I look nervously at mortar shells lying around us on top of the grain. ‘What if these explode?’ I ask a young soldier. ‘Don’t worry, boy, they are safe. One day, when you’re a man like me, you will handle them.’
By
Yuot Alaak

26 Sep 2018 - 6:00 AM  UPDATED 26 Sep 2018 - 11:38 AM

Yuot Alaak's father was a South Sudanese teacher who assumed command of 20,000 South Sudanese 'lost boys' during the country's second civil war. In this extract from his manuscript, 'Father of the Lost Boys', shortlisted for the 2018 City of Fremantle T.A.G. Hungerford Award, Alaak tells the story of making the perilous journey from South Sudan to a refugee camp in Ethiopia

We wake up early, dress and hurriedly eat our morning porridge. We march off towards Pawel, our district headquarters, a short walk from Majak. Many relatives escort us. They carry our belongings as we walk along in the dawn breeze. We trek in dew-covered grass through the forest, arriving in Pawel at sunrise. The sounds of birds singing in the forest is pleasant. But the roars of the lions send shivers down my spine.

Our journey to Ethiopia will continue through numerous small towns until we reach the Ethiopian border. During the dry season, a few military trucks move towards the Ethiopian border carrying munitions and rations for our rebel fighters. Mum hopes we can hitch a ride as far as possible. We would then have to walk the rest of the way along with thousands of other women and children fleeing the war.

The sounds of birds singing in the forest is pleasant. But the roars of the lions send shivers down my spine.

At Pawel, Mum pleads with South Sudanese soldiers stationed there. She cautiously approaches the commanding officer.

‘Hello, my son,’ she says.

‘What do you want woman?’

His face is serious.

‘I am here with my children. We are trying to go to Ethiopia.’

‘There are no trucks. You must walk – everybody is walking.’ He rests his hand on a pistol dangling at his waist.

‘Please, you must help us, my children are too small to walk. The government has arrested their father in Malakal. They even announced him dead. We’re from Majak.’

‘Was he a soldier?’

‘No, he was a teacher. His name is Ajang.’

‘You mean Ajangdit, from Kongor clan?’

‘Yes.’

‘Mecak Ajang Alaak?’

‘Yes, he is my husband. These are his children.’

The officer takes off his hat. He caresses his long, pointy beard as he pauses.

‘Madam, my name is Kur. Mecak Ajang Alaak was my teacher at Rumbek.’

He smiles broadly and places his hand on my shoulder. ‘Your father is a great teacher. He is a great man. You know what he used to tell us all the time? You never try, you never know.’

Kur tells us that military trucks will soon be travelling to Paliau. ‘I’ll try – I’ll try to get you on a truck with my soldiers. And we will revenge what they are doing to your husband.’

Kur’s men tell Mum to discreetly prepare for an evening departure the next day. Hundreds of women and children are waiting to hitch a ride, so the departure is a closely guarded secret. With no means of transport, people often walk for weeks, and sometimes months, to get to safety across the Ethiopian border. Military trucks pass by every few weeks, packed with soldiers and their munitions. Often, the soldiers sneak out under the cover of darkness to ensure that they’re not bothered by desperate mothers and their children wanting a ride to the next village or town.

Dusk approaches and our bags are packed. Kur tells us he will send soldiers when the truck is ready to depart.

‘Stay with your bags,’ he instructs.

As we are eating dinner, a soldier appears. ‘We are going. The truck is leaving now.’

We drop our plates, pick up our bags and march off quietly into the darkness. The young soldier helps carry one of our bags. Mum carries my sister. I am surprised to see not a truck but a Toyota 4WD, packed with soldiers and ammunition. Where will we even sit? I wonder. Our bags are loaded as we’re shoved in by an angry, impatient soldier. He doesn’t want to alert anyone to the car’s imminent departure. The engine starts as we slowly roll away into the darkness. I feel a sense of loss as we get further away from Majak, the land where my ancestors lie.

The engine starts as we slowly roll away into the darkness. I feel a sense of loss as we get further away from Majak, the land where my ancestors lie.

Soon we’re well on our way to Paliau. The headlights are still not on. I presume they keep them off to maintain stealth, but soon realise the car doesn’t even have headlights. It drives in moonlight with a soldier standing in the back shining a torch. He looks out for large potholes and bangs on the roof of the cabin when he spots a potential obstacle. The driver slows and the soldier shines the torch to further identify the risk. At times, the torch proves insufficient. The soldier jumps off, inspects the obstacle and hops back on again. He always has his gun cocked. There is plenty that can snatch him in the darkness.

We arrive in Paliau late in the night amidst an eerie silence. Kur quickly jumps off the front passenger seat. His soldiers simultaneously disembark from the back. We are lifted off. Our bags are dropped on the ground.

Kur joins us a few minutes later. ‘There will be a truck leaving in a few hours to Anyidi, I will put you on it, okay? Please go and tell your mum.’

I rush over to Mum and am back within a minute. I continue to huddle around the fire, eagerly listening to the soldiers’ talk of their battles against government troops. They speak candidly of battles lost, and of fallen comrades. Young fighters talk candidly about their magnificent bulls, and about the girls in their lives that they hardly see and miss dearly. Some fear their sweethearts will be stolen while they are away protecting our people.

‘That is what the AK is for, eh?’ one young soldier remarks, tapping his gun. The others laugh. He might be funny, but he isn’t joking. In the war, these threats were often realised.

Abruptly, we’re on our feet as a large Soviet-made Ural truck roars towards us. It comes to a stop. Its tray is almost overflowing with grain, not in bags but loosely poured, filling the tray to within a few centimetres. The roar of the engine alerts hundreds of women and children. They’ve been waiting for weeks on end to get a ride to Anyidi, our next destination in the race for the Ethiopian border. They’re unsure where the truck is coming from or its actual destination, but they will take their chances.

‘That is what the AK is for, eh?’ one young soldier remarks, tapping his gun. The others laugh. He might be funny, but he isn’t joking. In the war, these threats were often realised.

To my amazement, women emerge from the darkness carrying sleepy babies and a few belongings. Wounded men and amputees seem to miraculously appear, surrounding the truck. Many climb the truck, scrambling for space on top of the grain. Women throw their babies on top and climb on board to claim a spot. The truck is overflowing, but the soldiers are yet to jump on board, their munitions yet to be loaded. We stand gazing at the truck, knowing we have missed our opportunity to hitch a ride to Anyidi.

Soon Kur arrives. ‘Turn off the engine,’ he shouts at the driver, holding a pistol in the air. ‘Everybody get down! Get off the truck now. We need to load our ammunition. The truck cannot leave until our ammunitions are loaded. The truck is not leaving for another two days, and it is not going to Anyidi anyway. Do you understand?’

Everybody knows it’s a trick to get them off the truck. They stay put. After appealing to them again, Kur finally loses patience. His men storm the truck. Armed with sticks and belts, they start beating those aboard. Many dive off the truck. Others bury their heads between their legs, hoping to ride out the onslaught as sticks and belts rain down. They cannot. More people jump off the truck. Others frantically clamber down. Toddlers and young children are lowered down to anxious mothers. The cries of the babies and their mothers echo in the surrounding forest.

Soldiers load wooden boxes of munitions on top of the grain. Kur orders we be seated in the tray. My back is firmly pressed against the cabin, my bum well wedged into the grain. Kur instructs his soldiers jump on as the truck begins to roll forward. Desperate mothers and children cry out in anguish. A few strong men still manage to jump on board by chasing down the truck, enduring attempts to beat them back.

Injured legs hang loosely from the sides of the truck as it roars through the night towards Anyidi. It takes a detour through various villages, avoiding impassable sections of dirt track. Tree branches smack down on our heads as we duck for cover. It’s a relief this truck has one working headlight. However, it still hits large potholes, momentarily throwing us into the air and dumping us back on top of the grain. I am petrified. If I fall off, it might be the end for me. I look nervously at mortar shells lying around us on top of the grain.

‘What if these explode?’ I ask a young soldier seated close to me.

‘Don’t worry, boy, they are safe. One day, when you’re a man like me, you will handle them.’

I am not one bit convinced about my safety as these mortar shells continue to bounce and roll around my feet. But there is nothing I can do. 

This is an extract from Father of the Lost Boys by Yuot Alaak. Yuot Alaak is one of six authors in the running to win the 2018 City of Fremantle T.A.G. Hungerford Award. The winner will be announced on November 15. 

 


 

'Go Back To Where You Came From Live' airs over three consecutive nights, October 2 – 4, 8.30pm, LIVE on SBS Australia and streaming live at SBS On Demand. 

Join the conversation #GoBackLive

Related content
Meet Marina, the refugee lawyer going to a war zone with Jacqui Lambie
"There are some things she is taking a hardline on to play a game, but in going on this journey those walls are going to have to come down," she said of Lambie.
How you can help refugees and asylum seekers
Turn that feeling of despair into action.
How powerful images can change our attitudes towards refugees
Apart from driving policy in the short term, do confronting images create change in public perception and willingness to act in relation to refugee issues?