FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. (AP) — Lopez Lomong was six years old when, in the dark of night, he and three older boys crawled through a small hole in a fence and ran barefoot for three days to escape their Sudanese rebel captors.
Sixteen years later, in the pines of Flagstaff with a comfortable life he never imagined, he is running still.
This week, Lomong, a sophomore at Northern Arizona University, will be among the favorites in the 1,500 meters at the NCAA track and field championships in Sacramento, Calif.
"I have to picture myself when I was six years old, running from the death I saw," he said. "God brought me over here safe and gave me the opportunity and ability to run. I should use that gift and try to multiply it."
It's a remarkable journey for one of the "Lost Boys of Sudan," the name given thousands of young civil war refugees brought to the United States.
"He has seen things that most Americans will never see," said John Hayes, his distance running coach.
Although he was only a child, Lomong vividly recalls that Sunday in church in his Sudanese village.
"All these soldiers came in and told everybody to lay down in the church while they were taking the kids away from their parents," he said. "I was one of them. I was just snatched away."
The boys and girls were loaded into the canvas-covered bed of a truck. For a couple of hours, Lomong said, the truck bounced along bumpy roads then came to a stop. The children were blindfolded, the boys separated from the girls.
"We ended up being in this one-room prison," he said. "No windows."
He doesn't know what happened to the girls.
The only food, he said, was a sorghum mush, gritty with sand. Water was occasionally provided.
"Kids were dying every day," Lomong said. "You'd see a kid sitting down there. You'd think he was going to sleep, and he was already gone. I was like 'OK, the next minute I'll be reunited with him,' because I felt like that was going to be my life."
After two or three weeks, the rebels took the older boys to run drills to prepare them for war. During the drills, Lomong said, his three older friends - a 15-year-old and two 14-year-olds - spotted the small hole in the fence surrounding the compound.
"They told me 'Hey, we're going to escape tonight,"' Lomong said.
The trio slipped through the side of a door made of sticks. As they crawled toward the fence, they could hear the rebel soldiers talking and see their flashlights and their burning cigarettes.
"God protected us there. We just went through that fence and took off," Lomong said. "We just ran and ran and ran."
When he grew tired, the older boys took turns carrying him on their backs.
After three days, he said, they were apprehended by the Kenyan border police, who took them to a refugee camp that would be Lomong's home for the next decade.
According to Lomong's foster mother, Barbara Rogers, there were 14 children to each hut. They got one sack of corn a month and, on Easter and Christmas, a chicken.
"We'd eat once a day, in the evening," he said. "We'd play soccer so we would forget that we were hungry."
Lomong learned Swahili, as well as a bit of English. He believed the camp - ever expanding with refugees from the Sudan, Somalia and Rwanda - would forever be his home.
Then one day in church, an American told of the "Lost Boys" program.
Boys who wanted to go to the United States were to write an essay of their life story. If the story was good enough, the boy would be interviewed.
Lomong made the cut. Wide-eyed and disbelieving, he boarded a Boeing 747 for America. On July 31, 2001, he arrived at the lakeside home of Robert and Barbara Rogers near Tully, N.Y.
"We picked him up in a car," Robert Rogers recalled, "and he said 'You have a car?' I said actually I have three or four of them. Then we took him to McDonald's. He thought it was a fancy restaurant, because he hadn't been inside a restaurant before."
Hot and cold running water, light switches, microwave ovens and a refrigerator filled with food were a puzzle to the 16-year-old African. The Rogers patiently helped him adjust.
"They are such nice people, such awesome people," Lomong said. "For like a month, I thought this was probably something I was dreaming about. I didn't know it was actually real."
Lomong was the first of six Sudanese taken in by the Rogers.
"He always was agreeable about everything," Robert Rogers said. "He was sure that a mistake had been made and he didn't belong there, that they would come and take him away if they found out."
In 2003, Lomong received word that his mother was trying to reach him. She and the rest of his family had made it safely out of Sudan to Kenya.
He called the phone number and found himself talking to a woman who, a dozen years earlier, saw her little boy carried away by soldiers.
"She was crying, I was crying," he said.
Now, they talk every other week. He wants to go to Kenya to visit them as soon as possible, maybe this December.
In the meantime, he will earn his U.S. citizenship on June 19. Two days later, the U.S. track and field championships begin in Indianapolis. Lomong plans to compete in the 1,500.
Just 22, his best running days should be ahead of him.
He emerged in this his sophomore season to win the 3,000 meter title at the NCAA Indoor championships and has a best in the 1,500 meters outdoors of 3 minutes, 41.85 seconds.
"We saw a raw person who hadn't been trained properly," Hayes said. "We figured 'Wow, this guy could be pretty good.' I just never had any idea or dream that it would happen this quickly."
During one of his 16-mile Sunday training runs, Lomong might think of what could have happened to him had he not escaped from a land where children are sent to fight in what seems an endless war.
He might dream, too, of the Olympics.
Lomong remembers walking five miles to pay five shillings to watch the Sydney Games on a black and white TV set. He has run with two-time Olympic medalist Bernard Lagat and others who come to train in Flagstaff. Lomong's confident he can compete with them.
"They are breathing, like I breathe, too," he said, "so it is doable."
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