Last week, Mangok Bol was sitting in his office at Brandeis University, in Waltham, holding the phone tight against his ear and then, suddenly, everything felt woozy, his cousin’s voice, 7,000 miles away in Kenya, growing faint as the enormity of it all sank in.
Mangok Bol’s brother, Makech Macthuy, and his brother’s wife, Achol Magot, were dead, murdered, their children scattered, like the ashes of their village in South Sudan.
He scoured the Internet and a news account from the region gave the basics: Gunmen, who authorities said are from the Murle tribe, moved into the village of Kolnyang and massacred nine men and 19 women. Eleven children were abducted.
Among them were Mangok Bol’s nephew, Makuei Makech Mach Bol, who is 2 years old, and his nieces — Abiei, 8, Ajoh, 6 and Anyieth, 4 — all taken.
“This practice of child abduction,” Mangok Bol was saying, “it’s been done for a long time.”
It is inhumanly perverse. One tribe with a low fertility rate consciously goes out and murders people from another tribe and steals their children and plants them with families in their own tribe. The children’s memories are wiped clean. They are stolen from their people, and their identities and culture are stolen from them.
“I have to find them,” Mangok Bol told me, and then he didn’t say anything for a while.
Mangok Bol lives in Everett. He loves Everett. He is one of the Lost Boys of Sudan, one of 20,000 boys orphaned or displaced by civil war. In 1987, he was a boy, 9 years old, when he began walking with his cousins, at a fast pace, away from the same village in South Sudan, marching to the cadence of the surrounding gunfire. They winced at the gunfire. They wept for their dead parents. They slept in the bush. It took them months to reach Ethiopia.
He lived in a refugee camp for three years until men with guns forced him to return to Sudan. He finally made it to another refugee camp in Kenya when he was 14. Nine years later, he was a young man, a lucky man, as he made it onto one of the last planes to carry the Lost Boys out of Africa.
He landed in Boston two weeks after the 9/11 attacks and got a job as a security guard. He sent most of his pay back to what was left of his family in Sudan. He put what was left in his pocket and tried to get something the gunmen who destroyed his family never had: an education.
He started humbly, at Bunker Hill Community College, riding the Orange Line, before moving up to Durham, to the University of New Hampshire, where he studied hard and marveled at the Wildcats hockey team. He graduated from UNH in 2008 and got a job at Brandeis, where he earned advanced degrees and found a home. Everybody at Brandeis loves Mangok Bol. He is a scholar and a gentleman.
But now he has to go to his original home. Next week, Mangok Bol will get on a plane, fly to Kenya, and somehow make his way back to South Sudan, where the echo of gunfire and the blinding light of bleached bones hover in his consciousness.
“Right now,” he said, “it’s not about the people who died. It’s about these innocent children.”
Mangok Bol spent months walking out of Sudan, and when he finally crossed the border, his feet were blistered and calloused but his heart was not. Now he will spend however long it takes to get back into Sudan, even if it means walking the same route. He will do this to honor his brother, his sister-in-law, his parents and everybody in his village, now and then, because it is something he must do.
The burden of freedom, Mangok Bol explained, is that you can’t endure someone else not having it.