As far back as I can remember into my childhood, stories of fleeing have always surrounded me. Tales of dodging bombs, navigating through dense jungles and hiding in caves took the place of “The Three Little Pigs” and other conventional bedtime stories. I wouldn’t have had it any other way. The spillover effects of the Vietnam War caused my grandfather’s family to flee their village in the mountains of Laos. They joined a massive flood of refugees into Thailand, in hopes of escaping persecution and death. My father, a young boy at the time, very close to my age now, recalls with vivid detail the atrocities he and others faced as refugees. He has always taken the opportunity to remind me of the suffering around the world that too many of us fail to acknowledge.

One particular story I remember him telling has stayed with me. The group of refugees that my father and his family were fleeing with had reached the final stages of trekking through carnage to reach freedom and safety. It had been several weeks of constant walking, with next to nothing to eat. As they quietly passed through the jungle night, they heard sounds coming from the bushes. Fearing that it was a group of soldiers that had been hunting them since fleeing their village, all sat motionless and quiet on the damp jungle floor.

Then, through the bushes came not a column of armed soldiers, but a child. It was a young girl who had fled with a group of refugees that had left just days before my father’s. Her mother had fallen ill and could not keep up with the rest of the group. Fearing that the entire group would be slaughtered if they all remained while the woman recovered, they had decided there was no choice but to move on. Only one person was brave enough to stay by her side—her daughter.

The group tried to convince the little girl to come with them, even her mother pleaded for her to leave. Fearing an imminent death the group went on, leaving the two behind. The girl covered her mother with the only possession they had—a torn, thin blanket. She sat next to her for two days until the third morning when her mother did not wake from her sleep.

The young child was lost. Lost in the middle of the jungle. Lost in the middle of a civil war. Lost in the middle of life and death. When she approached my father’s group she had only enough strength to crawl and beg for their assistance. Every young child in the group already carried an even younger child on their back. All the adults carried with them just enough food for the group to survive. No one had the strength to carry the girl. All they could do was share the little food they had with her and move on. They were forced to leave the child behind, alone, to eventually meet the same fate as her mother.

My father told me of how distraught this made him feel as a young boy seeing another young person no different than himself have to go through such great suffering. There was nothing he or the group could do but continue with the struggle for their own survival.

Several weeks went by. Many in my father’s group had died from starvation and disease; some by bullets and others from landmines. Babies were washed away from their families in river crossings—often their mothers met the same fate, choosing to save their child or put an end to their own misery. My father managed to survive all of the agony around him and months after he first fled his village in Laos, he reached a refugee camp in Thailand.

While waiting in line for registration he felt a tug on his pant leg. There stood the very same girl they had left behind, believing that her death was inevitable. The girl told my father how the food they had shared with her had given her strength. One night she had heard shots being fired and realized it was her last chance for survival. She began running—bloodied feet racing across muddy jungle floors. Weeks later she arrived in the camp. It was miracle.

So, too, are the other 40 million refugees around the world and their stories of survival. Refugees are businessmen, farmers and doctors. They are grandmothers, fathers and sisters. They are no different than you and me.


I remember back to 1994, seeing a young naive boy in front of the television flipping through various afternoon cartoons. He was searching for something, something but he didn’t know what. During a commercial break, the boy set aside his snack of cookies and milk and focused intently on the screen in front of him. He saw mutilated bodies, hundreds of dead children piled on top of each other and lines of thousands of people fleeing. His young mind knew this was not a new television show, movie or commercial.

Then the voice of a local news anchor began speaking over the horrific images, “Tonight on the five o’clock news, civil war in Rwanda.” The anchor continued to talk of other stories—the weather and the beginning of the new baseball season—but the young boy’s mind was fixated on the sight of the atrocities being committed in this new country to him, named Rwanda.

The young child continued watching TV until the familiar introduction to the local news began. Where was the story on this place called Rwanda? He wanted to find out what those gruesome images were. It was not to be. There was an important press conference of a local sports player, which was of much greater importance than the conflict in the tiny African country of Rwanda. The boy turned off the TV in wonderment. I was that boy.

The genocide of Rwanda was a turning point in my young life. I had never been there. I didn’t know anyone from there. But what I learned in the weeks, months and years to come after the genocide of 1994 has pushed me to strive to create awareness of and aid for the millions of refugees internationally—the world’s most vulnerable peoples. Rwanda experienced nearly one million deaths from a systematic plan of massacre intended to rid the country of an entire population. It was a genocide in which the dead grew at nearly three times the rate of the Jews during the Holocaust. Yet no one was speaking of it. The genocide went along ignored, taking backseat to Hollywood scandals and sports scores. I promised myself at that time that I would do whatever I could to assure something like this would never happen again, or at least not be ignored.

In 1999, it was time for me to follow through on my promise. I was fifteen years old and a freshman in high school. I had continued to study the conditions in Africa and had become very concerned about the conflict in Sudan. Over the past twenty years, the war between the north and the south in that country has taken the lives of nearly two million victims in southern Sudan—almost one out of every five southern Sudanese has died as a result of the war. Four million southern Sudanese have been forced to flee their homes and become internally displaced and 500,000 have become refugees in neighboring countries.

The responsibility for this upheaval has been attributed to the predominately Radical Arab Islamic regime of Khartoum. The regime had begun in the early 1980’s to implement a scorched-earth policy, bombing the south and enslaving the southern women and children. The denial of food became an effective mass weapon to destroy their opposition. The brutal Arab Islamic regime of Khartoum demanded that the mainly Black Christian and animist south convert to Islamic law and give up their oil-rich lands. For twenty years the south had resisted, but at great cost. How was I to create awareness and change in a land halfway across the world, while I was still not even old enough to legally drive a car?

After weeks and months of phone calls and e-mails, I was granted permission by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to visit a refugee camp near the border of Sudan and Kenya. The camp was a safe haven for Sudanese refugees fleeing their war-torn homeland. The camp was called Kakuma.

In the fall of 1999 I made my first trip to Kakuma. It was on that trip that I found my first love. I had heard my friends talking of their first love and how they knew from the moment they saw her that she would be their first. This happened the same way for me. She did not have blond hair or beautiful blue eyes. She was a sea of suffering humanity, mud shelters and plastic sheeting, hungry stomachs and heavy hearts. Her name is Kakuma and not a day or night passes without me thinking of her.

I wasn’t sure what I was doing there at the time. I had no thoughts of writing a book or giving lectures. I simply wanted to immerse myself in their suffering to find ways to ease it. The trip was to learn firsthand about what the refugees had experienced. When I reached Kakuma, 500 miles by plane from Nairobi, the first signs of suffering were revealed to me not by the refugees but by the indigenous population of the Turkana.

On the land where the Turkana have lived for centuries is where the United Nations erected a camp for the vulnerable refugees seeking sanctuary. Here, two groups of Africa’s lost and forgotten peoples were forced together in a dueling struggle for survival. The Turkana have persevered for many hundreds of years in this remote land that has nearly no water or vegetation. It is difficult for the indigenous communities of the Turkana to witness the aid and assistance handed out to the refugees, while they live in absolute poverty and deprivation. This has created conflict between the two communities, an unfortunate situation of trying to survive, each in their respective struggles.

The opportunity of being allowed into the world of the Turkana is something I could have never imagined—to document a people who, in most cases, have never had contact with the outside world. Yet, while traveling to remote villages I carried with me some guilt. I did not want to exploit their ancient culture. I had to constantly remind myself that my goal was to ease suffering. Still, at times I wondered if it was correct to disturb their tranquility, even if it was to help their people. This was an issue I was forced to face throughout the project. How far was too far? When was enough, enough? Should I photograph a dead newborn? Were the ribs of a starving child important to the project? What about a man shot in the back of the head as his lifeless body lay in the sand? I determined that it was of absolute importance to document all of these instances. As soon as one begins to ignore any aspect of suffering, the total truth cannot be shared.

After my first trip to Kakuma in 1999 I made several more solo trips back to what has now become my second home. I found it odd that in a land on the complete opposite side of the globe from where I live is a place where I feel most comfortable—a short and stocky Asian kid walking through a forest of tall and skinny pitch-black Africans. Kakuma was my first love and the people my passion. The pieces eventually fell into place and I realized that the most significant way for me to create awareness was by documenting the struggles of the great people of Kakuma, both the refugees and the indigenous. At times I thought this venture was impossible for a simple boy to find financial backing, logistical support and a publisher; then I remembered the extreme suffering and obstacles conquered by the people of Kakuma and it seemed to always put things into perspective.

I started to think about recording my experiences in a book as a way to bring attention to what was going on in this part of the world. “Was it possible that I could save the indigenous or solve the refugee crisis in eastern Africa? Could I stop the suffering and conflict?” It is very unlikely that any book alone could do all that. But someday this book might fall into the hands of someone who can.

Throughout this project I have been asked the question, “Will there ever be any hope for the people of southern Sudan?” To this inquiry, I can offer only one response. It is a story from my last visit to Kakuma. The day was Easter Sunday 2001, a holy day for these Christian refugees who, in their homeland, would not be able to practice their religion. During their Easter celebrations, fighting broke out within the refugee camp. Gunfire from AK-47’s echoed throughout the deserted streets. The fighting was a direct result of inter-factional disputes within the Sudanese Peoples Liberation Army (SPLA) across the border in Sudan. News of the disputes had reached the camp and turned the place that was once a refuge into the same war zone the refugees had fled.

The day was filled with rock-throwing, spear-fighting and the release of sporadic gunfire. Women and children who were caught in the middle of the fighting fled to one of the camp’s churches. Hundreds of refugees crammed together into the protection of the tiny building. I made my way to the church compound to gather accounts of the fighting and saw that these refugees had essentially become internally displaced in their own refugee camp. Many of them thought this was ironic. I went through the church talking to children and women. All were distraught and crying.

One little girl in the corner caught my eye. Most of the refugees in the church were with family members or at least acquaintances, huddling together after the horrific fighting, but not this girl. She sat alone in the corner, faced towards the wall, tracing her fingers in the dusty floor. I approached her and gently tapped her on the shoulder. As she turned to face me a tear fell from her weathered face. I sat down next to her and asked how she was doing. She replied with the customary, “Fine, thank you” that I received from almost every refugee child at Kakuma. Then more tears began to slip from her eyes. I asked where her family was and she began to cry more.

She placed her hand on my knee so I knew that I was not imposing on her. I sat with her until the tears subsided. It was then that I looked down at what she was drawing with her finger on the dusty floor. It appeared to be an outline of Sudan with a village scene in the middle. I told her I liked her picture and asked if she had family there. She told me that her mother was shot to death in front of her for not agreeing to go with government forces.

The tears began to form again. I tried to change the subject. “What is your picture of? Is it the ‘New Sudan’?” The New Sudan is the term given to the parts of southern Sudan controlled by the SPLA forces. She quickly replied, “No!” It was an odd reply, one that only someone opposed to the SPLA would respond. Even more odd was that almost all southern Sudanese were in support of the SPLA.

I wondered if she had anyone else in her family and she told me about her brother. As her tears came again, she explained in broken English how she had just seen him being stoned to death right before fleeing to the church. It then occurred to me, she had gone through witnessing the murder of her mother by the government-backed Arab Muslim militias of the north, and now had just witnessed the murder of her brother by her very own people. I sat there speechless next to her on the cold cement floor and, for the first time in my many trips to Kakuma, felt tears of my own welling up.

Then the young girl turned to me and smiled through her sadness. She pointed to the dusty floor and her picture and said, “My picture is to be of a land with no hatred and with no death. In this land families can stay together and they can be happy. Everyone can eat and no one will be killed. Children can go to school and live in peace. All tribes can live together, all colors and religions together. No one will kill each other anymore.”

I asked her how this could happen. She told me that she had a plan. I asked if she would share it with me. She said it was a secret, but not to worry. So I’ll let you decide whether there is hope left or not. For me, though, a little girl who has lost all family but not hope, is hope enough for me.

Daniel Cheng Yang
Saint Paul, Minnesota USA

Copyright © 1995-2017 PANGAEA. All Rights Reserved.