Cover of book: When Elephants Fight

Majok Tulba
When Elephants Fight

Introducing They Cannot Take the Sky, a collection of testimonies from people in detention on Manus and Nauru, Christos Tsiolkas wrote of the intellectual abstraction necessary to make refugees’ futures fodder for public debate: “We forget that the asylum seeker and the refugee is a real person, with a real body and a real consciousness, that they are as human as we are.” Such wilful forgetting is impossible once we’ve borne witness to their stories, in all their human singularity.

Tsiolkas’s words resonate when reading When Elephants Fight, the second novel from Majok Tulba, who spent years in refugee camps after his village, Pacong, was razed in the South Sudanese civil war. During young narrator Juba’s perilous journey, a whispered border camp is the promised land, but once Juba arrives he discovers a “land of dust and garbage” where he’s just one of thousands displaced, from every tribe in South Sudan.

Waiting in line for scant supplies, Juba is shooed away when the volunteer realises he doesn’t have a ration card – maybe he’ll get lucky if someone dies, she says.

“There are hundreds of children in the same situation you’re in.”

“ ‘We’re not hundreds of children,’ I say. ‘My name is Juba. That’s my sister Nyanbuot.’ ”

When Juba and the woman reconcile, she tells him how she came to Sudan after seeing “the news stories on TV of children with swollen bellies and flies covering their faces”. The makeshift tent city she encounters is worse than envisaged: aid organisations have woefully underestimated need, and she’s forced to turn away the starving people she came to help. Easier to think of children such as Juba as a mass, rather than acknowledging individual suffering.

When Elephants Fight actively writes itself into these erasures of identity, in a coming-of-age story where the narrator’s survival into adulthood isn’t guaranteed.

Tulba’s debut Beneath the Darkening Sky, which saw him named one of The Sydney Morning Herald’s Best Young Novelists of 2013, imagined the author’s own sliding doors moment. When the Sudan People’s Liberation Army came to Pacong, boys were sized up against AK-47s to determine who’d be conscripted. Tulba luckily fell short. The novel pondered an alternative reality where he was enlisted, like so many boys around him.

When Elephants Fight explores the flip side, but Juba’s story is no less devastating for being spared. Neither of Tulba’s novels are autobiography, but they catalogue horrors the imagination would struggle to conjure. Where the first threw readers immediately into chaos, here we glimpse Pacong before the marauding armies descend: “Mahogany trees and tall palms line both sides of the main dirt road that passes through the village. From this road, paths curve off into each neighbourhood, like the veins on Grandpa’s hand.”

The picturesque village is scarred with violence: in a lovely scene Juba and his friends sneak over to the shop where a man charges others to watch his television, taking turns peeping through an errant bullet hole to see Oprah, who they deduce “must be a very important person”.

“I was born into war,” Juba tells us. Schoolyard politics, inchoate crushes and learning’s pleasures are overshadowed by an endless conflict beginning in 1955. Juba’s older brother Deng has disappeared, and the family can only hope he’s joined the rebels – the same rebels who killed his father, who “died on his knees so his family could live”.

Juba struggles to differentiate between government forces and the rebel armies supposedly stopping them. The faceless North drop bombs, turning the schoolyard into a vision of hell where “trees have become pillars of leaping red”, “flames gust out of the ground” and “dust boils towards the heavens”. The rebels are more flagrantly cruel: young girls and old women alike are dragged screaming into the bushes; a baby dangled upside down while its mother begs for mercy.

Soon enough Juba and his friends, wrenched from childhood, carry war scars, too: “… these days Cheing walks with his shoulders hunched forward, like he’s carrying something heavy on his head. Even Majok is different. I’ve seen him staring at birds as if he’s never seen them before. And Thiko’s eyes have the look of someone who’s just woken from a nightmare.”

Forced to flee, Juba runs blindly into the jungle. In a brutal kind of hero quest, he must face a series of monsters before he can find his family: patrolling soldiers from both sides; lions, snakes, scorpions; disease and starvation. Juba’s survival is part resourcefulness and part dumb luck, as we see in the fates of those lost along the way.

While Pacong and the refugee camp where “pride is gone and buried” are vividly rendered, the fast-paced journey between is somewhat episodic. The litany of horrors and coincidental miracles may seem unrealistic, but this may also be a case of truth proving crueller than fiction.

For Juba, survival lies in small hopes and kindnesses: holding hands with his childhood crush Thiko; the taste of wild berries when ravenous; a soccer ball fashioned from a plastic bag stuffed with more plastic bags; volunteering in the camp’s medical tent, which provides distraction and purpose.

Here, Juba asks his Australian colleague if she can take him and his family home with her:

“Juba, trust me, if I could, I would. But I don’t think the Immigration Department would be very happy about that.”

“Is that the government? Would they be unhappy because there isn’t enough food and space for everyone, like here in camp?”

We know that Tulba made it to Australia, resettling in 2001, but he’s writing with present atrocities in his sights. This month a 26-year-old Iranian refugee, Fariborz Karami, apparently died by suicide on Nauru, just a fortnight after a 52-year-old Rohingya man suicided on Manus – each of their stories were as rich and painful and human as Juba’s, or indeed the author who conceived him. When Elephants Fight is haunted by voices unheard and stories untold, that the government of this country “right at the end of the world” continues to silence in our names.  TM

Hamish Hamilton, 250pp, $29.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on June 30, 2018 as "Majok Tulba, When Elephants Fight".

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