‘The lost boys of Cleveland’ big screen debut

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CLEVELAND - They speak quietly, gracefully, their gentle voices revealing none of the unspeakable horrors they saw - and survived - so early in life.

"Didn't see my mother, how she die with my father, and I left," says Akol Madut.

Many of us are about to learn more about the extraordinary story of courage and survival of men such as Makol with the October 3rd release of the Hollywood movie entitled "The Good Lie."

But more people may know them better by a phrase used to describe them when they were very young: the "Lost Boys of Sudan."

What many people in Northeast Ohio may not know is the remarkable story of how close to 40 of the so-called "Lost Boys" wound up here in Cleveland back in 2001.

It's a happier end to what began as a tragic, violent story.

Since 1983, the east African nation of Sudan has been engaged in civil wars.

According to a United Nations synopsis, since then, a half a million people have died in the conflicts, and more have been displaced - fleeing their homes and the fighting for refugee camps.

Among those are about 20,000 children, mostly boys between the ages of 7 and 17, who were separated from their families.

They walked across an unforgiving landscape and wilderness into Ethiopia and Kenya before some were re-located by the UN to other nations. They became known as the "Lost Boys of Sudan."

They were walking away from war, but to call what they did a "walk" doesn't begin to tell the story.

"People die, they shot to death," says 33 year-old Anthony Nhial, one of the "Lost Boys" who made it to Cleveland, "and I see people die of hunger, of thirst, no water."

Akol Madut is 34 years-old and something of the group leader of the "Lost Boys" in Cleveland.

He fled when he was eight years-old, and walked with other children for three months into Ethiopia.

His account of that walk is as harrowing as it is heartbreaking.

"There's nobody taking care of you," he says, "no food, no water. If you need something to eat, all the trees, they are food. You can chew."

Madut says children would try to drink rainwater, but it often didn't rain. So they had to drink something else.

"Anybody having urine, you cannot waste your urine away," he says quietly, "and you give it to somebody who needs it, and we keep going."

And if a child couldn't keep going?

"When you're tired, and you tell us, 'guys, keep moving, I'm done,'" he says, " we take you to the other side of the street, and we leave. And then, the lions, and the tigers, they're pulling on, eating...."

If a child wasn't eaten by animals during the day, he or she had to survive the nights - even once they reached camps.

Madut remembers being with a group of about 50 children on night.

"When we wake up," he says, "that group is like 25 or 30, because most of them die of hunger."

Madut was actually kidnapped by rebels, and taken by to Sudan to fight, before the UN rescued him.

Eventually, he and many others walked to a camp in Kenya.

Conditions were terrible, but the UN did get some of the boys out - and 37 of them came to Cleveland.

"We didn't know where we were going," says 36 year-old Santino Manot, "but they say, 'you're going to America. You're going to the good place.'"

They arrived as young men who'd never seen an industrialized nation, spoke little or no English, and did not have any job training.

Catholic Charities of Cleveland arranged for their first housing back in 2001, and reached out to employers about helping the men get jobs.

One of those employers was the InterContinental Hotel at the Cleveland Clinic.

"There's a risk you take, but there's a huge, huge reward," says hotel general manager Campbell Black.

Black says the men are hard-working, well-liked, and take pride in whatever they do.

"I think you show other employees and other employers that you should take a chance," Black says.

"And," he adds, "it makes you see life in a different way."

32-year-old Makol Makol, one of the men whose in Cleveland, says the city now feels like home.

Adds Santino Manot, "They say that Sudanese Lost Boys, you guys lost and you found... you found in Cleveland."