As one of the thousands of "lost boys of Sudan," Mawut Mayen remembers eating mud, hiding from death squads and watching a friend die under an acacia tree after civil war invaded his life, destroyed his village and sent him on an extraordinary exodus from his war-torn homeland.
On Saturday, more than two decades later and half the world away, he will watch with equal measures of hope and trepidation as his homeland formally declared its independence from the north, becoming the Republic of South Sudan.
"There's so much uncertainty and insecurity," said Mayen, now 26, living in the United States and working as an industrial engineer for Boeing. "My people have lived with war all their lives. Let South Sudan be free. It's time to end the suffering."
Despite the pride and hopefulness that Sudanese refugees like Mayen feel as South Sudan becomes the world's newest country, they also recognize the tremendous challenges that lie ahead.
Lise Grande, who leads the U.N.'s humanitarian operations in South Sudan, told the Associated Press this week that the region is "one of the most underdeveloped on the planet." Only 15 percent of the population can read. Most live on a $1 a day. Education and health facilities are sorely inadequate.
Of more immediate concern is fighting that has escalated ahead of Saturday's independence along the ill-defined northern border with Sudan. Observers fear it could reignite the 1983-2005 civil war between the mostly Arab north and the south, where traditional African religions and Christianity are practiced. Despite international calls for a withdrawal, northern troops remain in the disputed border region, dueling with rebels and tribes over control of oil-producing land. Susan Rice, U.S. Ambassador to the U.N., on Thursday called the situation a "fragile and fraught moment."
'I want to live in dignity' For Mayen, the troubles conjure up memories of the perilous journey that he and some 20,000 other Sudanese children — mostly boys — made through Sudan's unforgiving terrain to refugee camps in Ethiopia and later Kenya in the mid-1980s.
Labeled by experts as some of the most traumatized orphans in history, these boys eventually dispersed as refugees worldwide, including some 3,800 to the United States. They became known as the "lost boys of Sudan" when U.N. workers at the Kakuma Refugee Camp in Kenya named them after the rag-tag orphans from "Peter Pan."
Despite the hardships they endured, the Sudanese who resettled in the U.S. have adjusted to American life better than members of many other refugee groups, according to the Office of Refugee Resettlement at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. They have learned English, and have done well in school and at work, in many cases sending money back to relatives in Sudan.
But these successes came at a steep cost, Mayen said.
"People in America ask me, 'What are your goals?'" he said. "If you've ever lived in a refugee camp, your goal is to make it to the next day. Nobody should ever have to go through the pain and suffering that the lost boys did. Children should be able to dream."
Santino M. Akot, 36, of Las Vegas, fled his homeland when he was 14 and has no plans to return.
"There were difficulties coming to America," he said. "You needed resources, like clothes and money. You needed to be able to read and write in English. You had few friends. Everything was new. Everyone wanted your money, money you didn't have."
Now, Akot is trying to provide a better life for his wife and two children. He earns just enough as a casino worker to "make sure my wife doesn't have to work," he said.
He hopes that his people have similar opportunities in their new country.
"I want to live in dignity," he said. "Now, we look to July 9, a day of great world importance. We have to stay strong here in America and in South Sudan. People of South Sudan deserve to live with their dignity. It is time."
Independence Day celebrations Many "lost boys" have returned to South Sudan ahead of the formal independence ceremony, to join the thousands in the streets of the new capital, Juba, where a digital clock counts down the minutes to independence day. Celebrations are planned in all of the South's 10 states.
Some plan to do more than rejoice at the nation's birth. Aruna Kenyi, a 21-year-old college student from Portland, Maine, left for southern Sudan in late May to see his family for the first time since 1994.
Kenyi was five when a militia torched his village of Kansuk. Now, the senior from the University of Maine in Farmington plans to spend the summer there and help to set up a nutrition program in the schools.
Another "lost boy," Angelo Maker of Newport News, Va., won't be attending the independence celebration in South Sudan. Since the 2005 peace accord with the north, he has traveled back to his homeland several times to help build schools — some of the basic infrastructure the new nation will need if it is to escape the cycle of violence.
"It is time to put down the guns," said Maker, who fled the country when he was seven after fighters from north swarmed his village and killed his family.
"I ran for days, crying with no food or water," said Maker, 31. "I walked toward the sunrises with other war orphans, walking for a thousand miles."
Maker described the changes he saw during his last trip in May. "They're building roads and schools," he said. "Children are gathering under the tree and learning to read and write. I see changes and I see hope."
He also has sought to raise awareness about the situation in South Sudan in the U.S., meeting with celebrities and members of Congress.
Many Sudanese refugees in the U.S. plan to celebrate on Saturday with songs and fellowship. In Richmond, Va., the Sudanese community has rented a hall to accommodate 500 people for dinner. Similar gatherings are planned in Las Vegas, Phoenix, Omaha and Salt Lake City.
"It is day when all south Sudanese will proudly raise their hands high," Mayen said.
'A better future'
Mayen's days are now spent juggling work, school and volunteering. He's enrolled in online classes at the University of Washington, where he hopes to earn a master's degree in engineering and technology management. He runs the Southern Sudanese Community of Washington, a resource and educational center in the Seattle area. When he has time, he likes to play basketball.
But Mayen, who bears the tribal scar of the Dinka people on his forehead, still thinks occasionally about the peaceful life in the Nile village where he once lived. And he misses his parents and sisters, who he only discovered were alive after he relocated to the U.S.
They have been rebuilding their lives, but fighting recently claimed the life of his brother-in-law, he said.
"There is so much bloodshed and pain," Mayen said.
Sometimes he also thinks about the young boy who died from an illness underneath that acacia, and he hopes that Sudanese children will never again endure such trauma.
"I remember dragging him on a blanket," said Mayen. "We had to get him to clinic. We kept dragging the blanket until we reached the tree" where he died.
Mayen said he would like to return one day to his village and help his tribe. Until then, he'll aid other refugees in the Seattle area.
"I'm not one of the people heading back home to help build my country, its roads and its schools," said Mayen. "But, if I sent money to my family or my village to help someone from starving to death, then I'm helping them get the strength they need to be part of a better future."