Joseph Gatyoung Khan made a vow, uttered in the back seat of a Land Cruiser on a very bumpy road, as he headed home for the first time in 22 years: I will not cry.
He had not seen his parents for two decades. He had not set foot in his village since he marched off in 1988, an eight-year-old boy on a barefoot odyssey through one of Africa's worst civil wars.
His story would be repeated thousandsfold, and a generation of southern Sudanese boys, scattered by the conflict, would come to be known as the Lost Boys. Sent off by their families at the height of the violence, they ended up trekking hundreds of miles through swamps, deserts and hostile territory - often in packs, sometimes chased by government bombers and slave traders, sometimes forced to be child soldiers. Several thousand, including Joseph, were eventually resettled in the United States, where they faced another difficult trial: fitting in. Joseph spent the last seven years working his way up from the midnight shift in a casino, to dean's list at the University of Iowa and buying a white Isuzu Rodeo.
But now he was coming home, as southern Sudan is finally rounding the bend of its own epic journey. On the 9th of January 2011, the people of southern Sudan will vote in a referendum to decide if they should split off from the north and form their own country. Many Lost Boys are flocking back to cast votes in their homeland.
In November 2010 Joseph flew to Bentiu, the big town 150 miles from his village, not far from the heavily militarized north-south border. The dirt road to Nyal runs past a series of oil fields developed in recent years. At last, Joseph arrived in a lush green place that he recognised. 'My God, I used to climb that mango tree,' he said.
He stepped from the truck in a daze and began to tread the sandy footpaths of his youth, this time wearing a pair of $135 Air Jordans.
Up the road, a tall, emaciated figure came running toward him. Her face was beautifully scarred in the traditional Nuer fashion. 'Tell me it's not my son! Tell me it's not my son!' she screamed.
His mother collapsed into him. He closed his eyes and hugged her. But he did not cry. His father, away guarding the family's cattle by the river, would come tomorrow.
That first night back home was fine. Mr. Khan kept it together. He did not share his future plans, like how he wanted to go back to law school in the United States, if he could get the money.
But the next morning was different. He was sitting in a plastic chair, dozens of women in ripped dresses singing and dancing around him, little children with runny noses and distended bellies squeezing his hand. He later said he saw himself, 22 years ago, in those children. He broke the vow he made in the back of the Land Cruiser.
'They were more happy than me,' he said. 'They don't have schools, they don't have good hospitals, there's a lot of mosquitoes around here, but still, still, within them, they were so happy, happier than all of us with bank accounts.'
And that made him rethink his plans.
'I belong here,' he said. 'The rest of the world doesn't need me, no, but these people, they need me. I have a reason why I'm still alive, the reason to tell the whole world that these people are good people. They are human beings, they need help, they need shoes, at least.'
But at the time, he did not say a word and just cried. His mother was confused.
'Why would you cry?' she asked. 'Nobody died. We're still here. You've seen us. Your daddy's coming. You should be happy.' She touched his eyes. 'Don't cry,' she said. 'Never cry.'
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Click HERE for a full text by Jeffrey Gettleman of The New York Times.