Writing Great Guns
By Stephen CrittendenJuly 4, 2012
Measured against an AK-47, young Majok Tulba was of no use to the rebels who would have made him a child fighter. Instead he made it to Australia as a teenage refugee with no English. Ten years later his debut novel takes the measure of those Sudanese soldiers.
When Majok Tulba describes the village where he was born, near the banks of the White Nile in Sudan, every detail is vividly present to him.
"I remember my village as being really beautiful. Green. Fresh air. I can hear the sound of birds in the morning. I can feel the cold and see the green barley, the green fields. If you asked me whether I would rather be in Sydney or in my village, I would choose to live in my village because I had everything I wanted. I had friends. I had goats that I looked after. I had beautiful gardens, ground nuts, sugar cane. I had the best wild fruits in the fields. So I had everything I wanted. My village was a paradise."
Turning pages with Majok Tulba
But if this was a paradise, it was also a hell on earth. Sudan was suffering what was, at the time, the world's longest-running civil war, and as a result two million people had died, the highest number of civilian casualties since World War II. Another four million have been displaced. The war formally ended in 2005, but hostilities are ongoing. Tulba says that when he was a child he thought the whole world was at war and that war was all there was.
Now 27, when he arrived in Australia as a refugee 11 years ago, Tulba's only language was his native Dinka. Ten years later Penguin Books has just published his first novel. Set in his war-torn homeland and written through the eyes of a frightened child, Beneath the Darkening Sky is like a vivid, terrible dream.
Obinna is 11 years old, and his brother Akot is 13. One day a group of armed men bursts into the village, burning houses and separating the men from the women. Obinna sees his father beheaded with a machete and his uncle's wife raped. He and his brother are taken away with other children in trucks, the boys to be soldiers, the girls to be sex slaves. The rebel captain gives Obinna the new name of Baboon's Ass. Later, when he too has learned to kill and raid villages and kidnap children, he will be known as People's Fire. He is always afraid.
"Everything I saw in Africa, and particularly Southern Sudan, made me unhappy," Tulba says, and he has decided to express his anger by writing about it.
But Beneath the Darkening Sky is a work of fiction; Tulba was not a child soldier, although it was a fate he only narrowly avoided. "As a child I saw a lot of terrible images, of people getting killed, villages getting burned, and children being recruited into being child soldiers. So when I decided to write the novel, it's actually fiction, but the fiction tells a true story. The stuff that you see in the book is actually happening to many children in Africa."
One event in the novel did happen to him, and it makes for one of the book's most frightening and enduring images. When the soldiers come to Obinna's village, the young boys are measured against the length of an AK-47. Those who are taller than the gun are taken; those who are shorter are allowed to stay behind. Tulba had the same experience when he was eight-and-a-half.
"The war was ugly then, it was really, really messy, the rebels were losing the fight," Tulba explains. "A lot of key towns in the south [were] occupied by Sudanese Government forces, the southern rebels were losing and they began rounding up young boys to bolster their numbers."
The Dinka people are cattle farmers and when the rebels arrived at his village, Tulba was away working on a cattle camp. But they did take his father. His grandfather came to find him at the cattle camp, asking Tulba whether he would go to the rebel camp and offer to replace his father. Tulba agreed, and he and his grandfather returned to their village, a walk of two days.
"The sun was really, really hot. I think it would have been about 1 or 2 pm when we arrived. As soon as my mother and a couple of my cousins saw me, everyone started crying as if I was already dead. I didn't greet anybody. I just sat down under a mango tree and asked for water. My grandfather and my grandmother were chanting and calling God."
Refusing to wait for his mother to prepare food, Tulba set out again with his grandfather on the long walk to the rebel camp. "When we arrived it was like something I had never seen. There were a lot of boys and men scattered all over the place. Some were working in the fields building huts for commanders, some were fetching firewood for cooking, some were pounding grain, others were cooking beans."
They found the camp commander sitting under a tree with his guards around him. "He saw me and he said 'Hey, young boy, come here.'"
Tulba's grandfather explained that he had come to take his father's place.
"The commander smiled and grabbed my arm and pulled me closer towards him. And then he said, 'How strong are you?' I showed my arm and said, 'I'm strong.' He said, 'Are you ready to join the army?' I said, 'Yes, I'm ready to join the army.' And he looked to his right where one of his guards was standing with a gun. He grabbed an AK-47 and dropped it into my hand. I'd never touched a gun before. I'd seen rebels carrying guns around but never touched one physically. And the gun was really, really heavy. I felt like it weighed two tonnes. It pulled me down. And the soldiers around him just laughed," Tulba recalls.
Then the commander stood the AK-47 on its end and measured Tulba against it. "And he said, 'You know what? Go back. If we take you, you won't last a week, because you are weak.'"
It was about a year later that Sudanese government forces attacked his village, and Tulba and his brother became refugees.
"When the attack happened, we were separated from our parents. So I ran to the jungle with my brother," Tulba says. Together they walked east, ending up in a refugee camp near the Ugandan border. The camps were dangerous, violent places, sitting targets for Sudanese government artillery, and many people there died of diseases like cholera and malaria.
The brothers moved between refugee camps until 1999, when they left for Uganda, where they lived for two years before being accepted to come to Australia.
Majok Tulba's story isn't just one of remarkable talent, but of talent that has been recognised and supported. He says when he arrived in Australia in 2001 he "fell into the hands of a lot of wonderful people who gave me guidance". He began writing stories as an assignment at the Catholic Intensive English Centre in Lewisham. A story about animals in Africa impressed his teacher, who suggested he should consider becoming a writer and writing books like the ones they had in class.
"But I told her that is not possible, because my friend in refugee camp told me that books are printed by a clever machine. And she said, no you can learn to do that."
He says it took a while to believe that "a person like me can write a book".
Tulba's growing realisation that he wanted to be a storyteller soon also led to an interest in film. He recalls that, as children in Africa, he and his friends had believed that movie characters like Rambo were real people. Friends sponsored him to undertake a film course at the new International Film School Sydney in Rosebery because he couldn't afford the $10,000-a-term fees. "And I had a very wonderful teacher who was the head of the screenwriting department, called Duncan Thompson. He taught me a lot about the methods people use to tell stories."
Before long, Tulba and a group of his classmates were working on a film called Burst. With Thompson's encouragement, they entered it in Tropfest, Sydney's short-film festival, in 2006. "He told us if there's a team that's ready, you can do it for fun." Directed by Juliet Lamont, the five-minute story made the Tropfest finals. "It's about family break-up, about a single mother who is divorced from her husband and she lives alone with her child. And the film is based on the first time when the child, with the mother, actually visits the father. And when he sees the child there is a moment that changes everything."
According to the latest available figures from the Australian Bureau of Statistics, there are more than 26,000 overseas-born Sudanese in Australia. The Sudanese community is one of Australia's fastest-growing ethnic communities (growing at an average rate of 20 per cent each year) and it also has the highest proportion of children of any ethnic community.
Now married with three children and living in outer western Sydney where there is a significant concentration of Sudanese migrants, Majok has been reunited with his parents, who now also live in Australia. He says his mother is impatient to learn English so she can understand The Simpsons.
But many Sudanese find settlement in Australia a distressing experience, arriving as they often do without having been told anything about Australia, and being completely unfamiliar with modern city life.
"When we come to Australia everything is new. It's like starting from scratch," Tulba says. "As soon as you land at the airport you see the world is different from the world you knew in Africa." Tulba says he didn't know that he would ever fit in. "I didn't know that I would ever talk to people like you. I didn't know I would recognise faces, because everyone looked the same. All the buildings, all the traffic, everything looked the same. I didn't know where I was."
Even after 10 years in Australia, Tulba says he doesn't yet feel comfortable. "I'm far better, and that is because I've found a mechanism to deal with the images I've seen — that is by writing them down. If I have a nightmare, I get up and write it down, and that helps me a bit. It's not as bad as other people who deal with them, because I want to trap them on paper and hope that maybe they will remain there forever."
In 2005, after a peace agreement had been concluded in what has become known as the Second Sudanese Civil War, Tulba returned to Southern Sudan for the first time since he was nine, to be confronted by ruins. "Everything looked different. There were only black walls, and nothing existed. And people were coming back from the refugee camps, back to the villages, but there was nothing there."
As a result of that experience he founded his own charity, LifeCare Sudan, which is raising money to build medical clinics for pregnant mothers and children in his village of Pacong.
"If you look at the mothers in South Sudan… it is very painful to actually hold a child in your hand and know that your child is sick but there is nowhere you can take them for treatment. So that alone is psychologically really, really damaging to the child as well as the mother. We can't do everything at once, but if we can do this it will help reduce a number of diseases that kill children, like malaria, chicken pox, and a lot of other diseases that aren't even in the Western world, but they exist there."
He says he will also continue writing stories. "I love to write about children. They are the innocents, the ones who suffered most in a war they didn't understand."