Chris Koor Garang dreamed for years of knowing his parents’ fate, of learning whether they were alive or dead.
His family had been split apart by the war in Sudan one violent night in 1989.
About a week into his first trip home in nearly two decades, he got a letter from his parents. They were alive and in a nearby village in southern Sudan. They wanted to see him right away.
But he couldn’t just leave. There were people who needed his medical care. A little girl had been bitten by a snake and had an infection all the way to her foot bone. A woman had been carried in on a stretcher — a two-day trip to the clinic — after a botched C-section performed by villagers.
He stayed three more days, finishing up what he had traveled about 9,000 miles to do, before climbing on board a pickup truck toward the town of Kwajok, where his parents were waiting.
When they finally saw each other, they clung tightly and didn’t want to let go. His father held his head and spat on it , giving him his blessing.
The family was reunited. But it was more complicated than that.
“When I saw them, I was happy. I was glad they were alive but I didn’t have that connection that somebody who stayed with their parents for so long could have,” says Garang, now 30.
“I grew up alone in the camp. I have my own life, my own family. My friends were my brothers,” he says. “It was just like, all right it’s great you guys are alive, now let’s see how life goes.”
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Garang, whose name Koor means lion in Dinka, comes from a cattle-herding tribe in what is now South Sudan, a landlocked country that gained its independence in 2011. It is smaller than Texas and has about 12 million people.
At the height of the conflict between the North and the South, militiamen on horseback and camels rode through his village in the middle of the night, burning everything along their path, raping women and kidnapping children to sell as slaves.
Garang and his brother ran in different directions, both naked and barefoot. There was no turning back.
At age 7, Garang became one of about 20,000 children, mostly young boys, who trekked in groups through swamps, deserts and across the Nile – a 1,000-mile, months-long journey to neighboring Ethiopia.
His brother, he later found, was killed that night.