It’s a wonder he’s alive. Many like him, who made the march across the country to a refugee camp in Ethiopia where disease ran rampant even as food and water had all but dried up, didn’t make it.
And then he joined the war.
Monybany Dau is a former child soldier. One of the Lost Boys, as they’ve been famously nicknamed, from Sudan. It’s a thing we’d rather not imagine. Some of us might even pretend it can’t be true: a child holding a gun in his hand, trained to use the weapon in war.
Last week Unveil Studios released its new documentary The Ladder of My Life, which tells some of the fascinating story that is Monybany’s life. I asked Monybany 10 Qs through email, shortly after the first screening of the film in Red Deer, Alberta.
Andrew Kooman: We learn in the film that at 9 years old you decided to join the SPLA to fight as a soldier, what prompted you to make that decision?
Monybany Dau: To answer this broad question one would have to revisit the roots of the conflicts in my country and that alone can constitute 100 of books since the days of the Arab entrance to Sudan some 400 years ago to the colonial era until 1956, Sudan’s partial independence. This has created the unstoppable frictions between the indigenous populations and the newcomers, thus leading to the series of chronic conflicts throughout generations.
The continuation of these endless wars was and has still been exacerbated by elite in Khartoum after the independence from Britain in 1956. Sudan and its people were undergoing tremendous abuses and inhumane treatments by its own government. The corrupted and centralized successive governments in Khartoum were engaged in the politics of Arabazation and Islamization of the indigenous people of the Sudan.
As a result of these subjugations, resistance grew causing severe marginalization of the certain regions where these uproars of resistance were more prominent. Southern Sudan, today the Republic of South Sudan, paid the ultimate price. Our people were inhumanely treated by the dominant Arab and Muslim Khartoum-based government. Such domination was highly obvious and that raises many questions even to the child’s mind like mine at the time, though with no clear socio-political or socio-economic maturity.
When the Any-Nya war ended in 1972, Southern Sudanese were hopeful about the future of their region within the united Sudan, but that promised faded away within a few years. For instance when I was in my primary school, our teachers were instructed to stop teaching Christian lessons and that all of us have to be converted to Islam under forceful conditions, if you didn’t agree then the way back to your family was the only choice. I and many others schoolchildren squarely refused that pathetic ruling and opted to walk away with the given choice; thankfully that same year the Sudan People Liberation Movement and Army (SPLM/A) war erupted.
Hostilities against the Southerners reached the highest point in the history by the Sudan security organizations, namely Sudan Arm Force (SAF), Sudan Intelligent Agency, Police and many more. Regardless of age and gender; everyone in the south was categorically and presumably accused as a SPLM/A or SPLM/A Supporter. With grave impunity, many adults males were killed or tortured and women and children were either killed or abducted with no minimum human sympathy, and on top of that their properties were looted. I witnessed my uncle’s convenience store in which I was volunteering looted at day light and when I move my tongue I was met with an evil force. A soldier hit my young chest with heavy rifle, leaving me unconscious on the store’s muddy floor. When the war broke out I decided to flee to the so-called safe haven, a refugee camp in at the Sudan-Ethiopia border, but found the refugee conditions more inhumane than the alternatives back home. Many people were dying with diseases and starvation as the UNHCR response to the unfolding human calamities was too slow.
Under these forceful conditions of an excessive abusive atmosphere, one has to answer the historical call which was the only choice available. The decision to voluntarily enlist myself to be trained as a soldier not only would enhance my survival skills, but it would provide me with opportunity to hopefully return to the village and be able to defend and protect my family against these monsters. As we know now, that did not occur.
AK: It’s hard to imagine you as a child with a gun in your hands, fighting as a soldier. How do you view that part of your life now?
MD: Those days were the glorious days of any Southern Sudanese life that carried the heart and soul to free its people from the chronic oppressors of Khartoum. In my mind – and I do strongly believe in many of my colleagues hard drives – there was no doubt that we were going to be victorious quicker than later.
What that convention created in us was a huge hope and enormous energy, beside we were now able to defend ourselves from the enemy that killed our fathers, raped our sisters and mothers and abducted our brothers in front of us when we were just helpless. But now we were able to teach them unforgettable lessons. So I thought it was the most dignified duty I have ever taken, even though I was a child. I was not humiliated any longer; instead I was ready to die for my freedom and the freedom of my people.
AK: How old were you when you left Sudan for Cuba, and how did the 12 years you spent in Cuba, after leaving Africa, shape who you are today?
MD: When the liberation movement (SPLM) assigned me and 600 others child soldiers historically known as the Red Army and later was nicknamed as Lost Boys a mission, the continuation of our education, I was around 11 years old. Though having immigrated to Cuba under a very different environment my desirability of being a child again was reinvigorated. These 12 or more years were the exaltation years of my life and were when the most significant changes penetrated my world.
Here I reached the realization of the harsh condition under which our people in Sudan were carpeted by their own government. Cubans took us and guided us through the difficult moments of their history. They showed us how people and government can work hand in hand to build their nation, how this nation can embrace everyone regardless of your race, ethnicity background, religious views, etc. Cuba gave me and my colleague something our own country was unable to provide us: protection and the space which one could call his or hers in the society.
Cuba gave me what my own nation deliberately denied me: education, health care and my dignity was restored. Cuba taught me how to love your own country and the need of making it free of oppression. It was here where I start to understand and comprehend the roots of the conflict in my own country. Cuba restored what was denied and stolen from me by own country, at least something almost close to it, my childhood. These 12 years I spent in Cuba are responsible for who I am today and will always be.
AK: What year did you come to Canada and what was your first impression of your new country?
MD: I came to Canada on September 21, 1998. My first impression was mixed with uncertainty and curiosity. One would inevitably express that weather played a huge role in first impression, but the busyness of the people here did have a lot to do with my first assessment of Canada as a culture and a nation. Though, I had a goal. I came to Canada not to stay, but to return to Cuba and to be able to finish my unfinished career, a nursing degree. Nevertheless things didn’t go according to the plan; I end up being part of this great nation on Earth.
AK: What is your daily life like in Canada today?
MD: With understandable reasons, I am afraid to say that I have not fully settled, let a lone integrated. Therefore life here is much more a struggle than anything else. I go to work and come home eat and go to bed and go to work and come home. Not much of a fun. I spend my nights at work and spend my days trying to fit everything else. Volunteering and working on the project that we just launched has also became part of everyday homework to some extent. I have no idea how many emails I have sent or how many text messages I have keyed during the course of the last months. Before the sun rises and before it sets, as well as during and between day and night, I think of family back home, my village and the country of South Sudan.
AK: How much do you share with your own young boys about your childhood as a refugee and a soldier?
MD: This is one of the things I carefully opt not to share a lot with them, in a direct way. But I do through the everyday life. For instance I remind myself by telling them not to waste anything, for there are many people back home, among them their extended families, that have no access to anything except the fact they are still perceive the life as I did.
I try not show them much about how my life has been, but what I am trying to do now which is making sure they became better people and live their childhood as much as they can. I fear if I, through imagination, drive them through the unimaginable paths of my life, I will ruin their most deserved childhood. I trust God that they will grow up and possibly reach the point of that realization and maybe seek the answers to many of the missing puzzles of my life, or why I do and say what I constantly try to make them believe.
For instance I have set some life learning rules to them at home. One of them is if you ask for something to eat you must finish it. Why? Because many cousins of theirs are lacking. At least they have understood that.
On the other hand, part of the reason I decided to share my story through Ladder of My Life, both in the form of a film and the ongoing effort of writing a book, it was to put something out there for their future inspiration. But also through my constant connection with my beloved homeland they are pretty much aware of whom I was and that have been reinforce by releasing of the film.
AK: When was the first time and under what circumstances did you first return to Southern Sudan?
MD: I was first re-exposed to my homeland when after almost more than a decade, through telephone conversation with my family when I first arrived to Canada 14 years ago. But I didn’t return home in real terms until 2007 when I first visited the villages I left in 1984. This time the war was partially ended with signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) in 2005. But first I was able to visit my mother in 2002 while she and her older sister were living in Northern Uganda.
AK: What was one of the greater challenges of making this film?
MD: The funding and the impossibilities of getting necessary details of my life that was the gravest challenges. I would have loved to see the most important part of my life that was in Cuba being reflected in the film. These main challenges have contributed to the timing issues. It took us a significant amount of time to reach the historical launching date. Thanks to the firm ladder of friends – without them the production of this film would have not been possible.
AK: What is the main idea or thought that you want audiences to take away with them after watching The Ladder of My Life?
MD: The goals that I want to accomplish with this story are many. But one critical thing that I would hope people learn from it is to make them aware about the ongoing conflict on the Greatest Sudan and how this conflict has affected many lives and continue to negatively impact them. That there are many of these affected lives living here in the western world with the intention of not just simply pretending to live normal lives, but want to go back and help rescue the situation and through their action perhaps meaningful changes will be born.
That when they watch this move they shall be touched and moved to support the Atar Water Project both financially and technically. As it is been advertised through my website www.ladderofmylife.com. If all of us here in Red Deer donate $1.67 we will provide clean and safe drinking water in every sustainable passion to about 90,000 souls of the South Sudanese of Atar.
AK: When people learn about your story, Monybany, I think many will simply be amazed that you got out of Sudan with your life. But I imagine many more will wonder at your outlook on life. How do you live with so much compassion and optimism?
MD: I am just like any other human being. I have my ups and downs for, imbalanced as they may appear, they are part of my life. However, growing up in the African village with the kind of parents I had, everything just come natural. I remembered one day at harvest season, mom and I were walking to the field. I was behind her as she was gaining one step at the time and eventually we had arrived and mom start working tirelessly.
The next morning and the next and the next…. She would do the same over and over with not much result, but enough to keep our family going, but she will never give up. I grew up with that hope that, as she will said, everything will be just fine. Sometimes we would spend days without eating, but she will say, “It shall be, it shall be well.” Mom lost 5 boys and one girl to preventives disease before I was conceive\d, but she never gave up, thanks to that optimism of hers, I am here.
When I left the village in 1984 and with it everything I knew and loved, I didn’t know that I will return I silent into myself only to use my mother’s parable: “It shall be well.” By then I was around 9 years of age, so already I had broken the record of the living son of my parents. That by itself was amazing. I was built expecting worse and so that incarnation drove during my years as a SPLA soldier. I always expected the worst expecting the course of the time, which regardless of what we think and do, the sun will continue its path from the East, over and over. There is nothing called “It doesn’t make sense in life,” because life has many senses. If a certain sense does make sense, another will and thats how I look at it.
Learn more about the film and the Atar Water project at www.ladderofmylife.com
Read more of AK’s interviews with artists, activists and bold thinkers here