By Deng Adut with Ben MckelveyNon-fictionHachette Australia

Songs of a War Boy

Deng Adut's family were farmers in South Sudan when a brutal civil war altered his life forever. At six years old, his mother was told she had to give him up to fight. At the age most Australian children are starting school , Deng was conscripted into the Sudan People's Liberation Army. He began a harsh, relentless military training that saw this young boy trained to use an AK-47 and sent into battle. He lost the right to be a child. He lost the right to learn.

The things Deng saw over those years will stay with him forever. He suffered from cholera, malaria and numerous other debilitating illnesses but still he had to fight. A child soldier is expected to kill or be killed and Deng almost died a number of times. He survived being shot in the back. The desperation and loneliness was overwhelming. He thought he was all alone.

But Deng was rescued from war by his brother John. Hidden in the back of a truck, he was smuggled out of Sudan and into Kenya. Here he lived in refugee camps until he was befriended by an Australian couple. With their help and the support of the UN, Deng Adut came to Australia as a refugee.

Despite physical injuries and mental trauma he grabbed the chance to make a new life. He worked in a local service station and learnt English watching The Wiggles. He taught himself to read and started studying at TAFE. In 2005 he enrolled in a Bachelor of Law at Western Sydney University. He became the first person in his family to graduate from university.

This is an inspiring story of a man who has overcome deadly adversity to become a lawyer and committed worker for the disenfranchised, helping refugees in Western Sydney. It is an important reminder of the power of compassion and the benefit to us all when we open our doors and our hearts to fleeing war, persecution and trauma.

Portrait of Deng Adut with Ben Mckelvey

Deng Adut with Ben Mckelvey

Deng Adut is a lawyer working in Western Sydney. He uses his spare time to help other Sudanese refugees. He gave the 2016 Australia Day address, was painted for the 2016 Archibald Prize by Nick Stathopoulos and has been nominated for Australian of the Year 2017.

Ben Mckelvey is an award-winning journalist, television producer and author from Sydney. Songs of a War Boy is Ben's second book, having previously co-authored Born to Fight with UFC fighter Mark Hunt in 2015, a bestseller in Australia and New Zealand. He is currently writing The Commando which will detail the life of posthumous Victorian Cross recipient, special forces soldier Cameron Baird VC MG. 

Judges’ report

This powerful and affecting memoir tells of Deng Adut’s conscription into the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army when he was six years old. It paints a simply told but confronting picture of thousands of children taken from their families and forced to fight in an increasingly desperate civil war, enduring hunger, bloodshed, disease, battle wounds and death. Adut’s rescue and resettlement in Australia as a refugee – who went on to complete a university degree and establish his own law practice – is an inspiring story that shows what can be achieved in a world where there is courage, compassion, generosity and acceptance.


I was born lucky. I was born as part of a large family, and amidst a strong tribe. We are the Dinka-Bor – that is the name that’s mostly used for us. There is another name for us, but that name is too formidable to be used much.

Some names, like some songs, are too powerful for their own good.

I will say it here, once, but I will say it softly. We are the Mony Jieng – the ‘men of humanity’. 

I was born into a village that was not built for us Dinka-Bor, but for our long-horned cattle, which are sacred to my people. The cattle bless the body, the land and the soul. They would die without us, and we would not be Dinka-Bor without them.

I was born amidst the cattle in a luak, a grass-made cattle shed near a village called Malek. A family of swallows watched on as one woman struggled, and others offered gentle encouragement. I took some of the soul of one of the birds as I took my first breaths, and in doing so I also took their name: Aolouch or Little Swallow.

Little Swallow was also born with more status. The mother who birthed me, Athieu Akau Deng, was the most recently betrothed of my father’s six wives. As the last wife, she was the first among equals in clan estimation. The women whom my father had previously married were also my mothers, but they were not Athieu Akau Deng. Athieu Akau Deng had status, reputation, but also poise and wisdom.

Athieu means ‘born with a struggle’, Akau means ‘support and fealty’, and Deng means ‘god of the rain’. All names speak to who my mother of mothers is.

In my village, my father, Thiak Adut Garang, was considered a prosperous man. He was a fisherman, but also had a banana farm, and owned many heads of cattle, all of whom he could recognise at a glance.

If a man wished to marry a woman like my mother, he needed to own a great herd.

My mother’s clan – the Dinka-Adol – are known for having some of the most powerful women in all the Dinka lands, and my mother was tall and strong, even when standing next to her tribeswomen. I do not know what my father paid for her, but it would have been quite a stampede.

Athieu Akau Deng is still a powerful woman, although now she’s an old woman, so bears her power in her eyes, not her body.

My father was alive when I was born, but not when I started to take on  memories. He died of old age, which was the way many people used to die in my village.

I knew my father mostly because of the songs men sung about him – with the finest being a tale of when he hunted a hippopotamus with his spear, and fed the entire village for days.

Tradition dictated that his grave was next to our luak and I would often think about him when I walked past it. In our village, men were the exclusive holders of male wisdom, so my mothers couldn’t tell me the stories of my father, but my brothers, some of who had spent twenty or thirty years with him, would spend long afternoons singing his songs and telling his stories.

My father was a great hunter and fisherman, my brothers would tell me. He was a fighter too, apparently. Our tribe had long been in a simmering conflict with another clan called the Palek and there was a story that I especially enjoyed that culminated in my father throwing a Palek warrior into a burning pile of cow dung. I liked to hear that story over and over, waiting with bated breath for the buttock-burning conclusion, which would always put me in fits of laughter.

My brothers would tell me that, after the chief (a position that rotated around the four most powerful families in the village), my father was one of the most respected men in our part of the world. The weight of his name, Thiak, was considerable, and as the eldest surviving son of my father’s last wife, it is mine. Of all of my names, it is the one I am perhaps most proud of and the fact that that name is now on the cover of this book makes me immeasurably proud.

There was another piece of great fortune that was handed to me when I was born, and that was that my mother gave birth next to the White Nile River, an endless brown–green band flowing south to north that deserves tribute from all who are alive, man or beast. There is no life without the Nile, and no Nile without rain. The God of Rain, Deng, is one of the most powerful deities in our world. For the Dinka, life comes and goes on the ebb of Deng’s mood.

My first memories are of the creatures that came to the Nile to hunt or drink. I especially loved the large Nile eagles, which would soar high over the river, as though they were the fingers of a dancing man, before carving through the air, smashing into the water, and emerging with a catfish struggling between the sharp points of their claws.

To be able to simply reach into the brown of the water and bring out food like that was powerful magic as far as I was concerned. I knew men like my father could pull food from the river too, but for them it seemed like toil. It was no more effort for the Nile eagle to fish than it was for the sun to plod across the sky each day.

One of my first fully formed memories was of a clash between two Nile eagles. One had pinched a fat, glistening fish from the river, and the other had attempted to steal his friend’s quarry. Their claws locked mid-air and they spiralled down, as though both suddenly wingless.

The eagles landed heavily in front of Ayuen Kon, one of my mothers, who was sitting with me near the river. I felt the hurt in the animals’ bodies when I heard their landing. Even as an infant, I understood that animals that lived in the sky did not need to have heavy bones, or tough skin.

My mother approached the eagles, which were chirping mournfully and quietly. Their claws were still locked, and the eagles no longer had the strength to extricate themselves from the combative embrace. Ayuen spoke to the large birds softly and I was stunned to find that the eagles allowed her to pull their claws apart. Eagles are not like dogs, and usually do not listen to what humans have to say.

When free from each other, the animals walked around slowly, but could not fly.

‘Fly! Fly!’ I said in hushed tones.

My longing for the birds to be in the sky again was perhaps my first desire. I had needs before, but remember no earlier desires.

My mother disappeared towards our hut, returning with a gourd of water. She poured some drops into each animal’s beak. That seemed to calm them. They were still for some minutes, until one bird postured, spread its wings, let out a cry and took to the sky. Its friend watched for a moment, and then followed up and away. After a few wheeling moments above the river, both eagles disappeared from view.

I watched the spot where I’d last seen the birds and I wondered how I would feel if I suddenly found myself stuck up in the sky. I stared at the sky for some time afterwards, long past the length of my mother’s patience. I stared and stared and thought about flying, until I was called to eat.

It was a rare event that I had to be called to eat.

The Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards shortlist