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Sydney solicitor Deng Adut was introduced to readers in September 2014 in one of our first Day in the Life columns. Journalist JANE SOUTHWARD spent the day with Adut, then 31, in Burwood Local Court and was impressed by his caring approach to clients, including to one man who Adut followed out of a courtroom to offer to represent for free in a traffic matter so the father-of-four could make it to work as a nurse. In his autobiography to be released this month, Adut says finishing his law degree has been the greatest achievement in his life.

When Deng Adut was just six years old, war came to his village in South Sudan. Taken from his mother, he was conscripted into the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), taught to use an AK-47, and sent into battle. Eventually, Adut escaped an army training camp by hiding in a sack on the back of a truck for five hours.

He made it to a refugee camp in Kenya. Here, he met an Australian aid worker who arranged for Adut and his brother to move to western Sydney. Adut could speak no English, was suffering emotional trauma, and had whooping cough, measles, cholera and chicken pox. Five of his eight siblings had died. He found it difficult to fit into Sydney life, dropped out of school, and eventually enrolled in English language classes and an accountancy course in TAFE. He was then accepted to study law at Western Sydney University on the proviso he didn’t fail any of the core first-year courses. He doubled his studies in English and put his head down.

In these extracts from Songs of a War Boy, published by Hachette Australia, Adut describes being recruited by the Sudan People's Liberation Army and an ethical dilemma he faced when he started studying law.

One day I fell off the edge of the world of children and landed in another world. I did not land in the world of men though – the world I yearned to be a part of – but another world. In this world there was no family, and no gods, no Nile eagles and no Nhialic, the big god who was made out of the sky. In this world there was only one thing: the machine that is war.

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.

On that day I was seven years old.

There had been fierce fighting the few days before I was taken. The northern men had driven past the track next to the Nile in the morning, and when they returned in the afternoon, they had been attacked.

After the battle, the Sudan People Liberation’s Army (SPLA) came to the village – as they often did – to get food, goats and rest, but they were also coming to the chief with an edict from their leader, Kuol Manyang Juuk, to gather at least one boy-child from each family.

The chief had no choice but to acquiesce – our village was in SPLA territory now, and SPLA territory was under gun rule.

The word went down to the clans, and then to the mothers. Athieu Akau Deng was told that she must give me up to the army. I don’t know what the feeling may have been in her heart when she heard, but I know inside she would have been collapsing. It is a pragmatic life, however, Sudanese village life, so knowing that there was no refusing the order, my mother of mothers started to prepare food for my trip.

My brother Adut, the stammerer, was sent out to tell me to prepare for a long journey. I don’t remember how I learned that Adut was coming for me with bad news, but I knew because I ran from him and hid in a tall tree with a great many leaves. I did not want to go on a journey, especially a long journey.

Adut and some of the other men searched through the afternoon and the night, but they couldn’t find me. I came down from that tree at dawn as I thought the danger had passed. Adut must have found some other boy to be sent off into the world.

He hadn’t though and he caught up with me in the morning, while I was playing with my little make-believe cattle camp. He approached me as one might a dog with pinned-back ears – walking slowly, leading with a gift of cloth in his hand. It was the gift that kept me from running away.

Adut told me that I had been selected to be educated. He told me I must go away from my mother for a while. He told me I would come back. He told me I had to be strong and that I would be going to Ethiopia. I didn’t know what Ethiopia was, but I knew my mother wouldn’t be there and I didn’t want to leave her.

The gift in Adut’s hand was an army-issue khaki shirt. I cried as he placed it around my shoulders.

“T-t-t-take this sh-sh-sh-shirt, and may you wear it p-p-p-proudly on the journey,” Adut said.

“Do you kn-kn-kn-know proudly?”

I did.

I had never worn any clothes before, let alone a fine, khaki shirt like that. I left the shirt on my shoulders because I knew that I would be going to this Ethiopia, no matter what my wishes were. There was no point in refusing the gift. I knew it was a great gift. I was curious about being educated. I knew it was a great thing to be educated, but I hoped it didn’t take very long.

As we prepared to leave the village, I found that I was not the only boy from my luak (a grass-made cattle shed) who had been selected to go away. My cousins Anyang Aluel, Adut Agor and Kueric Thuch – also tiny, crying and shivering with fear – would be travelling to Ethiopia, too.

As the men waited, my mother held me one last time. She held me too long though, and her fear started to seep into me. I began to cry so she broke the embrace. The last touch I felt was her hand on mine as she gave me a parcel of sorghum, grain and nuts.

“You will have to be strong now, Little Swallow. You can no longer afford to be soft.”

There were 30 boys selected from my village – some a little older than me, some younger – and we were all marched, in one column, into the bush by some village elders. After a couple of hours of marching, I was as far from my birthplace as I’d ever been.

It was roughly 20 kilometres to Kolnyang, the first town we stopped in. I thought the journey was hard. I thought that my feet hurt, my stomach was empty, and my mouth was dry. I had no idea.

When we got to Kolnyang I saw two things my young eyes had never seen before. The first was a structure with a large tin roof, which made me wonder if Kolnyang was one of those things called a city that some of the Anyanya (fighters) had spoken of. The second was the great expanse of people.

These people were spread far further than the limits of the town and my eyes. Most of the people were boys – their eyes full of suspicion and fear, and tears, sitting or lying on the baked dirt – but there were also soldiers, who smoked, and looked bored and tired and annoyed, as only soldiers can.

In Kolnyang, most of the boys and men were Dinka – although not all were Dinka-Bor – but some were from different tribes. I could tell that by their faces, and their bodies, and the language they used. Due to this mix of tribes, I was more fearful of this town than the bush and its hungry animals. In my village, I rarely met anyone from another tribe.

We stayed overnight in Kolnyang, bivouacking with everyone else, but at the setting of the sun, no children’s songs were sung. The only sound in the camp was a muted whimpering. I did not sleep, and I don’t think anyone else did either, except of course the soldiers.

The crying got quieter as the moon rose, but the sound of the boys never totally went away. When I sat up in the middle of the night I saw that almost every pair of eyes around me was open. I knew what all the eyes were looking at. They were looking at the stars. The mothers would not be sleeping that night, either.

The stars were perhaps the last thing that could be shared by both the mothers and the boys.

I knew that my mother would be looking at those stars that night.

I enjoyed law a lot.

During my first year of study, it occurred to me that I had actually started life in a highly structured environment and was now returning to one.

While the Dinka do not have a written legal canon, there were very rigid and adhered-to laws regarding everything from murder and theft to property disputes and defamation. Even when looked at from afar, Dinka law is a beautiful thing, composed for the benefit of the land, the river, the cattle and the people. Then there was the war. There was only one law in the war, and that law was that the war is bigger than you. The war served almost no people, scorched the earth, scattered and killed the cattle, and poisoned the river.

I was drunk on the law of the war when I came to Australia, but I sobered up as I learned more of the rules and language of the country that had welcomed me.

As I started to learn the Australian laws, I found that they were like Dinka law, but instead of being in the service of people and land, it was in the service of people and of precedent.

In that first year of law the reading was extensive, the language often confusing and arcane, and there were few nights where my eyes didn’t ache at the end of all the reading, but Australian law made sense to me – from intent to application. I passed all my core classes in the first year of my studies, allowing me to continue with my degree, but I did fail a “law foundation” class. The failure stemmed from my refusal to back away from an ethical stance I took in class.

A brilliant academic named Dr Michael Head, who was well known in Australian socialist circles, and contributed readily and intelligently to socialist journals, conducted the class and posed this theoretical problem to us:

“A bomb has been placed in a passenger jet with 200 people on board. It’s primed to explode shortly. A suspect has been found, but he’s not cooperating with the police. How far outside of the bounds of Australian law can you morally operate with this suspect?”

The opinion of the room was the opinion that was obviously sought by Dr Head: there is no wiggle room. The law is the law. I had another, dissenting view.

“I would torture him,” I told Dr Head.

“How can you be sure you have the right man? And even then, how would you know that the information was right?” my tutor asked.

“I know that people lie when under extreme duress. I have tortured and I have been tortured, but it would be worth the chance that you may get some information that could save the people on that flight.”

“That answer is categorically wrong, Deng, I’m sorry.”

Dr Head explained his reasoning. The law has to be allowed to be imperfect in singular situations. It moves, and bends over time, but it does not break.

“Do you understand?” Dr Head asked.

“I do, but I would still torture this man. And I would also torture his family, if it
was needed.”

I was starting to believe in human rights, but I believed in a utilitarian version of human rights. I believed in the golden mean – the greatest good for the greatest number. I would not be budged.

The argument continued throughout the course. Both Dr Head and I thought we were arguing to the benefit of the greatest good for the greatest number, and I made impassioned but brutal arguments. I was only a handful of years removed from my time in the military, and not just a military, but one of the most ruthless militaries in the world. Arguments of bombs and death were not abstract for me.

I passed the rest of my first-year courses, however, and I was off to my second year of studies. Then things became even more difficult, as the course work became more voluminous and complex. I fell behind, and started filing assignments late.

I may have dropped out except that the dean and deputy dean of the law school – Professor Michael Adams and Dr Stephen Janes – took a personal interest in me, and helped me immensely.

“I never thought gaining a law degree could be possible, even as I was picking up my gown and mortarboard … I had still seen myself as the grubby-faced child I’d been, with an AK-47 in his hands and death in his core, even as I progressed through year after year of law.”

I may have dropped out except that the dean and deputy dean of the law school – Professor Michael Adams and Dr Stephen Janes – took a personal interest in me, and helped me immensely.

They recognised that I was working hard, but that the cards were stacked against me somewhat, with my English still a work in progress and the academic rigour of a law degree a relatively new concept to me. They gave me no special treatment, but they monitored my progress, giving me a gentle push when it looked like I was going to fall too far behind. With those great men taking a personal interest in me, I thought it would have been a great dishonour to fail in my studies, so I redoubled my efforts.

I knew that the semesters were only going to become increasingly difficult and that things would have to change if I was to graduate. I decided I was going to return to the attitude I had as a boy soldier. When I was in the SPLA I would set a detailed plan for what I was going to do that day as soon as I woke. That was the only way to survive. I started doing the same thing at university.

In the army there was never any food during the day, so I decided to stop eating at the campus. We slept very little when we were in the army, too, so I started to go to bed very late and woke very early. That last measure actually helped me become more rested because when I was extremely fatigued I found I had far fewer nightmares.

The only activity I routinely kept up while at WSU was football, which was also something I’d done in the army. I played football and studied and attended lectures, and had time with Elizabeth and the kids, and that was the whole sum of my life. Then, one day, I finished my degree. As the graduation came closer and closer, I actually believed less and less that I would be handed a degree. I never thought gaining a law degree could be possible, even as I was picking up my gown and mortarboard.

John had thought it possible, but I never really believed him. I had still seen myself as the grubby-faced child I’d been, with an AK-47 in his hands and death in his core, even as I progressed through year after year of law.

I spoke to John every week while studying, and at times of particular stress, I would call him every day. He was a calming presence on the phone. He hadn’t been when I was living with him, but things were different after he moved permanently back to South Sudan. I could never respect his decision to permanently move away from his children, but he was certainly more at peace in Africa, and more himself.

John flew back to Australia for my graduation and was incandescently happy when I was handed my degree. There were so many gates to that moment that I wouldn’t have been able to get through without John’s help. None of it would have been possible without him. I told him that night that, even though he had mostly been in Africa while I was studying, I wouldn’t have been able to get the degree without him.

He was so proud.

There were all kinds of friends and family at the graduation. After the ceremony we went to a church in Blacktown for a party of Dinka music and Sudanese food. People gave speeches too, and there was even one from James Mading Mabil, my sometimes harsh, sometimes angelic squad leader from the war. He now lived in Sydney too, and I was very happy that I could share my triumphant moment with him.

This is an edited extract from Songs of a War Boy by Deng Adut with Ben Mckelvey, published by Hachette Australia.

Photography: Jason McCormack