By Farah Farouque, originally published by The Age, 2009
WHEN Clement Deng receives his degree in March, like other graduates he will take a short walk up to a podium. He may, however, allow himself a longer smile of satisfaction. After all, his walk represents the culmination of a 25-year trek that began one day in a village in southern Sudan.
He doesn't know the date, nor the time. Only the year - 1986. He was nine years old when an armed militia came to wreak havoc on his village. ''It was a really dark day,'' he says. ''They were looking for the children, for women, for cattle. They killed the men. They came on horses, snatching the girls and boys.''
Deng was one of those boys. He wasn't aware of the politics then, only the cruelty some men were capable of. The civil war that raged in southern Sudan from 1983 to 2005 developed into one of Africa's most brutal modern conflicts. Rebel insurgents from the south had challenged the authority of the Arab central government in the north, and the region's civilians paid in blood. By the war's end, an estimated 2 million southern Sudanese were dead and up to 4 million displaced.
As he would learn later, the militia who came to his village were authorised by the central government in the capital, Khartoum. His father was a local chief who had been accused of providing the rebel army with food.
The militia took Deng away and interrogated him about his father's movements. He didn't have the answers they wanted so they hit him with a bicycle chain. When he still could not supply the information, they used harsher methods. Under his shirt he still bears the scars.
After he was released, Deng could not find his parents or his two sisters or brother in the confusion. So he joined another family and began his first trek, to neighbouring Ethiopia. It was to be the first of many such treks. He and thousands of other boys from the region's Dinka ethnic group, who were either orphaned or separated from their families, were to embark on a series of epic walks. They criss-crossed international borders in search of refuge: it was either that, or face slavery or death. These youths - up to 30,000 of them - eventually became known as ''the Lost Boys''.
Deng , now 34, can't remember how far he walked on that first desperate trek. There were only leaves and roots to eat. Water was scarce. People died in front of him. ''All I know was that it was for three months,'' he says. He laughs, suddenly, incongruously. ''I can find out now how many kilometres - I am educated!''
Deng is a resilient man and, remarkably, an optimist. ''I was lucky to be alive compared to all the people who were killed,'' he says now. During a meeting at La Trobe University, in a room near where he submitted his final assignment for an arts degree in international development, Deng says it was his Catholic faith that helped him through. For a time he even contemplated being a priest but changed his mind when he realised that obeying a hierarchy did not come naturally to him.
But his faith has helped him put ''the bad things'' in perspective, he says. Nuns from Mother Teresa's order, the Missionaries of Charity, that he encountered had helped him consolidate a sense of equanimity. ''I don't get just comfort, I get a sense of purpose … to know that I am a human being and these things can happen to me,'' he explains. ''If I enjoy life today, that's good.''
It wasn't always that way. ''For a time,'' he says, ''I was bitter, what I was thinking about all the time was the insecurity of my situation. I felt, what was life for, if you were not being protected?''
When Deng and the family crossed the border into Ethiopia, they set up home in a makeshift refugee camp. It was a life of subsistence, but it kept him alive. About a year later, all the unaccompanied minors in the camp were taken by the children's agency, UNICEF, to another camp elsewhere in Ethiopia. Deng remained there for four years. It was the making of him, he says.
''It transformed my life. Everything was programmed; there was time for playing, there was time to go to school and there was time for work - we had to build our own beds, we had to join our hands to build schools … I did not have time to think about any trouble. I was busy.''
The school curriculum at the camp also represented his first formal contact with English. At the village school, where he had been an enthusiastic pupil, all instruction had been in the Dinka language or Arabic. Deng embraced this new language despite its many confounding rules.
But his peace of mind was not permanent. In 1991, militia once again with the backing of Khartoum crossed the border and targeted the boys in the Ethiopian camp. It was time for another dangerous escape - paradoxically, this time back across the border to Sudan.
Deng recalls that the terrain during the crossing posed as much of a threat as their pursuer's weapons. It was the rainy season and the Gilo River in Ethiopia was bursting. Many boys drowned before they could make it. ''You had to choose between dying with the gun, or throwing yourself in the river.''
Those who survived the crossing into Sudan camped by a border village. For months, until the Red Cross intervened, the boys foraged for leaves and roots, supplemented by occasional grain from the village. But the threat from the militia was still present, and it became necessary to embark on another trek - this time to Kenya.
The boys walked at night to avoid being seen. Fortunately, their journey was made easier by food drops and water drums placed along the way by aid agencies. ''It was not as tough as when we ran to Ethiopia or when we left there. Those were really tough days - this time you only died of a gunshot, not hunger.''
Deng and his companions kept up their spirits by telling stories or making fun of each other. Sometimes they even sang. One of Deng's favourites was an upbeat hymn.
He sings it joyously, more than two decades later, in the impersonal university classroom. He has perfect pitch. ''Lord, you k-n-o-w. You k-n-o-w all about me. Lord, you k-n-o-w all about me. You know when I sit, and when I stand up. You know, when I sleep …''
This final trek - to northern Kenya - was epic in every sense. It started in late 1991. In mid-1992, Deng landed in a desert at the vast Kakuma refugee camp run by the United Nations. Here Deng was at least able to go back to school.
A year later, when he was 17, he won a scholarship to a boarding school in a nearby town, along with some other Sudanese boys from the camp. He was happy to be given the chance to study with the 10-year-olds in grade five. He also had to master another language, this time Swahili. Eventually he even made it to a local college where he completed a business studies course.
But while these were opportunities for a displaced person, Deng's status remained uncertain. Sudanese would often be hassled on the street by the Kenyan police. Every year he had to go to a UN office to obtain a ''protection letter'' - enabling him to remain as a resident in Kenya.
In 2005, more than a dozen years after he arrived in Kenya, he was accepted into Australia on a refugee visa. He had already heard positive reports about this new country located at the bottom of the globe. ''My friend had told me what Australia was like, how there was no hassle.''
Once Deng settled, his chief priority was to enter a university. It had always been a dream.
''When you have an education, you always know your voice will be heard,'' he says.
But it has also been a challenging road to navigate. Once enrolled at La Trobe, Deng had difficulty mastering educational tools such as computers. Even apparently simple skills, such as typing, initially proved hard. But his resilient spirit kept him afloat.
''The difficulties I was facing were not as much as I faced in Africa. There was always somewhere you can go to tell your stories, and you can get assistance,'' he says.
Returning to the theme of luck, Deng regards the lost boys of Sudan as among the luckiest people on the planet. They survived, after all. His gaze, however, has now shifted beyond survival. He is determined to build a new foundation. Soon, he hopes to leave his part-time job at Coles for professional work. He has a girlfriend, and marriage and children are also on the agenda.
In the longer term, this new Australian citizen harbours hopes of one day returning to southern Sudan. He wants to use the skills gained through education and hardship to help rebuild the territory for a new generation. ''I want to go back, so no other children will experience what I experienced,'' Deng says.
Farah Farouque is a senior writer.
Story by Ashley Fritch, originally published on La Trobe University website, 2009. LINK
It took Clement Deng three months to walk across Sudan to reach Ethiopia. He survived militia gunfire, wild animal attacks, and near starvation to flee his country in hope of a better life.
More than twenty years later, Clement is graduating from La Trobe University. On Friday, he will be saying thanks to the Australian people for helping him get here, at a celebration with traditional Sudanese singing and dancing.
Clement is one of the 30,000 ‘Sudanese Lost Boys’ who were forced to flee their homes and families in the 1980s, during Sudan’s second civil war.
These ‘Lost Boys’ (named by aid workers, after the fictional characters in Peter Pan) walked for months on end to reach refugee camps in Ethiopia and Kenya. They barely survived the journey. Some boys came to Australia as refugees, and some went on to study at University.
Clement says the celebration is a chance to thank the Australian people, and the government, for allowing him the opportunity to get an education.
This celebration, paired with his story of survival, marks the end of a long journey of personal achievement and the beginning of another.
Later this year, Clement will receive a degree in International Development and hopes it will help him to bring about change.
‘What continually inspired me to continue my education was the belief that I could contribute more to building Southern Sudan with an education,” he says.
“I hope for the day when Sudan becomes a place where men, women and children will not be subjected to what I was during my childhood.’
During his time in Australia, Clement has had to put aside his emotional scars to adjust to a new way of life.
‘I found it difficult adjusting to academic study in Australia. I had to learn how to use a computer from scratch and referencing essays was a challenge. Sometimes it was even hard to understand lecturer’s accents.’
Clement was 28 when he arrived in Australia, and now lives in Glenroy where he works at Coles Supermarket on the weekends. While here, Clement has been an active member in his community, helping tutor those with little or no English and getting them information about health services and settling in Australia.
Clement was also invited to speak at the Press Council, in Sydney, about the unfair way Sudanese people were being presented in the media.
Around 35 other Sudanese Lost Boys have graduated from Australian universities over the years, and the Forum also celebrates their success.
The Hon. Jenny Macklin, Federal Minister for Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs, will be speaking at the event, and there will also be time for a question and answer session with the Sudanese graduates.
As well as a light lunch, and traditional Sudanese singing and dancing, a short documentary, The Lost Boys of Sudan: The Journey from Refugee to Graduate, will be screened. The documentary is produced by Curriculum, Teaching and Learning Centre staff, Suzanne Fegan and Kate Lumley.
The forum is on this Friday, at the John Scott Meeting House, between 1pm and 4pm.