If anybody ever deserves peace and security, it is the terrorized tribal Africans of South Sudan.

The world first learned of their plight in the 1990s, when thousands of boys between the ages of seven and 17 began arriving at refugee camps in Kenya, Ethiopia and Uganda telling tales almost too horrific to be believed.

More than 20,000 in all, they became known as the Lost Boys of Sudan – orphans of a complex civil war that was difficult for outsiders to understand. It was more than the Sudanese government fighting a rebel army – more of a battle between tribal warlords, small-time religious thugs and psychopathic gangsters who forced children to become killers.

Toposa_Children_South_Sudan_009Two survivors (Photo by Steve Evans/Wikimedia)

The kids told horror stories of watching their rural villages being savagely destroyed by fast-moving, murderous militia who were often high on drugs and blood lust. The boys told of escaping death only because they were out watching their families’ goats when their villages were attacked. They told of hiding in the underbrush and watching as their parents and siblings were terrorized, tortured, raped, maimed and murdered by crazed raiders who then stole all the food and burned everything that remained of the village.

Together, the boys walked thousands of miles across Africa to refugee camps. Many died during the trek from disease, hunger, victimization by rival tribes, and animal attacks.

In 2001, the United States allowed roughly 3,400 of the boys to resettle here.

Their stories are heartbreaking. In Nashville, Paul Joseph tells of wandering across the devastated countryside with friends – nobody older than nine. They scavenged for food, took up with older boys – 12-year-olds – then set off for refugee camps in Uganda. En route, they were captured by a violent militia which forced them to become soldiers and raiders. Joseph denies ever killing anyone, but says he became a firearms instructor, teaching the younger boys how to shoot and maintain AK-47 assault rifles.

ssudan-kidsYoung refugees (Photo courtesy of the World Food Programme)

Eventually, he slipped away, made it to a refugee camp, then was

befriended by an American woman who helped him come to the United States where he graduated from high school, then college and now is an assistant pastor at a Nashville church.

All the while, he and others like him tell of dreaming of one day returning to their home country to rebuild what decades of senseless, ongoing war had destroyed. And out of the area, stories emerged of starvation and suffering in vast refugee camps that seemingly were ignored by their government.

For decades the conflict raged on the southern tip of one of the world’s oldest countries, Sudan. The south’s population was predominantly dark-skinned tribal peoples who were Christian and traditional animists – distinctly different than Sudan’s majority Muslim light-skinned Arabs.

The Muslim northerners were alternately accused of ignoring the devastation of the south – or of causing the extreme persecution there by supporting and funding the roving rebels, such as the drug-fueled Ganjaweed militia, who regularly raided Christian villages, taking the young into slavery while murdering the men and older women.

Having survived the nightmare, some of the survivors have returned to South Sudan. Others work abroad, sending money to relatives and working to bring peace to their homeland.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAEmmanuel Jal, a “Lost Boy” who settled in Britain (Photo by Steve Shankbone)

In January 2011, United Nations-sponsored elections were held to determine whether South Sudan should declare independence from Sudan and 98.83 percent of the population voted in favor of breaking away from the Arab north. That led to a UN-brokered partition of the nation on July 9, 2011, although the oil-wealthy region of Abyei remains disputed – claimed by both Sudan and the new nation of South Sudan.

However, the heartbreak continues. The brand-new republic, scarred by decades of brutal conflict, has disintegrated into new chaos fed by age-old tribal vendettas.