When the Lost Boys were just young children, the civils war in Sudan gained momentum. The war had raged on for some years, but around that time it escalated into full-blown genocide. The soldiers would indiscriminately destroy villages throughout the region. When they approached a village, the elders would get the boys who were old enough to run but not old enough to fight out of the village and of course they would flee as fast as possible. Some did not make it. The boys who were old enough to fight stayed behind to try and protect the village, the women and girls, the old people and the livestock. The soldiers would come into the villages and kill the men or force them into slavery, rape the women and girls and then sell them as sex slaves, burn the huts and kill the livestock. The boys who fled would eventually meet up with other boys from other villages who were on the run as well.
Eventually, these lost boys numbered over 20,000. They roamed the deserts of Sudan. Some died of starvation, some died of disease. Soldiers who came across the bands of boys put their dogs on them. They bombed them or shot them for target practice. No one would take them in or help them. Many of them tried to reach Ethiopia but were driven into the river where many drowned. Their numbers dwindled to somewhere around 10,000. Half were killed or died in just a few years. Bear in mind, these were boys between 4 and 15 years old.
After several years of wandering in the desert terrorized, starving, and dying, the U.N. set up a camp for them in Kenya. Some boys died of disease and some left the camp to go back and fight in the war. After 8 or 9 years in the camps, various American charity organizations brought the remaining 3600 Lost Boys to the U. S. Many of them had never worn shoes, never seen a TV or microwave. They knew nothing of modern culture. Charities paid their rents for three months and helped them get to communities around the country and helped them get work. After a 3 month period, they were left to struggle on their own. Some have fared pretty well, relatively speaking, some have not.
After hearing about the Lost Boys and seeing some of the hundred or so that were settled around Nashville, I decided to make a portrait series on the Lost Boys. The portraits have been a fascinating project, but the stories they’ve told and the tragedies they’ve endured has been the most wrenching aspect of this endeavor. They have transcended horrific obstacles but their spirits are incredibly strong. These people have a gentle demeanor that puzzles me. One would assume that the young men would be extremely bitter about their plight. They are wary on the surface, but then quick to smile and laugh. They are wonderful young men. You’ve likely seen one of them here and there in Nashville, bag boys at the grocery store, or on the street.
The Lost Boys Foundation was founded in 2003 with the tragic passing of Pel Gai, one of the Lost Boys who had escaped genocide in Sudan, and who came to Nashville looking for a better life. After Pel was killed in a bar, no one close to him had enough funds to pay for his funeral. Photographic artist Jack Spencer provided and helped raise funds for Pel’s services, and then gathered concerned citizens from the community to form the Lost Boys Foundation of Nashville, in the hopes of helping all Lost Boys become acclimated to America, and be provided with whatever support might be necessary to help them become self-sufficient, and one day care for their families in America and back in Sudan