A 'lost boy' pioneers an artful trail

Graduate student Atem Aleu puts a face on Sudanese tragedies

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The following article, by freelance writer Sue Rardin, appears in the spring 2010 issue of Brandeis University Magazine. Visit the magazine's website to see what else is inside.

Atem Aleu was very young, but he remembers. In 1985 and 1986, during Sudan’s long civil war, militiamen backed by the Islamic government in the northern part of the country made war on southern villages,shooting men and boys and enslaving women and girls. Aleu’s father was killed; his mother was forced to drown herself and Aleu’s youngest brother because she would not relinquish the baby.

When attacks resumed in 1988, eight-year-old Aleu, his four remaining brothers, and other boys of his Dinka tribe fled from the sound of gunfire into the wilderness, joining a two-month exodus of deprivation and death that would eventually label them and 27,000 other children, almost all male, as the “lost boys of Sudan.”

Atem Aleu
     Atem Aleu
In 1994, fourteen years old and living in a United Nations refugee camp in Kenya, Aleu began to do something extraordinary—to paint representative figures. While Sudanese art features decorative design, no one in his environs had yet come up with the idea of painting pictures, Aleu says. Studying illustrations in the camp’s schoolbooks, he began to paint figures that could help tell his painful story.

His work caught the attention of camp aid workers, then U.N. and U.S. officials. In 2001, he was offered asylum and a chance for higher education in this country, but he has not forgotten his comrades. Since 2004, he has returned almost every summer to refugee camps in Africa to teach art to others like himself. When possible, he exhibits and markets their pictures here in the United States, returning the proceeds to help fund their educations.

Empty Village
     Empty Village, 2002
     Atem Aleu
Today Aleu is a Brandeisian with a master’s in cultural production—the study of the creation, communication, and preservation of cultural expressions. Through the help of Mark Auslander, director of the program, several exhibitions of Aleu’s and his students’ work have been mounted on campus, and many pieces are now permanently displayed in Arlington’s Southern Sudanese Community Center. In December 2010, Aleu expects to complete a second master’s, in Brandeis’s coexistence and conflict program—which, among its other goals, seeks to strengthen the contribution of the arts to the transformation of conflicts.

Aleu and his brothers lived in Ethiopian camps for three years, until civil war broke out there, too. The lost boys again fled, chased by Ethiopian forces into the river that divides Ethiopia from Sudan. Many could not swim, and, according to a Red Cross report, thousands of them died there, from gunshots, drowning, and crocodile attacks. Only about 10,000 boys survived that last grueling trip to reach safety in Kenya’s Kakuma Refugee Camp. One of Aleu’s brothers was among those who did not.

Refugee from Sudan, 2004
     Refugee from Sudan, 

     Mario Lual Deng
Few of the lost boys’ paintings convey the extremity of their early experiences. For hundreds of miles, Aleu and his companions struggled through marshes, forests, and deserts, living on berries and leaves, sometimes squeezing the mud of empty riverbeds seeking water to drink. Thousands died from starvation, illness, and attacks by hyenas and lions. Eventually, members of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army found the survivors and escorted them through the desert toward a refugee camp in Ethiopia, even as many boys continued to die from lack of food and water.

The Kakuma camp often ran out of food and water, but there Aleu could get schooling—and teach himself to paint. “This was a key to help people learn about our suffering,” he later told a reporter. “I didn’t speak any English, but I could do this art so all people could understand the genocide.”

Once in the United States, Aleu was resettled in Utah, where he learned English, finished high school, and in 2007 received a BFA from Brigham Young University. He learned about Brandeis through his friendship with Sasha Chanoff, a refugee worker at the Kakuma camp, and Sasha’s father, the writer David Chanoff, PhD’74, contacted Auslander about exhibiting Aleu’s work at the university. Eventually Aleu began graduate work at Brandeis.

Bye. Bye Time To Go Home
     Bye, Bye Time to Go Home, 2004
     James Aguer Garang
Utah remains home to Aleu, now age thirty, as well as his wife, two young sons, and an orphaned nephew, the son of a brother who was killed in 2000 while fighting government forces.

With the signing of a 2005 peace agreement between northern and southern Sudan, refugees were urged to return, and most have done so. Aleu stays in touch with his two remaining brothers in his homeland. His long-term goal is to build a Southern Sudanese Culture Center in his homeland. “Most of my students are back in Sudan now. So that is the big plan,” Aleu says. After all, the lost boys survived by sticking together.

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