Government and rebel forces began fighting in Mabior Ghack's village in 1987. When he heard shots, 5-year-old Ghack began running.
He couldn't find his parents, and out of fear he did not go back to try to join them.
"When you are in that kind of situation, all you think about is living or dying," he said. "There are no other options. So you have to think of living."
Ghack, who will graduate from the University of Kentucky in May with a civil engineering degree, is one of the "lost boys of Sudan," the name given to more than 27,000 boys displaced or orphaned during the Second Sudanese Civil War between 1983 and 2003.
During the war, government troops systematically attacked Sudanese villages. More than 2 million people were killed during the 20-year war, according to the International Rescue Committee. Girls were raped, taken as slaves, killed or adopted by other Sudanese families. Many boys, often orphaned, traveled on foot for weeks to nearby countries as refugees.
Fleeing from his Sudanese village to Ethiopia was a three-week journey. During that time, Ghack and a friend were protected by an older man, and the group managed to avoid the attacks from wild animals and from armed forces while crossing the Sudanese border. However, Ghack had only the clothes on his back and whatever food he could scavenge when he left Sudan.
It wasn't much better in Ethiopia.
"You can't make it on your own," he said. "Some people tried to go back, and some died because of animals, some died because of hunger, some died because of lack of water."
For three more years Ghack lived in an Ethiopian refugee camp. While there, he didn't think much about whether he would get to see his parents again, if they were even alive -- it was too unrealistic, he said.
When he was 9, Ethiopian rebels overthrew the government, resulting in chaos for the country. Ghack and others abandoned the camp and began the dangerous trip back into Sudan.
After facing many of the same obstacles he encountered on the way to Ethiopia, Ghack arrived in a small Sudanese town where he lived for about four months before he decided to cross with a group into Kenya, a safer country where he could go to school.
In 1993, six years after fleeing his home village, Ghack figured out how to contact his father. He called from Kenya and told his father he was alive.
In the months that followed, Ghack, 11, saved up money to call about once a month. During middle school he worked as a plumber and tended a small plot of kale, a leafy green vegetable he sold at the market to pay for school supplies.
During their last phone conversation, Ghack told his father he wanted to visit Sudan to see his family. His father told him not to because he could be killed in the conflict between rebel and government forces, and to stay in school instead.
A year after they last talked on the phone, Ghack received a letter from his uncle. As he began to open it, his cousin, who knew what it contained, told Ghack to throw it away. He opened it anyway.
His parents had been killed during fighting between the government and rebel forces.
"I was on the bed, and I fell to the floor," Ghack said. "I didn't go to school for two weeks."
Ghack finished high school in Kenya in 2000. A year later, he heard a religious group would be interested in sponsoring him and other refugees going to the United States. The refugees thought it was all talk until they began filling out applications.
After a yearlong process of interviews and paperwork, Ghack was on his way to the United States.
Ghack arrived in Louisville in 2001. He could write proficiently in English, but he had trouble speaking it. Ghack took classes through the Kentucky Refugee Ministries to lern both American culture and English.
He began working nights at a gas station and taking classes at Jefferson Community College in Louisville during the day. Ghack graduated with an associate degree and applied to the University of Kentucky. The workload was daunting.
"When (my father) told me to go into engineering, I didn't think I would go to college. Even when I was admitted to UK, I didn't think I would graduate," he said.
Ghack, a U.S. citizen since June 2007, has been at UK for four years.
Fellow students sometimes ask him for his story, but he doesn't say much. Someone recently asked him if he was going to visit his parents after graduation. He evaded the question and replied that he would visit his family.
"I don't tell a lot of my history because if I tell them, I don't think they would believe it," he said.
© 2008 Kentucky Kernel via U-WIRE