The “lost boy” on finding himself as an artist

Bol Aweng was 6 years old when he was separated from his family. What he expected to be a couple hours of hiding from the fighting as soldiers attacked his village in the Darfur region of Sudan ended up being just the beginning of a journey that would test the boy's endurance, wits and will to survive.

These events would also serve as a catalyst for Aweng's art-making. From childhood stick figures drawn in the unsheltered bush through the paintings he crafts as an adult (some of which are on exhibit at Otterbein University's Miller Gallery as “The Journey of Hope: Stories from Sudan to Columbus” through Nov. 21), Aweng's art has always been a way to both process and share the harrowing journey of one of Sudan's “lost boys.”

“The reason I'm here is to share my story with people,” Aweng said in an interview inside Miller Gallery. “I'm here. I'm part of it. I witnessed it. I faced all the challenges that go with it.”

Gesturing to one of his paintings hanging on the wall, he calls attention to his use of shadow. “I'm here to reveal all these things that were in the shadow. [To tell] what was the level of that suffering … to have no permanent place to live,” he said.

At age 6, Aweng couldn't even conceive of, let alone understand, that, when the bloody and devastating decade-long civil war in Sudan found its way to his village in 1987, it would be 20 years before he would see his family again.

“What I remember was, in my village, we had lot of animals, and I was taking care of the cows. When government soldiers came to the village, I didn't know what was going on. That's when I had to run. They were coming with tanks, bombing from air and [with] ground troops. Every time when I looked back at my village, what I see is my village is burning, and sounds of shooting and fighting and gunfire, and the smoke is covering everything, flames everywhere,” Aweng said. “I was on my own, so I just kept moving away from my village still hoping that I would go back and find my family, but all that time there was no way of going back. [Running] away is the only choice you have. If you are lucky, [you] reach a safe place, but many people lost their lives.”

As fighting continued to spread, Aweng, who had joined a group of about 15 other new refugees, knew he had to keep walking. Exhaustion, hunger, dehydration, animal attacks and a lack of knowledge about safe and unsafe foods to eat in the wild were some of the few challenges faced by the walkers. These all tested one's will to live, Aweng said.

“During the journey, there was nothing easy. Many people would just give up, feel like this is too much. ‘I can't do it,' so they would just sit down and they never get up,” he said. Aweng said an older boy kept him from losing heart, providing encouragement and, when necessary, bribery.

Eight weeks later, the growing number of Sudanese refugees crossed the border into Ethiopia, where they were told by United Nations representatives they would be safe. For four years, 35,000 refugees lived in this makeshift camp they had to build largely themselves. “We had to come together as a group and share duties and do whatever possible to live. No matter how young we were we had to do something,” Aweng said.

However, Ethiopia's own internal strife forced the abandonment of the camp, and the refugees were ordered back into Sudan. With war still raging in their homeland, Aweng and the rest of the refugees were left with few choices, and this time their journey took them to Kenya. Only 16,000 of the 35,000 from his camp survived the trek.

Aweng had lived for 10 years in the refugee camp in Kenya when he was selected for resettlement in the United States. He lived in Nashville for five years before coming to Columbus to study fine art at Ohio State University.

“My journey continues in Nashville, and now in Columbus,” said Aweng, who is now married and has four children.

He returned to what is now South Sudan in 2007, where he learned that his family had survived its own trials and had eventually returned to their village.

“I felt like I needed to return and find out what happened to them. It was not easy. We were happy to see each other, but when we sat down to share some stories we were so sad hearing these terrible stories we decided not to talk about it,” Aweng said. “I knew this was my dad and my mom, but we [had] a very big gap with what was lost this whole time. I decided it was best to stay in [the U.S.] where I can make money to help support them.”

Since then, Aweng has helped build and open a medical clinic in his home village. In addition to making art, Aweng does fundraising, and recently published a book, “The Journey of Hope,” that tells his story and features his art.

Aweng said his refugee story is unique, but it is still the story of all refugees.

“Mostly people who left [nations devastated by war] have very similar stories that they don't always share. They are very painful,” he said. “You left and maybe you lost family members, or you recall that moment when you lost people. Some people go without food or cross oceans to try to survive. … The same thing that happened to me. I lost friends to lions, to poisoned food, to dehydration. I am a voice for those who survived, for people to understand my story so they can understand the story of the people who are still suffering.”