WA-based mining engineer and author Yuot A. Alaak sometimes marvels he survived his traumatic childhood in war-torn Sudan to be able to document his incredible story.
As we sit at a Cottesloe cafe, chatting about his memoir, Father of the Lost Boys, we’re light years away from the world Yuot endured as a child, growing up during the Second Sudanese Civil War.
Yuot, 41, has his own father, Mecak Ajang Alaak, to thank for rescuing him and 20,000 other boys from a dire fate, repeatedly risking his own life to lead the youngsters to safety.
Yuot chats to The Starfish about the book he’s just written documenting his astonishing story and celebrating his heroic father.
How did you come to write this book?
Perth’s Centre For Stories was running a mentorship a few years ago. I submitted a short story in and it ended up being published in a collection.
That gave me the confidence to write a book. I’d wanted to tell this story a long time.
So your dad was a prominent academic and teacher in South Sudan?
Yes, he was very well known and respected as a community leader. He was in another town, away from the rest of the family, teaching when the civil war began. He was arrested by troops and tortured and thrown into prison. My mother, brother and sister didn’t get to see him again for years. And at one stage we were told that he’d been killed. While he was gone, we ended up having to escape to Ethiopia, where we went to a refugee camp, Pinyudu, in western Ethiopia.
Tell us about the camp?
It was set up in the 1980s and became one of the biggest refugee camps in Africa. It was occupied by tens of thousands of South Sudanese refugees, including many children who’d been separated from their families. Boys were often sent there by elders from their villages.
There were thousands of boys?
Yes, most of us were between 8 and 12 years old. We became referred to as The Lost Boys. We were organised in groups of 1000 or so per group, with adult caretakers. We had to build our own dormitories and primitive classrooms. There was another camp to the east for women, young children and the elderly.
And it was at Pinyudu you finally got to see your dad again?
Yes, I’ll never forget this day, in February 1989, after he managed to escape. He came to the camp and we were reunited at last. Such an emotional day. He stayed with us a while but after about a month, he had to head off to a military training camp. We were so sad to see him go but realised our country needed him as much as we did. As a leader of his people, he had to learn tactics to ensure the North recognised Southerners as equal citizens.
As a boy, you had to witness something terrible at the camp one day – some men were shot in front of you?
Yes, one day we children were ordered to march to nearby oval. Here soldiers brought out six men, blindfolded, and told us as they had broken the law they would be ‘punished.’ I thought they were going to be caned in front of us. Instead, they were shot dead. It was just so shocking. But as I say in my book, I later found myself thinking that even though I despised the soldiers for killing their own people, a part of me held respect for them. I found myself wanting to fight our oppressors and emulate them. I wanted to become a soldier, a freedom fighter. I was just ten years old. My mother was not happy! But she couldn’t stop me. I joined other boys at a very tough training camp to train to be a soldier.
Then in 1990 your father returned, and thankfully put a stop to these plans?
Yes, he knew that the children in the camp, some potentially future leaders of the country, needed help and guidance. He didn’t want these boys going to war. With difficulty, he managed to persuade us not to become soldiers, insisting that the pen was a more powerful weapon than a gun, and urging us to follow him. My father spent four years, leading 20,000 boys from Ethiopia to Sudan and finally on to safety in Kenya.
Not all the boys made it did they?
No, there were a lot of dangers and perils on the way. But most of the boys survived.
It’s an incredible story and you must be so proud of your dad.
Yes, that’s really why I wrote this book. Aside from wanting to tell people this story, it’s really a tribute to my dad. What he did was extraordinary.
My father is a hero but he remains a very humble man! A lot of those boys he helped have never forgotten him. Many ended up living in other countries: America, New Zealand, Norway, and have had successful careers. They remain very grateful to my father.
Your family moved to Australia in 1995. What a change of scene!
Yes, we arrived in Adelaide in 1995. When we arrived, I kept thinking, ‘where is everyone?’ I then moved over to WA; and I have a job with FMG in the Pilbara. The rest of my family are still in South Australia.
Well congratulations on this book, and for giving us a glimpse into how life was in South Sudan in this extraordinary time.
Father of the Lost Boys by Yuot A. Alaak (Fremantle Press) is out now.
Yuot Images: Peter Rigby