Five-year-old Ayuel Koch ran for his life.
Terrified, scrambling among thousands of other frantic boys, trying to avoid gunfire, he ran, never looking back.
“I was tending to my cattle. I heard gunfire and saw smoke coming from my village,” Koch said of the southern village of Jonglei in Sudan.
Not knowing where to go, he and his group ran through the jungle.
With no food, water, shoes or family, the boys trekked for nearly 300 miles to Gambela, Ethiopia. Koch said he was too young and afraid to worry about family or what the future might have in store; he says that if he had looked back, he’d be dead.
“When you are a kid, you don’t think about what will happen tomorrow,” Koch said. “You just think of right now. I don’t think most of us were thinking about what will happen to us.”
The group walked at night to avoid being spotted by Sudan’s government militia. During the day, they did everything they could to stay alive in the harsh desert environment. Some found leaves for food, but many young refugees starved to death.
But it wasn’t just starvation that claimed the lives of the “Lost Boys.” Many fell to malaria, exhaustion and dehydration, while animals attacked the others. Some, exhausting all hope for solace, simply sat down to die. “They were thinking too much,” said Koch.
After more than a month of harsh conditions, the boys made it to Gambela. The young refugees, numbering 27,000, waited four months until United Nations aid workers arrived with food and other supplies. None of them knew what the next years would bring or when they would see their families again.
It was 1985. Koch wouldn’t see his family for 20 years.
An incredible journey
Koch’s life would continue to spiral, bringing him from one village to next, flirting with death, until his journey to the U.S. and later CSU, where he studies business.
For the next four years Koch remained in Ethiopia, where he received ample food and some schooling. His stay, however, was a short one.
In May of 1991, war in Ethiopia broke out due to a change in government power; the Sudanese refugees were on the run again. Once more, with only the clothes on his back, an eight-year-old Koch began a second grueling expedition: 470 brutal miles to Kenya.
Ethiopia’s militia closed in on the boys. Koch recalls one afternoon, where gunfire thundered in the distance, scaring the group into a frenzy. They fled toward the crocodile-filled Gilo River, and upon arrival, were left with no other option but to swim. Thousands fled across the river, where many drowned or were killed by gunfire; some were eaten alive by crocodiles.
Those who survived the river continued on, crossing back into Sudanese borders. At Pochalla, the group had to stop for about six months until the heavy rains subsided and the mosquitoes dispersed. With almost 400 miles left to the camp in Kenya, the boys kept walking.
In August of 1992, the boys made it to the Kakuma Refugee Camp. Only half of the 20,000 that started from Ethiopia remained.
From the moment they crossed the border, the group realized Kenya promised to be even more unbearable than Gambela. Rain only came twice a year, and combined with blazing temperatures, the country would prove to be another test of survival.
Each day, each boy was rationed with roughly one gallon of water to survive in the harsh desert. Five kilos of corn, three kilos of wheat, and a quarter cup of oil had to last each boy two weeks.
“You just had to get used to it,” Koch said.
Hoping for change
In 1983, war broke between the National Congress Party (NCP) and the rebels of the Sudan People Liberation Movement (SPLM).
“The NCP used religion as a way to convene the Sudanese to fight for them.” Koch said.
When people started to realize the methods of the NCP, Koch says rebels began to fight against the government.
“The (rebels) began fighting for equal opportunities to be able to say ‘I can be president’ or ‘I can have access to natural resources,'” he said
The genocide occurring in Darfur is recently perceived as war of religious sects. Koch clarifies, saying, “Darfur is now fighting for the same thing the South was fighting for; to share power and natural resources.”
In the twenty-two year war, between the North and South, nearly two million died and four million were displaced, according to the Herald Tribune.
A peace agreement was not signed until January 2005, which gave the South autonomy from the North so they can govern themselves until 2012. In 2012, the South will have to decide whether to unite again with Sudan or become an independent nation state. The Comprehensive Peace Agreement also gave South Sudan 50 percent of Sudan’s oil. The North was allocated 48 percent of oil reserves while 2 percent of the nation’s oil was granted to the indigenous people, as much of the oil is located on their land.
Violence still persists, and hundreds of thousands remain displaced.
Coming to America
With what little education he and the children received, Koch managed to learn English.
In July of 2001, after nine years in Kenya, the U.N. was finally able to relieve 3,800 of the “Lost Boys” and bring them to the United States. Koch was given the opportunity to come to Colorado, where he’s been studying at CSU, hoping to apply his education to relief in Sudan.
“I want the generations to come to have a better life in Sudan,” the quiet junior said. “I feel like I am part of the change. I feel that what has happened should not repeat itself; people like me need to be a part of a change from bad to good.”
Koch has vision to be a catalyst for reform, but says aide from nations like the U.S. will be needed.
“I think the country needs more than money, Sudan needs human capital,” Koch said. “By human capital, I mean people with higher education, like those with high school and college degrees.
“The U.S. should help with schools and education and encouraging people to invest. It is up to the U.S. government and what they are capable of giving. Anything would help.”
In July of 2001, seven of the “Lost Boys,” including Koch, landed at Denver International Airport. They had no idea where they were. A person from the African Community Center held a sign with Koch’s name at the airport.
Koch doesn’t know how is true age because there were no records from his childhood. When U.S. lawyers arrived to Kakuma, they guessed his age. This was not important, though; the U.N. strictly wanted to get the boys to the United States.
From DIA, Koch headed for Denver and received serious surgery on his foot, free of cost, but his first year was a matter of recovery. After that, he got a scholarship and received his associate’s degree in business. After two years at a community college in Denver, he decided to come to Colorado State.
On a campus of over 25,000 students, Koch holds something of a special magnitude, a man who has overcome a great test of life, among the most brutal that any victim of war has had to endure. Yet, he never looks for empathy, nor does he find his survival inspirational or unique to challenges people face in everyday life.
Rather, Koch remains humble and says, “There is a lot of struggle in life; it doesn’t matter where you are. You just have to be patient and take whatever comes your way; take life step by step.”
Last year, Koch returned to Sudan and saw his family for the first time since the government attacks on his village, a visit he says was “a mix of good and bad.”
Having not seen his family for 20 years, his mother and siblings were little more than strangers, faces which he could not recognize.
Adding to his grief, Koch realized that his father was missing from the picture.
He had later learned that his father had been killed. Koch and his family go without knowing where, when, or how the man met his end. Koch said he believed his father was likely a victim of government militia, but no one knows for sure.
Koch simply shrugs his shoulders when he talks about his incredible feat to overcome 16 years of grueling conditions.
“Things are hard, but you hope for the best no matter what,” Koch said. “You have to be ready for the sad day and the happiest day and hope that on the sad days that things will change.”
Staff writer Kaeli West can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org