• Ayik sits opposite Ayang, holding a deeply emotional gaze. Will forgiveness break his stare? (Look Me In The Eye)
What happens when a unorthodox social experiment sees a former child soldier from South Sudan come eye-to-eye with his teenage prison guard and torturer? Can such traumatic wounds - cut deep by the events of civil war - ever really heal?
By
Sharon Verghis

1 Sep 2017 - 10:14 AM  UPDATED 4 Sep 2017 - 11:09 AM

In a vast warehouse in Eveleigh, Sydney, two men eyeball each other. Their chairs are metres apart. One is a former child soldier from South Sudan. The other was once his teenage prison guard – a soldier not much older than him who he says whipped, tortured, and rubbed chilli into his wounds.

Both men have travelled a long way for peace and eventual refuge in Australia. A shared history, ugly and violent, has brought them together today. Ayik and Anyang open an upcoming series on SBS, Look Me In the Eye. 

An unorthodox experiment in social dynamics hosted by Ray Martin, it brings together 17 estranged couples – riven by not just civil war, as in this singular case – but domestic conflict from marriage implosions to friendship breakups.

All have agreed to participate in a confronting social experiment. Seated facing each other, these estranged pairs stare into each other eyes for five minutes. They do not talk. Afterwards, they can choose to return to ask questions, explore a difficult shared history, even choose to reunite – or not. 

The eyes are the window to the soul, they say – and according to a series of studies by neuroscientists, direct eye contact can communicate more than words. We are most real and honest at this level, they believe – and this eye contact will help unlock the barriers keeping some people apart.

I ask Ayik, 38. He supports the eye contact theory after his unorthodox experiment - it helped him face and ultimately understand his tormentor.

More than three million Australians are estranged from loved ones, according to a 2008 University of Melbourne survey.

But eye contact is notoriously hard to sustain: staring too long is a big cultural taboo, often making people less likely to bond, unearth painful truths, surely? 

I ask Ayik, 38. He supports the eye contact theory after his unorthodox experiment - it helped him face and ultimately understand his tormentor.

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But language is vital when it comes to cutting through ambiguity. He could only decipher Anyang's face, gauge if he was truly remorseful, when he spoke to him afterwards.

To understand Ayik's story, I need to know his background, and he obliges, recounting a tribal childhood in south Sudan, and his admiration for his father - blinded in one eye at 14 after an encounter with a cobra in the bush, he says, a man who went on to study and become a nurse.

His father's death at the start of Sudan’s brutal civil war in 1983 was a pivotal moment, Ayik says. Fuelled by vengeance as he grew up, he joined a military camp in Ethiopia. He was a child soldier, around 13, he thinks – the age he shot his first AK-47.

Conditions in the camp were hellish. He recalls hunger, brutal training regimes and burying fellow child soldiers, his friends – “I used to get so sad because I thought, their families will never know where they died”.

Anyang was a few years older, a former child soldier himself and now a guard in charge of the military camp’s prison. Driven to despair by the brutal conditions, Ayik ran away almost 15 times but was always brought back to he camp.

“I used to get so sad because I thought, their families will never know where they died”.

Anyang used to have to punish Ayik and carry out punishments as ordered and required as part of his prison guard role. Ayik also claims he was the worst of the lot. "No one hurt me like he did.” 

Ayik eventually made his way to Australia.

He built a life in Brisbane, a home, had a son Freeman, now 11, who "saved me", he says – as did Australia, a “heaven on earth” that gave him a chance at a second life. 

Therapy helped him heal. The past with all its horrors was safely buried, he thought.

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Then, 10 years ago, he spotted his childhood tormentor at his local church. Anyang, now 42, was right there in the pews to his right, like a bogeyman out of a bad dream. “I saw this face, and I thought I was dreaming.”

Though much older and resembling a lanky, bespectacled preacher or academic, Anyang was instantly recognisable, he says.  Why? “From his eyes. I remember them from when he tortured me.” Did he recognise you? He doesn’t know.

Filled with pure rage and dread, “I was shaking, this shiver went through me. How did he survive? This guy, he should have been dead in the war.”

Stunned, he walked out of church and went home. He used to console himself that Anyang was dead in the war. If he wasn’t, he dreamt of killing him himself if he ever got a chance, he confesses. And here he was in suburban Brisbane, arisen from the dead.

Ayik didn’t see Anyang again for another two years. 

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Then came the call for applicants for the show. This, Ayik felt, was his chance for some kind of closure. Though finding peace in his new life, he says he remained dogged by what happened, still mourned a lost childhood. 

The show’s producers contacted Anyang, who said yes. Then the day came, and with it the moment of truth when Anyang walked into the room where Ayik sat, head bowed, heart pounding.

How did he feel, I ask? There is a pause. Maintaining eye contact was incredibly confronting, he says; waves of old fear and rage washed over him, so much so that after 30 seconds, he had to drop his eyes.

Among the things, he felt confronted by Anyang’s expressionless face. He couldn’t decipher it. “Was he really sorry?”

During the show, it is revealed that Anyang was also a former child solider and a victim of the civil war. When asked now what he feels about his actions at the time, he replies "regret".

In the end, both men give in to tears. Afterwards, they agreed to speak.

Without giving too much away, Ayik says simply that with a son to live for, there was no point carrying fear and hate and bitterness.

Would he be happy to see Anyang again? Perhaps, he says hesitantly. A powerful reason is shared history. Anyang is the only one who knows what his childhood was like, the experiences that shaped him and made him who he is today. In a sense, for this refugee, Anyang is that rare thing - not a friend but someone who knew what he survived, a living conduit to the past: "Our past, our childhoods”.

If you need help, or this story has raised issues for you, please call Lifeline on 13 11 14 or visit The Forum of Australian Services for Survivors of Torture and Trauma.


The ground-breaking new six-part documentary series, Look Me In The Eye, will debut on SBS on Wednesday 6 September at 8.30pm. Each episode, airing weekly on Wednesdays at 8.30pm, will be available to view on SBS On Demand after broadcast. 

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