Father of the lost boys is Yuot A. Alaak’s memoir of walking through the deserts and the jungles across three continents in Africa to seek safety after his home was destroyed in the second Civil War between North and South Sudan.
I interviewed Yuot during the 2021 Festival of Literature and Ideas in Perth and had the pleasure of spending time with him while he shared his story.
It is a remarkable testament to his grit and fortitude, but it is also an ode to his father, who as an educator and important community leader in South Sudan, was responsible for leading 20,000 boys and associated refugee groups from Ethiopia to Sudan and on to the safety of Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya.
The group became known as ‘the lost boys of Sudan’ and for many years their story and suffering were unknown. Yuot writes “we kept waiting for the United Nations to come and help us,. Often the boys were under attack from not only the North Sudanese but also from the military of South Sudan that wanted to recruit the boys as child soldiers. Yuot himself trained as a child soldier when he was nine years old.
The boys first became refugees when they reached Ethiopia. During this time Yuot’s father was imprisoned and tortured. They were told by radio that he was dead and believed this to be the case for many years. Thankfully, his father lived and managed to find his way to the family and the lost boys. He took on a leadership role with the refugees. Yuot’s father always said, “the pen is mightier than the sword” and did all he could to keep the boys safe from various opposing forces.
Organising his charges into groups of 1,000 with a head teacher, several other teachers, head boys and a few soldiers, he marshalled the big groups of boys in a military like operation to criss-cross various countries.
One of the more gripping parts of this memoir is the crossing of the Gilo River by the group. Fighting a swollen river with strong currents, Yuot’s father obtained twelve canoes and in a mass exodus they shuttled as many boys as possible across the river in canoes all day and all night. Some of the boys swam across on their own and they feared for their lives. Some drowned and some were taken by crocodiles. In the end not all escaped as they were fired upon by competing armies.
Yuot writes passionately about the rest of their trek and arrival at Kakuma where they were the first refugees in the camp. Now decades later the refugee camp houses 180,000 people.
His pride in his father, who is truly a remarkable man, shines through. Eventually all the family were reunited and Yuot explains how they escaped to Nairobi where they still feared for their lives. They were finally accepted as refugees by Australia years later.
This is a story of triumph. There is humour too, as Yuot describes settling into his new home and learning what it meant to become an Australian.
Yuot arrived in Australia at the age of 14 and spoke no English. He went on to learn the language, finish Year 12, and be accepted to university where he obtained degrees in engineering and geoscience. He now works for one of Australia’s largest mining companies and enjoys writing.
This is an inspiring read and the publisher Fremantle Press has provided some great book club notes.