There were times – indeed months and years on end - when Kot Monoah’s life was a matter of moment-by-moment survival. There was starvation, horror, a river full of corpses. He was taught, from not long after he could walk, that the right thing to do when under fire was not to run, no matter how frightened you were. Instead, you hugged the earth.
He remembers: “It is really clear. You survive one day, and you think that that is good, and you are happy about that. And that is all you worry about.” The focus narrows. Do what you must. Minute by minute, hour by hour, day by day and year by year.
The extraordinary thing is that Monoah has done so much more than survive.
Born in 1982, Monoah is one of what international aid agencies call the “lost generation” of the land now known as South Sudan. These were the children who lost all opportunities for education, basic health care or decent life due to being continually displaced during the nation’s second civil war of 1983-2005.
But Kot Monoah was not lost. Here he is today, 34 years old, swinging down the main shopping street in the western Melbourne suburb of Sunshine on a Sunday morning, beaming a welcome and dressed immaculately in pressed white shirt and suit.
He is seven minutes late, which he apologises for later by email, explaining that he had been at community events all day on Saturday, finishing at 2am. Then he had snatched a few hours’ nap before coming to the interview. He had tried to be on time, but failed. “I apologise.”
It was not an unusual weekend. He never stops. Kot Monoah is a rising young lawyer at Slater and Gordon. He is a chairman of the South Sudanese Community Association of Victoria, an active member and former coach of the Sunshine Heights Western Tigers Football Club, helping Sudanese youth to acclimatise to the new country through the game they came to love when it was the only activity in Kenyan refugee camps. In 2012, he was nominated as one of Australia’s 100 most influential African-born residents.
Chris Townshend QC, a leading barrister in Melbourne, came to know Kot when he led the fight against a particularly nasty example of Australia racism – about which more later. Townshend describes Monoah as one of the most impressive people he knows.
“I went to a private school. I probably could have fallen asleep in my deckchair and still got to where I am today. Kot has achieved infinitely more already than I will ever do, and he is a far better man than I will ever be.”
And yet it is a miracle that he is alive. Mostly, he says, he survived because of pure luck. And Australia, while in some ways “the promised land” is also a country of people who complain about not very much. “They don’t realise what they have. Really, they don’t.”
Kot Monoah’s first memory dates from when he was four, being raised in the south Sudan town of Yirol by his school-teacher father and midwife mother.
The second Sudanese Civil War was underway. It was to become one of the longest civil wars on record, resulting in millions of deaths, mass starvation and the displacement of more than four million people. The civilian death toll was the highest of any war since World War II.
Monoah remembers a “moonlight bomb” lighting up the sky, and people outside his home being gunned down.
“So I remember one of the guys took me and my elder brother and we went into the bush and we were just running through the bushes and the forest. We got lost and we were walking the whole night, and the following day we reached the outskirts of some villages. And everybody was fleeing.”
It was the first of many displacements. Thousands of people were suddenly looking for shelter, food and water. The family had to move on again. Kot and his brother were too small to walk the many kilometres required and his father mounted them front and rear on a pushbike.
Sitting in the quiet of the conference room at Slater and Gordon, Monoah winds up the leg of his suit trousers, and shows the criss-cross scars on his thin leg. Over the many weary kilometres on that bicycle, he lost concentration and allowed his legs to get caught in the spokes. There were “not fractures, but really, really significant damage”. His mother washed his wounds with herbs. He can still remember the pain.
Finally the family reached the village of Pagarau. Thanks to his father’s position as a teacher, they were given a basic tin-roofed building.
Hordes of others were living in the open. There was no food, and no services. His father’s military training came in handy. For the next three years the family survived by shooting wildlife and bartering the meat.
Fear was like background noise. Death came by night from the wildlife. Monkeys lived in two big trees near the Monoah family’s shelter.
At night leopards and lions would attack them. “You could just open the window and see the animals fighting over the bones.” One night Monoah woke to see a leopard squeezing through their window. His screaming brought the family, and the animal backed off.
By day there was death from ethnic tribe conflicts, and from soldiers.
The civil war had become in part a proxy for superpower conflict. The Northern central government of the Sudan was backed by the USA, while Ethiopia was backed by the Soviet Union and supported the South Sudanese. It opened its borders to the Sudanese refugees, but the price was that men would be compulsorily recruited for the military.
Kot’s parents were not politically involved, but moving to Ethiopia had a number of advantages, not least that as internally displaced people, they were not eligible for United Nations protection or aid. Once in Ethiopia, that would change.
The family began the long walk to the border. One morning Kot was woken by whistles and military horns. There was to be a firing squad. A soldier was to be executed as a punishment for murdering his brother.
The firing squad used so many bullets that when they came to lift the corpse “everything was just wobbling”. It was, says Kot, “A most traumatic sight.” He pauses, eyes downcast, clearly visualising it all again. What do such sights do to a child? He says, “You are traumatised for ever, and if you are not strong you will never recover.”
The family moved on, walking for about three months through the Sahara desert towards the town of Pibor, part of a long dusty train of desperate people. The rebel army had left drums of water at intervals, but many people were sick and sat by the side of the road to die. He remembers walking through a route lined with corpses. Meanwhile tribes attacked the refugees, kidnapping children.
Aid agencies estimated afterwards that about one in five people who attempted the journey to Ethiopia died on the way. The Monoah family reached the refugee camp of Itang which grew around them to a tent and shanty settlement of more than 200,000 people – at the time one of the largest refugee camps in the world.
It was to be home for the next two years. Compared to what they had been through, it was luxury. Ethiopia was at peace. The UN provided adequate food. Bales of clothes, donated by people in the West, were doled out.
Monoah was given a pair of trousers made for a Western adult. He, his sister and his brother could fit into just one leg.
There was a cost. Monoah’s father was taken away for military conscription. The family were never again to live together, and it was years before they were in contact.
It was here, aged eight, that Monoah first went to school. To begin with, there were no school buildings, paper or books. Instead he learned to write sitting under the trees, drawing in the sand.
He survived an epidemic of meningitis that swept through the country the following year.
Then, in 1991, the peace ended. The Ethiopian Government – and the displaced southern Sudanese, ordered to return to Sudan - came under attack from a rebel army.
Some of the refugees were slow to believe the urgency of their situation. At first, Kot’s mother was told that while they needed to leave the camp, the move would be temporary.
Kot remembers: “Mum was very wise. She had been through enough to know we might never return, so she took some of our best bed sheets and a lot of really good clothing in some bags and a bit of food.” This would be the difference between life and death.
It was the middle of the wet season. The wildlife was at its most plentiful, preying on the renewed column of displaced people. “It was just a feasting season for them,” Monoah remembers. “It was just chaotic, uncoordinated. Mothers being killed by lions and mothers just throwing their own kids away because they were so desperate.”
Kot’s family reached the border river of Gilo to find just two boats for the thousands waiting to cross. The river was rising and most of the people did not know how to swim.
The next few days were some of the worst of his life. Chaos took hold while gunfire approached. Soldiers anchored ropes over the river to help people cross, but many refused to move.
“People delayed. It was so tragic. People who knew how to swim were saying that if we cross to the other side of the river there is no food … And others were saying, ‘Don't worry about food, just cross’.” Meanwhile, the water rose higher.
Kot’s sister was the good swimmer in the family. She put Kot and his younger brother in a bucket, and swam them across the river.
Kot watched what happened as the army reached the desperate people on the opposite bank. Tens of thousands of helpless civilians were mown down by guns. The river was so full of corpses that some non-swimmers could cross by using them as flotation devices. Meanwhile Monoah, just nine, hugged the ground as bullets whistled overhead.
Remembering that crossing today, Kot is almost phlegmatic. There was no time for helplessness or horror. They had to move on, and simply be happy that they had survived another day.
For three days they walked without food and with only the water that fell from the sky, and reached the tiny town of Pachala. There were few permanent buildings. Kot’s mother began to barter the clothes and personal belongings they had brought with them for food and the family set up under a plastic sheet, constantly soaked with water.
Kot’s mother and older sister became labourers, working hard all day for a few buckets of near-inedible beans and maize. Everyone was hungry. Kot and his brother went fishing, using long lines to avoid the crocodiles feeding nearby.
Eventually an airstrip was completed, allowing for the safe delivery of UN food parcels. Kot remembers the arrival of lentils, replacing the beans, as a highlight of his young life.
The Ethiopians crossed the border and the refugees fled again, this time across the desert to the town of Kapoeta, and when that came under attack, they fled to Kenya, and joined the swelling Kakuma refugee camp in 1992.
Over the next few years, Kakuma became almost a permanent town, serving nearly 200,000 people who had fled the wars in Sudan and Somalia, and managed by the UNHCR and Kenyan Government. The camp grew from open desert to serried ranks of cottages and tents bisected by dusty roads.
The family survived day by day for 12 years. Things got better when Kot’s mother was employed as a midwife by the UN, and the family had an income to supplement the basic rations. Once again, Kot was able to continue his education. He learned English, and passed his high school exams with flying colours. “I took every single opportunity. I was determined.”
Finally, aged 21, he was able to try to understand why the family had applied repeatedly for entry to Australia as refugees, yet always been knocked back.
It was a cruel business. Kot’s mother was forced to pay people to help them write the applications. They were probably scammers. When the results were posted on a noticeboard in the camp, no reasons were given.
Kot passed the Kenyan Certificate of Secondary Education, the equivalent of the Australian Year 12, with good results. In the wake of that, he decided to write his own application to the Australian authorities. This time, it worked.
What made the difference?
“I was a lot more articulate and I accounted for our whole story, and all the problems we had been through. I think I came across as a lot more sympathetic and someone who is really appealing humanely.”
The family – Kot, his mother, his two sisters and four brothers – three of them born during the years since they were first displaced - arrived at Tullamarine airport in April 2004, and at first lived in a house in the outer suburb of Endeavour Hills.
His first impression of Australia was that it was a “promised land” – safe, prosperous and with a system of government that worked.
He was determined to continue his education. He worked for a few weeks as a labourer for $100 a day which he used to buy textbooks. Then he gained midyear entry to a bridging course at Victoria University.
Endeavour Hills was about as far from its Footscray campus as possible while still living in Melbourne. On social security, Kot was receiving about $200 a week. His weekly travel ticket cost him about $50 on a concession. He gave money to his mother for food and accommodation, and sent more back to family still in Africa. That left him with about $10 pocket money for the week.
“What I would normally do was just take a container of juice and last on it all day. So if I got chips for a dollar or two that was it!”
He would leave each morning for university at 6am, and return commuting by bus and train late at night. He didn’t own a laptop or computer, so would use the ones in university library, sometimes studying so late that he would end up sleeping there, because he had missed the last train home.
His family moved to the western suburbs, and life became a little easier. Kot graduated from a Bachelor of Law in 2009. By then, he was working as a Victoria Police Community liaison office. In August 2010, he went to a seminar aimed at informing police officers about the Sudanese community.
What he saw there dismayed him so much that he wrote a letter of complaint, and later gave evidence used in a civil case accusing the police of racially profiling and harassing young Sudanese men. The case settled in the young men’s favour.
As well as a scanty description of Sudanese culture and history, the slide show described Sudanese youth as having a “warrior ethic”, a lack of respect for women and said they would “openly challenge anyone who threatens them regardless of potential consequence.” Another passage read: “Consider that this individual you are dealing with may have suffered at the hands of authority, that despite not even knowing you they may hate you.”
Kot was shocked. Although the presentation was meant to aid relations between the police and Sudanese, in fact, as he wrote later in a letter to the officer in charge of the Northcote Police station, it stereotyped Sudanese, and set up a situation in which police were likely to approach African youths expecting trouble. “The delivery by someone who does not have sufficient cultural competency is a gross professional negligence,” he said.
So is it true that, having come from war and trauma, Sudanese are more likely to be violent? Kot disagrees. Just because you have suffered violence doesn’t mean you seek it out, he says.
When he was at the end of his law degree, Kot completed a summer internship at Slater and Gordon. Practice group leader Craig Lynch remembers: “I was on leave at the time and when I came back I was told we had this extraordinary student for two weeks, now in his second week. And I went down and met him and we hit it off immediately. It quickly became apparent that we needed to offer him a permanent role.”
The firm frequently took interns. Not many of them ended up with jobs. The qualities that set Kot apart, says Lynch, were his capacity for hard work, his intellect, and his “extraordinary empathy with people from all walks of life”.
Kot completed his graduate diploma in Legal practice at the Australian National University in 2010, and was admitted to practice in the same year.
Today Kot Monoah works in worker’s compensation, but also offers an unofficial advice service for the Sudanese community. People show up on the doorstop of the Sunshine office, often without appointment.
He has started studying for a Master of Law at the University of Melbourne. Lynch hopes that Slater and Gordon can keep him, but at the same time regards him as having the ability to “do anything he wants to do in the law.”
Chris Townshend QC first met Kot Monoah in 2012 after a brawl involving the Sunshine Heights Western Tigers soccer team, of which Monoah was acting coach, and the Tullamarine City team Players were knocked unconscious, and wooden chairs on the sidelines were used as weapons.
The penalties imposed, which threatened to close down the team, suggested that the Sudanese-dominated Tigers were mostly to blame. Monoah drove an appeal with Townshend representing the club.
It emerged that players had acted in self-defence. The brawl began when one of the Sudanese players had told a Tullamarine City fan to; "Shut up, bitch" after she called him either a "black monkey" or "black c---" during the game. It was, the player said, the latest in a series of taunts thrown in every game. The board found "there was an undercurrent of racism directed at Sunshine Heights”, and ruled that the team could continue to play.
Townshend says, “It was Kot’s leadership that kept the team together. He understood how important it was to do that for those young men. He is a sign of hope.”
Australia has been good to Monoah. But, he says, it also brings a new kind of trauma. He says that it is one thing to fight for your life.
But it is in some ways more deeply wounding to arrive in a country and be told you have rights, yet to find your community vilified by the mainstream media, attacked by its most prominent columnists and racially profiled by the police. This is a trauma you can’t run from.
He says, “I deal with young people who go to job interviews and the moment they see them that they are black South Sudanese people, they just said sorry, we don't have a job for you.
“And where is there a future, really, for these sorts of kids? They are harassed on a daily basis at train stations by the police. It's just terrible.”
Nevertheless, he is largely optimistic that the community he helps to lead will in the medium term make its place in Australia, and be as accepted as the arrivals of the past have been.
Asked about his future ambitions, Monoah is torn. He wants to pursue the law, but ultimately would also like to work in humanitarian organisations.
Politics back in the Sudan is also an option. In Australia, he is a swinging voter, but Australian politics doesn’t draw him. “There is nothing here that needs fixing, or only a few little things,” he says.
Instead he would like to make a contribution to the still new nation of South Sudan. Given that the region is still dangerous, and he is now a father of two, he would try to combine this with being based in Australia. How it would work, he is not yet clear.
His dream job, he says with a smile, would be to become secretary general of the United Nations. Too much ambition can destroy a man, he says, but with too little it is hard to survive.