Songs of a War Boy review: Deng Thiak Adut powerful memoir of fleeing Sudan

Songs of a War Boy review: Deng Thiak Adut powerful memoir of fleeing Sudan

MEMOIR
Songs of a War Boy
DENG THIAK ADUT, WITH BEN MCKELVEY
HACHETTE, $32.99

Being a poor Sudanese kid in the early ’90s was never going to be great. Since 1956 Africa’s “forgotten war” in Sudan had pitted the Khartoum-based Islamic government against the mostly Christian and animist south. But despite well-funded airpower, the government couldn’t suppress a guerrilla struggle for autonomy coming out of a south that increasingly fed pliable children into its war machine.

The Liberals have lost my vote: Former child soldier and now lawyer Deng Thiak Adut.
The Liberals have lost my vote: Former child soldier and now lawyer Deng Thiak Adut.  Photo: Edwina Pickles

Deng Adut was born into this, forcibly conscripted at seven. Apart from planes that barrel-bombed from the sky and Arab raiders who killed on the ground, he knew little of the world beyond his Dinka village on the banks of the White Nile in Southern Sudan.

Promised a magical thing called “education”, Adut and thousands of boys were forcibly marched into the wilderness with little water and no food. Naked and stalked by lions, some shot by bandits, the boys ate mud and died where they fell. Forced to watch executions, others blew their brains out, but by the age of nine, Adut, too weak to even kill himself, would be brutally groomed until old enough to handle the recoil of an AK47.

<i>Songs of a War Boy</I> by Deng Thiak Adut.
Songs of a War Boy by Deng Thiak Adut. 

How the illiterate Adut, shot in battle at 11, becomes part of the third Sudanese family to be resettled in Australia, opens a law practice, has his portrait hung in the Archibald Prize and evolves to in-demand media star nominated for NSW Australian of the Year is a tale beyond remarkable. One in which he doesn’t back away from atrocities he was complicit in, and in this light, his day job as pro bono lawyer thirsting for social justice, often comes across here as atonement for the dead faces that still disfigure his PTSD-like nightmares.

Yet, even if, as he sadly claims, his story is “garden variety” for an East African childhood, reading it nonetheless elicits a powerful public service by undermining our wariness toward, “those scarred, confused black men that you see in the outer suburbs of western cities; their looks of fear often mistaken for anger”.

While there are three stories here – child soldiering, escape to freedom, education and triumph – it’s Adut’s brother John who haunts these pages. Tortured and left for dead by soldiers on his own side, it’s John’s tireless tenacity that sees them sponsored out of a camp in Kenya. Despite speaking six languages and achieving Australian university dreams, John can only land factory work. Too Sudanese to really assimilate, he’s a ghostly figure between cultures, compelled to keep returning to a homeland that will eventually kill him.

With tragedy like this, it’s little wonder Adut wants to help establish the rule of law back in South Sudan, but this desire seems somewhat idealistic while former soldiers with a sense of entitlement oversee a shambolic kleptocracy of graft and nepotism and a violent civil war continues to gut the hopes of the world’s youngest nation.

In our oft overheated conversation about migrants, Songs of a War Boy seriously challenges our notions of what it means to be Australian. It’s much less about genetic heritage than the fact that we are welcoming and free and live by the rule of law.

Here, there’s an immense pride in a citizenship that most of us take for granted. As Adut says, “I’m just an Australian… Speed cameras annoy me, I call people mate when I forget their name, I like pies and schnitzels… The only real difference between you and me was that I had to fight to become Australian.”

FULL ARTICLE http://www.smh.com.au/entertainment/books/songs-of-a-war-boy-review-deng-thiak-adut-powerful-memoir-of-fleeing-sudan-20161027-gsc5a4.html

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