Posted by: Lisa Hill | May 24, 2020

Father of the Lost Boys, by Yuot A Alaak

Father of the Lost Boys is the true story of Mecak Ajang Alaak, a teacher who led 20,000 of the Lost Boys of South Sudan to safety during the Second Sudanese Civil War (1987-2005).  This memoir is written by his son, who came to Australia with his parents as a refugee in 1995.  This is the blurb:

During the Second Sudanese Civil War, thousands of South Sudanese boys were displaced from their villages or orphaned in attacks from northern government troops. Many became refugees in Ethiopia. There, in 1989, teacher and community leader Mecak Ajang Alaak assumed care of the Lost Boys in a bid to protect them from becoming child soldiers. So began a four-year journey from Ethiopia to Sudan and on to the safety of a Kenyan refugee camp. Together they endured starvation, animal attacks and the horrors of landmines and aerial bombardment. This eyewitness account by Mecak Ajang Alaak’s son, Yuot, is the extraordinary true story of a man who never ceased to believe that the pen is mightier than the gun.

The book begins with the story of an idyllic childhood in the village of Majak in Sudan.  It is 1952 and Ajang is born into a Dinka life where family is paramount and the foundation upon which the tribe stands.  He turns out to be gifted and the elders ensure that he gets a good education, ultimately attending Rumbek Seconday School—the best school in South Sudan—because they hope he will make a terrific translator for them in their negotiations with the Anglo-Egyptian rules that govern Sudan.  However, in 1963, when he is nineteen and in his second year there, war erupts between north and south.   The school is regarded as a breeding ground for future leaders of the south and it is shut down, but Ajang and his fellow students walk for over three months through a barren landscape to Ethiopia, where the UN accepts them as refugees and after two years Ajang is able to finish his education with distinction.

When a peace agreement is reached in 1972, he returns to his village, and soon after he begins a career in teaching at the Rumbek Secondary School where he had been a student.

He has a burning desire to educate every boy and girl in the country.  His belief in education is almost religious.  As he sees it, education is the only solution to the problems that his people and his country face.  He has hope for the future of his people and country.  His dream is to build hundreds of schools, technical colleges and universities across South Sudan. (p.19)

It was not to be.  In 1983, trouble erupts again.  The Islamic north imposes Sharia Law and Arabic on the south.  The south rebels, in protest against a religion they reject and a language they don’t understand.  Ajang is away in Khartoum at the time, organising supplies for southern schools, but Yuot, his mother and siblings escape the fighting on foot, surviving the journey because uncles help with carrying the young children.  They hear nothing of Ajang for three years, and then learn that he is a political prisoner in Malakal in the Upper Nile.  Five months later, they hear a radio report that he has been executed.

Yuot is only seven, but he now carries his father’s legacy.

To the other children in the village, I cease to be one of them.  I become the boy whose father has died.  I begin to wonder what I have done to deserve this, but really don’t have time for self-pity.  I must take care of my family, do whatever it takes to defend them.  My spirit is strong, my age and size irrelevant. (p.25)

While the memoir is primarily an homage to his heroic father, his mother Preskilla is also an amazing woman.  She is courageous and enterprising, somehow keeping the remnants of her family together in circumstances that would crush a lesser spirit.  Even when the report turns out not to be true and Ajang is restored to them, the situation is still desperate and she is the one who enables their survival because she is the one who adapts to a different life and learns to make saleable goods so that they can eat.

Yuot’s own experience as one of the Lost Boys dragooned into becoming a child soldier is only a small part of this book.  But an incident with his commander, a seasoned fighter who is also a conservationist and refuses to shoot a pride of lions, teaches Yuot that all kinds of people must drop their dreams, hobbies and ambitions to pick up a weapon.  Each must do what each must do.  Our dreams must wait.  His experience in Nairobi, when the family makes it to the comparative safety of Kenya, teaches him more about human nature when they encounter corruption and thievery, and yet more threats to his father’s life.

It is hard not to feel emotional when reading that his faith is restored on arrival in Australia after a long and arduous process of being accepted as a refugee.  They are met at Adelaide airport by their hosts Rachael and Scott:

Through their loving hugs, I feel the heartbeat of a great nation.  I feel the welcome of millions.  That hug, so readily given, helps to restore my faith in the goodness of people.  For much of my life, I have known nothing but war. I have seen rivers stained with the blood of my people.  My country’s government has tried to exterminate me numerous times.  As a refugee, I have been invisible to the world.  Yet now, in a land far from my own, I feel love.  These are strangers.  We are not the same.  Not of the same heritage, not of the same culture.  We speak different languages and we are not of the same colour.  But humanity binds us all. (p.190)

This memoir is a life-affirming story, which proves yet again that so many refugees have courage and initiative that—quite apart from any humanitarian motives—show how much the fortunate West has to gain in opening its doors.  In the Epilogue, Yuot tells us that he and his siblings are all married with children, and own their own homes.  Yuot studied geoscience and engineering while Bul studied engineering and management, and both of them work in the mining industry, Yuot in WA and Bul in Tasmania.  Athok has a degree in banking and international finance and lives in South Australia, where their parents still live in the family home in Adelaide.  After working odd jobs to make ends meet, Preskilla trained as a nurse and worked in aged care for 20 years, while Ajang worked as an activist on behalf of the Lost Boys, and as a result of his efforts, tens of thousands of South Sudanese refugees have been resettled in Australia and many others have been accepted into the USA, Canada and many European countries.  Ajang was able to return to South Sudan to oversee the conduct of the referendum on independence where he witnessed the exercising of democracy in a land devastated by war.  

Yuot’s short story ‘The Lost Girl of Pajomba’ was anthologised in Ways of Being Here (Margaret River Press, 2017).   Father of the Lost Boys is his first full-length work and was shortlisted for the 2018 City of Fremantle Hungerford Award.

The book includes maps to help the reader with orientating the action of the journeys across Sudan, Ethiopia and Kenya. There is also a glossary and an Author’s Note as well as Acknowledgements.

Author: Yuot A Alaak
Title: Father of the Lost Boys
Cover design by Nada Backovic
Publisher: Fremantle Press, 2020
ISBN: 9781925815641, pbk., 230 pages
Review copy courtesy of Fremantle Press.

Father of the Lost Boys is due for release on June 1st, but you can pre-order it from Fremantle Press.

 


Responses

  1. His description of his emotions on arriving in Australia and feeling wanted, accepted and safe make me ashamed of what our country has become – which I already was before reading this anyway – don’t get me started on that poor family from Biloela on Christmas Island…I’ll request our library purchase this once it reopens, there is a large refugee support group here who I’m sure will read it – and I hope others too. Thanks Lisa.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Another important book. The Somalia stories of the child soldiers are so heartbreaking and I agree with Sue re: our government’s view and actions re: refugees.

    Like


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