PORTLAND, Maine — It’s been 16 years since Aruna Kenyi fled Sudan during its civil war. He was 5 years old when the militia attacked and torched his small remote village.
Separated from his parents, he and his brothers escaped their homeland to refugee camps in Uganda and, years later, to a new life in America. He was one of the thousands of “Lost Boys of Sudan” who spent years drifting throughout their country while fleeing the bloody civil war and famine before landing in the U.S.
Now in college, the 21-year-old Kenyi is returning to his native village for the first time since 1994. He flies out of Boston on Tuesday and will be on hand when South Sudan celebrates its independence and becomes a nation of its own on July 9. He’ll spend the summer there and then return to Maine for his senior year with hopes of one day going back permanently.
With southern Sudan on the verge of statehood, many Sudanese are venturing home for the first time in years and, in some cases, decades. When he returns, Kenyi will be doing more than celebrating. He plans to set up a school nutrition program in Kansuk, the small village where he grew up in a mud-walled hut without electricity.
“Ever since I was living in the camps, I’ve wanted to help others,” Kenyi said in a Portland apartment where he lived with his older brother and his family during high school. “I have clothes. I have shoes. But there are people there that are walking barefoot. There are people there that don’t have anything. If I can do something that will get them something, that would be great.
“That’s my vision. I want to do my part in the world.”
People from southern Sudan voted in January on whether the region should secede from the rest of Sudan and form its own country. The referendum was part of a 2005 peace deal that ended more than two decades of civil war between the mostly Muslim north and the largely Christian and animist south that resulted in more than 2 million deaths.
The referendum was approved by more than 98 percent of those voting, but South Sudan’s future is uncertain. The region, which is slightly smaller than Texas, has only 30 miles of paved roads. Because only 15 percent of its nearly 9 million people can read, the ballot choices for the referendum were a drawing of clasped hands marked “unity” and of a single hand marked “separation.”
Kenyi was of kindergarten age when he was separated from his parents and began a long journey that took him and his older brothers from town to town in southern Sudan, to refugee camps in Uganda and eventually to the U.S., first to Virginia for a year and then to Maine. He wrote a book, “Between Two Rivers,” about his experience that was published last year by The Telling Room, a nonprofit writing center in Portland.
Too young to grasp the full meaning of death while wandering through Sudan, he recalled the time he first saw dead bodies along the side of a road while walking with his cousin Kose.
“The first time I saw a dead body, I thought the person was lying down,” Kenyi wrote in his book. “I went over and tried to wake him up. ‘You do not understand, do you?’ Kose asked me. ‘This person is dead.’ When he said that, I did not feel like walking anymore. I sat down.”
And he was told how a militia had killed many of the villagers in Kansuk after he had fled.
“Their hands were tied and they were attached to a car,” he wrote. “The soldiers would drive the car and drag the people behind it until they were dead. Then they would cut the ropes and leave the bodies on the road.”
Kenyi has one more year remaining at the University of Maine at Farmington, where he is studying community health education.
He’s not sure what to expect when he returns to Sudan, where violence has recently broken out between northern and southern troops over a disputed area that both regions claim as their own. He’ll have to brush up on his native tongue, Bari. He’ll stay with relatives and is looking forward to being reunited with his parents, who now live in the city of Juba, he said.
His primary aim is to work with business, community and government leaders to organize a school lunch program in Kansuk to ensure that all students get a healthy meal — primarily rice and beans — during the day. If that doesn’t pan out, he intends to set up a school library to make books available.
If nothing else, Kenyi is determined in his goal, said Maurice Martin, a professor at the University of Maine at Farmington.
“Everything he’s doing he does with a purpose in mind that he’s going back to southern Sudan and working out a way to make those people’s lot in life better,” Martin said. “He takes it very seriously.”
Other Sudanese who fled the war years ago are also making plans to return to their homeland for its independence on July 9, said Mariano Mawein, 38, who lost three brothers in the war and left Sudan in 1996, eventually moving to Portland four years ago. For those who can’t make the trip, celebrations are being planned in Portland, he said.
“It’s a big day.”