BOOK REVIEW: Songs of a War Boy by Deng Thiak Adut with Ben McKelvey
Reviewed by Natalie Salvo
NSW Australian of the Year, Deng Thiak Adut, is nothing short of an inspiration. A lawyer with a keen interest in social justice, Adut was born in Southern Sudan and conscripted to fight for the rebels at the age of seven. Songs of a War Boy describes his amazing life as a child solider as well as his arrival as a refugee in Australia and how he used education and knowledge to become a community leader and forge a great career.
Adut’s story has previously been told in a viral video advertising Western Sydney University, his alma mater. The video was a stirring one and a YouTube sensation. This book is equally as visceral and engaging because Adut goes into more detail about his life and ideals. The book is also co-authored by journalist, Ben McKelvey.
Songs of a War Boy begins with Adut’s birth amidst the cows in a grass-made shed in a village named Malek in South Sudan. Adut’s early life was a relatively carefree one, living near the Nile River with his large family (his father had six wives and they had many children). Adut had a voracious appetite and was given the nickname Little Swallow.
At seven Adut was removed from his family and forced to fight with the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA). He would be given an AK-47 and forced to fight a war that was difficult for adults to understand never mind children, and it was one that was grounded in greed and politics and largely forgotten by the western world.
“I was destined to be a useful part of that machine, or I was destined to be dead. I was no longer Little Swallow, or the God Eater, and not even Deng Adut. I was SPLA. I would be that or I would be nothing.”
As a child soldier Adut was marched into the African wilderness with meagre rations of water and food. He was often naked and had to bear witness to executions and participate in torturing people. He also suffered various debilitating and preventable diseases and was shot at. He has nightmares to this day that seem consistent with a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder. It was a harrowing time.
“I fought hard to keep the memory of my mother in my mind, though. She was my last link to my old life. All of the energy that was left in me was used remembering her name, and what her eyes looked like before I walked away from my village.”
Adut’s saving grace came in the form of a reunion with his brother John Mac. John had become a Christian and had met people who could help the boys become refugees and live in Australia. John Mac and Deng would be among the first Sudanese refugees in this country and in order to get here, John had to smuggle his brother away from a camp in South Sudan.
After they arrived in Sydney, Adut likened the city to being as foreign a place as Neptune would be to Australians. Adut and his brother worked and studied hard to learn English and they eventually graduated from university. They were helped by different people from western Sydney but they were not immune to racism. Adut’s story speaks from the heart as he implores us to think differently about how we treat people, especially refugees and migrants.
“A point of this story is to emphasise how very lucky we are to enjoy freedom from fear, and how very unlucky are many, many others who neither choose, nor deserve their faith.”
Deng Thiak Adut’s memoir is hard to put down. It’s a graphic tale about a lost childhood and how one can overcome disadvantage and struggle in order to flourish and triumph. Adut’s story is an emotional and multi-faceted one that is also very honest and full of bravery. It will stop us in our tracks and make us rethink and hope for a better future where we treat everyone with the dignity and respect that should be afforded to all human beings.
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