NYAL, Sudan — Joseph Gatyoung Khan made a vow, uttered in the back seat of a Land Cruiser on a very bumpy road, as he headed home for the first time in 22 years: I will not cry. He had not seen his parents for two decades. He had not set foot in his village since he marched off in 1988, an 8-year-old boy on a barefoot odyssey through one of Africa’s worst civil wars.
His story would be repeated thousandsfold, and a generation of southern Sudanese boys, scattered by the conflict, would come to be known as the Lost Boys. Sent off by their families at the height of the violence, they ended up trekking hundreds of miles through swamps, deserts and hostile territory — often in packs, sometimes chased by government bombers and slave traders, sometimes forced to be child soldiers.
Several thousand, including Mr. Khan, were eventually resettled in the United States, where they faced another difficult trial: fitting in. Mr. Khan spent the last seven years working his way up from the midnight shift in a casino, to dean’s list at the University of Iowa and buying a white Isuzu Rodeo.
But now he was coming home, as southern Sudan is finally rounding the bend of its own epic journey.
On Jan. 9, the people of southern Sudan will vote in a referendum to decide if they will split off from the north and form their own country. The election will be the capstone to a 50-year liberation struggle in which more than two million people were killed, as the Christian and animist southern part of the country fought against Arab rulers in the north. As in Darfur, the government unleashed local militias to do its dirty work, and the militias razed villages, raped women, massacred civilians and kidnapped children to sell as slaves.
Few people have forgotten those days, and the referendum is widely expected to pass, drawing a new line on the map of Africa and rearranging commercial and political alliances across this stretch of the continent. Voter registration sites have been set up in the United States, Europe and even Australia for southern Sudanese living overseas. Still, many Lost Boys are flocking back here, to cast votes in their homeland.
“We want to be in Sudan to feel that connection, to look at the graves, to think about the fallen,” said Valentino Achak Deng, whose nightmarish life on the run was the subject of the best-selling book “What Is the What?” “All that was about one thing: self-determination. Now is the time.”
But the joy of their homecomings is mixed with ambivalence, uncertainty and fear. Will the north really let the south break away? Will there be another war? “I’m afraid,” Mr. Khan said. His journey home began in Juba, the region’s main city, in early November, just in time to register for the independence referendum.
Juba is a city in flux; since a peace treaty with the north was signed five years ago, southern Sudan has been preparing for self-rule. There are new ministries and new roads, new diplomats, aid workers, merchants and oil prospectors, all circulating through a tiny airport that suddenly has 80 flights a day. But Mr. Khan was vexed by the striking inequalities — the new Hummers cruising by endless shantytowns — and the growing rumblings of tribal politics. He is a Nuer, considered the second most powerful ethnic group behind the Dinka, who control the key posts.
“Everybody knows what’s going on, but nobody’s talking about it,” he said. “My friends told me to shut up, for my own safety.” He then flew to Bentiu, the big town closest to his village, not far from the heavily militarized north-south border. This is where Sudan’s oil is. Part of the problem of dividing Sudan is that 75 percent of the country’s oil is produced in the south, but the pipelines flow through the north, meaning the south will remain dependent on the north to export its crude.
Here Mr. Khan met Stephen Gatloy Tunguar, a fellow Lost Boy he had not seen for years. They talked about all the friends who died on their childhood trek across Sudan and into the Kenyan refugee camps, from malaria, starvation, gunshots, thirst. “We’d just step over them and keep going,” Mr. Khan said.
The dirt road to Nyal runs past oil fields and into the Sudd, where the Nile River breaks into numerous capillaries. At last, Mr. Khan arrived in a lush green place that he recognized. “My God, I used to climb that mango tree,” he said. He stepped from the truck in a daze. With his half brother steadying him, he began to tread the sandy footpaths of his youth, this time wearing a pair of $135 Air Jordans.
Up the road, a tall, emaciated figure came running toward him. Her face was beautifully scarred in the traditional Nuer fashion, with swirls of tiny raised bumps, almost like little droplets of sweat, but skin. “Tell me it’s not my son! Tell me it’s not my son!” she screamed. His mother collapsed into him. He closed his eyes and hugged her. But he did not cry. His father would come tomorrow. He was a day’s canoe trip away, guarding the family’s cattle by the river.
Nyal is a place that looks hard to leave. Peace and community seem to flow out of the Hershey Kiss-shaped huts and among the unusually tall people. The civil war mostly missed here, and as Mr. Khan explained, some of the Lost Boys like him were not initially fleeing the conflict. They were sent into it, by the rebels. “My father was asked to give up his eldest son, for future purposes,” he said. Later, he was more specific. “We were child soldiers.”
That first night back home was fine. Mr. Khan kept it together. He did not share his future plans, like how he wanted to go back to law school in the United States, if he could get the money.
But the next morning was different. He was sitting in a plastic chair, dozens of women in ripped dresses singing and dancing around him, little children with runny noses and distended bellies squeezing his hand. He later said he saw himself, 22 years ago, in those children. He broke the vow he made in the back of the Land Cruiser.
“They were more happy than me,” he said. “They don’t have schools, they don’t have good hospitals, there’s a lot of mosquitoes around here, but still, still, within them, they were so happy, happier than all of us with bank accounts.”
And that made him rethink his plans.
“I belong here,” he said. “The rest of the world doesn’t need me, no, but these people, they need me. I have a reason why I’m still alive, the reason to tell the whole world that these people are good people. They are human beings, they need help, they need shoes, at least.”
But at the time, he did not say a word and just cried. His mother was confused. “Why would you cry?” she asked. “Nobody died. We’re still here. You’ve seen us. Your daddy’s coming. You should be happy.” She touched his eyes. “Don’t cry,” she said. “Never cry.”