild animals, and were shot at by both Ethiopian and Sudanese forces. Because they could not stay in southern Sudan, which was in the throes of war, they continued walking…all the way to Kenya. In all, the Lost Boys walked over 1000 miles.

The Good Lie picks up when the surviving children are in Kakuma, where they are now grown. Mamere (Oceng), Jeremiah (Duany), Paul (Jal), and Abital (Wiel) number among the 3600 who have been chosen to come to America. The heartbreaking truth is that the lists of those going to America posted every day at Kakuma could not include everyone. There were more separations, more goodbyes, and some Lost Boys and Girls continued to live in limbo and hardship. In Kakuma, the huge, over-crowded refugee camp, in the Turkana desert-like region of northwest Kenya, the south Sudanese lived on one meal (of sorghum) a day. They were threatened by the Turkana people as well as by some of the other refugees from other countries. They had little hope of further education.

Those who came to America arrived with little more than the clothes on their backs, other than one prized possession, the Bible, that many of these young men clutched to their chests as they walked into American airports and their new lives. The Bible is also visible throughout The Good Lie.

Across the country, Americans in places such as Portland, Burlington, Nashville, Jacksonville, Fargo, San Diego, and, of course, Kansas City, where the U.S. portion of The Good Lie takes place, got to know the Lost Boys and were blessed by the relationship. Many churches and civic organizations reached out to help these young men from southern Sudan settle into life in America, but many Americans ended up finding their own lives so much richer because of their friendship.

In The Good Lie the resilience, loyalty, and faith of Mamere, Jeremiah, Paul, and Abital impact the lives of those they come to love, such as Carrie (Reese Witherspoon) and employment agency owner, rancher Jack (Corey Stoll). And the Sudanese young people continue to support each other, even in the worst of times, such as when Paul goes through a serious crisis of faith and when they must fight bureaucracy and post 9/11 fear to bring Abital from Boston where she was sent from Kakuma.

The culture shock experienced by Lost Boys who heard telephones ring and felt ice for the first time, discovered fast food, and learned about the independence of western women when they came to America is depicted with gentle humor in The Good Lie. But we also see the wanton cruelty of western waste and the loneliness of not being understood through Sudanese eyes. Jeremiah quits his supermarket job when forced by the owner to throw away food rather than give it to the poor. And Paul’s eagerness to gain the approval and friendship of his far less ambitious and skilled co-workers leads him to drug use and conflict with the other Lost Boys.

Time and again the Lost Boys in The Good Lie return to Jack’s ranch just to be in the familiar presence of cattle. As the three young men walk hand in hand towards the pasture, the film flashes back to show them as children among the magnificent long-horned cows they cared for in Bahr al Ghazal. Flashbacks of both joy and sorrow enrich the film and emphasize how the past and present of these once-lost boys is intertwined. In the same manner, past and present families are intertwined. The Americans, knowing how much it means to the Lost Boys, fight to make a reunion with Abital possible, but by their love and concern they become family to the southern Sudanese. And the sacrifice of one brother finds its courageous and redemptive echo in an act of sacrifice by another brother.

While The Good Lie has received some glowing reviews, some film reviewers criticize the filmfor having “white saviors.” These critics probably have little experience with Sudan/South Sudan. But The Good Lie demonstrates how the coming of the Lost Boys to America was life-changing for both the southern Sudanese and the Americans. A tagline for the film says concerning Carrie (Witherspoon): “She opened her home. They opened her eyes.”

The Lost Boys in The Good Lie open the eyes of Carrie, Jack (Stoll), and other Americans in many ways – to the power of kindness and friendship, to selfless giving, to the value of vulnerability and trust. But there was another gift that the Lost Boys gave to many Americans who, in the pre-9/11 world, had never given that much thought to terrorism before their friendship with these young men from southern Sudan. They opened our eyes to the truth about those who are determined to build a global Caliphate and to impose their ideology on a naïve or unprepared civilization. They helped us to see that Sudan’s situation which we previously thought of as a “humanitarian” crisis was actually jihad – a term with which we would soon become much more familiar. And they taught us to connect the dots – across miles and across years – all the way from NIF to ISIS.

Faith J. H. McDonnell directs the Institute on Religion and Democracy’s Religious Liberty Program and Church Alliance for a New Sudan and is the author of Girl Soldier: A Story of Hope for Northern Uganda’s Children(Chosen Books, 2007).

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