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April 2, 2007

The Lost Boys Speak Out

Ishmael Beah's book A Long Way Gone is enjoying its sixth week near the top of the New York Times bestsellers list and is receiving lots of sparkling reviews. The book is an autobiographical account of Beah's life in war-torn Sierra Leone, where he was given an AK-47 and strong drugs at age 12 and sent off to kill. (The Oscar-nominated film Blood Diamond is also, in part, about the trials of another child soldier in the same war.) But Beah's isn't the only story of children in an African nation struggling with violence, starvation, and civil war. Recently, books and films inspired, narrated, or written by young survivors of these conflicts have increased tremendously in number and popularity.

Many of these stories are told by the Lost Boys of Sudan, a group of about 3,800 refugees that came to the U.S. because violence and civil war chased them out of Sudan. God Grew Tired of Us is a National Geographic-sponsored film about the journey of three other lost boys now playing in select theaters. The book with the same name zeros in on one of the boys featured in the film, John Dau. Another memoir, They Poured Fire On Us From The Sky is about three more lost boys of Sudan.

The plight of these children has also inspired fictional memoirs. Perhaps most well-known is Dave Eggers' bestseller What Is the What, the fictionalized autobiography of the real-life Valentino Achak Deng, who trekked across Sudan at the age of six and spent 10 years living in refugee camps before moving to the United States. Uzodinma Iweala wrote Beasts of No Nation, a novel about the hellish ordeal of a boy soldier in an unnamed African country.

Why the surge in popularity? It isn't exactly breaking news. The Sudanese conflict and the war in Sierra Leone both began in 1991, and the Lost Boys of Sudan came to the US in 2001. Perhaps it's because newscasts, human-rights reports, and accounts from international aid workers—previously the primary ways for Westerners to learn more about the plight of African children in war zones—have now given way to first-person narratives by the children who lived through the hunger, starvation, and killings.

A recent article in Foreign Policy discusses a study that found anecdotes about individual children are much better at raising money for the Save the Children charity than general stats about the crisis. Probably the same holds true for increasing book sales.

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