Book Review: Cola's Journey

by Mou Run /
Mou Run's picture
Sep 30, 2008 / 1 comments

This month, Pan Macmillan, Australia released Cola's Journey: From Sudanese Child Soldier to Australian Refugee, by Cola Bilkuei. The book which is already in paperback costs AU$32.99 locally and Amazon has a bargain price for other readers. The book recounts the author’s epic journey from Sudan through Ethiopia, Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, Malawi, Zimbabwe, South Africa and ends in Australia. There is a lot to learn about the characters, the places and indeed how circumstances interact with human nature in this memoir.

The story is a cross between Ishmael Beah's Long Way Gone and Jacob J. Akol's I Will Go the Distance. The former gave the world one of the most powerful first-person account of what it is like being a child soldier. The latter, which can only be ordered from Kenya’s Pauline Publications, recounts a Dinka boy’s journey into southern Africa. Both stories come to mind when one reads Cola’s Journey.

The journey started in the Dinka village of Baal in Unity State of Sudan where Cola witnessed a horrific attack by the Arab militia (now transformed into the Janjaweed to kill Darfuris). The village was burnt down, cattle pillaged, women raped and children abducted into slavery. Stories of such unlucky children have been described by, among others, Francis Bok, also a Dinka, in his book, Escape From Slavery and Mende Nazer’s Slave.

These attacks were part of the wider second Sudanese civil war that drove several people (including myself) into exile. Cola’s family was immediately affected. His father, a veteran of the first civil war (Any Nya I) immediately took arms voluntarily when John Garang, leader of the new rebellion presented him the opportunity.

Cola’s older brothers also join the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) – the rebel group. They trained and returned home. His older brother, Mijok returned into the guerrilla army for his first battle and he tragically lost it.

The irony is that Cola’s second older brother, Monyleck, was appointed by the then Marxist leaning SPLA to conscript child soldiers (Jesh Amer or Red Army) in Baal. Monyleck had to be fair in his selection and that meant conscripting his younger brother. That is how Cola left Sudan – a son forced a crying family that has just lost a son to give up the remaining two which they then bargained down to one. No concept of "Saving Private Ryans" in Sudan!

Cola resisted all temptations to escape conscription even when some old lady offered to adopt him on his way to military training because his brother, Monyleck, had threatened to hunt him down and kill him if he did such thing. From accepting his fate he embraced responsibility of being a man even though he was below his teenage years. That mindset, some optimism and a bit of luck sustained him to tell this tale.

Between 236 pages we see the images of dark and lanky trekking the savannah as has become stereotypical to think of the lost boys of Sudan. What makes this story stand apart from the growing lost boy literature (of which I have been reviewer) is not simply the extra distance the author covers. It is its fearlessness to tell the truth.

Most available books by the lost boys have omitted the SPLA and how they personally may have related to it. It is true that few were genuine refugees but most lost boys currently bordering the age of 30 are suspects.

In writing this book, Cola got enormous assistance from (perhaps even co-wrote the book with) the Australian writer/journalist Malcolm Knox. Knox is perhaps better known for unveiling that the events recounted in Norma Khouri’s Forbidden Love were fabricated.

They two men tried their best to present a difficult life with clarity and honesty. Cola is the first Sudanese native I know to have criticised the SPLA’s policies in a non-political book and will probably be the second most daring book to have done so after Deborah Scroggins’s Emma’s War.

--- --- --- --- --- ---

My nativist review of this book will appear next week on






Comments (1)

  • Dr. Jessie Voigts

    15 years 8 months ago

    Mou - thank you so much for this book review. I think that the more we read of these issues, the more we can try to understand. I'll put this on my reading list!


    Jessie Voigts


Leave a comment