The taste of war (Chapter 4 of A Different Warrior by Deng Atum with Kenneth Weene)

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Since there were no cows for us to watch, the four of us boys were playing in a swampy area not far from the village. It was the dry season and much of the water had disappeared, which made it a great place to hunt for snail shells. In the drier times, the birds could get to the snails which meant many shells for us to find. It was a competition to see who could find the most shells, the biggest, and the greatest variety of colors.

We made believe the snail shells were cows and took great care to clean and arrange them.

“I found the most,” Aleu bragged.

“Hey, I found something better,” Manyang shouted. We ran over; he pointed at a hole in the mud.

“A loung,” Aguek said. “You found a loung.

We used our spears to widen the hole and Manyang stuck his bith into the fish’s mouth. When the loung clamped down on the spear, Manyang pulled it from the mud. It was not a big loung, not much longer than my little brother was tall, but it would be a feast.

Lungfish are a great treat among Dinka men and boys. Women are not allowed to cook or eat them or snakes. It is feared that if a woman eats or prepares snake or loung, their babies will have small eyes and bodies like a snake. It is a great insult to tell a person that they have the eyes of a lungfish and is cause for a fight.

Aleu cleaned the fish, taking out its insides while the rest of us gathered grass, wood, and dried cow dung to make a fire. To start the fire, we used a spear shaft to drill into a piece of soft dry wood until it made heat.

We sat by the crackling fire and waited for the fish to cook. Aguek poked at the meat with a stick to see if it had become soft. Manyang and I made a mat of clean grass on which to place our treat when it was cooked.

Finally, we all agreed the loung was ready for eating. Before we could eat, Manyang made the proper sacrifices to God, to the totem of his clan, and to our ancestors. He took a bit of flesh, threw it to the ground, and said, “This is for DengDit.” DengDit is the highest of the Dinka life gods; he is the bringer of rains which make it possible to grow the grain on which the people live and the grass that feeds their goats and cows.

The next sacrifice was to Atem Yat, the snake. Manyang, his brother Aguek and I all were members of the snake clan, so he made made a gift of this bit of fish to the totem of our clan.

Before Manyang could throw a third bit of lungfish to the ground as a sacrifice to our ancestors. We heard gunfire erupt in the village.

Tap. Tap. Tap. All of us heard it and froze in fear.

“They came back,” Aleu yelled. “They came back. They came back again.” His shout startled all of us into a mad dash. Where? I would have run back to the village, but Aleu grabbed me and pulled me after our two friends. The four of us ran toward a neighboring village for safety; the people of that village were also running into the jungle. We joined them in their flight

One man was trying to bring his cows with him. The people were yelling at him. “Take the cows away! The Murallan will come for the cows; Take them away.”

A small red heifer decided it was time to play and began to run around in circles. The man could not catch the calf; she was too fast and ran back and forth. Now her mother was running after the heifer and all the cows were lowing. Aleu and I tried to help the man. I gathered some grass and tried to trick the little cow while Aleu got a wien to tie her.

People were afraid that the militia would hear the cows, so the man took them into the bush on one side of a stream while the rest of the people went and hid on the other. Aleu and I went with the man and his cows. Pulling on the rope which he had tied around her neck, Aleu kept the heifer close to her mother.

I prayed to the creator god, Nhialic Wai, who had created all the world, even the other gods, that the cattle would not make noise. Hopefully, my father’s god would guard us. I also prayed to Kan Wadit Atem Yat, my great-grandfather’s jok. Could his spirit protect us at this moment as he had protected our clan?

“Grandfather,” I prayed, “let me make it out of here. I cannot stand it anymore.”

The heifer yanked on her halter rope.

“It is your fault, Aleu. Why do we have to go with this cattle guy?” I complained.

“It is okay. The militias are not coming this way.” Aleu answered.

“How do you know?

“They will go directly to the wutPaRiak cattle camp.”

“Where is that?”

“It is to the west of our village. It is where most of the people have gathered their cattle for summer grazing. The Murallan’s informants will take them there.”

“Who are these informants?’’ I asked.

“They are traitors, Black Arabs or sometimes people the militia have captured.”

“That is not good,” I said.  “I have a bad feeling they might have passed through our village.”

“They might not have. Since they attacked us last week and burned everything down, chances are they didn’t see any buildings or huts.”

That made me feel a bit better. “How long will this go on?” This was, after all, my first summer in Korok Achieng and I did not understand what was happening.

“Until the end of the summertime. I thought you went through similar attacks in your village.”

“Only once in a while. I can’t stand this anymore. I hope my father will come soon and we can go.”

We hid in the bush for two days. The Arab militia had returned to that neighboring village with all the cows they had found. We could hear the cows mooing and the sound of guns shot into the air as the Arabs celebrated.

I was afraid that they would come into the bush where we were hiding, but Aleu said, “They already got the cattle they want and they want to go back home safe with our cows.”

In the cold night we huddled together and listened to the sounds of the jungle. There were many wild rats rustling through the tall grass. Aleu jumped up and used his tong to whack at the rats and drive them away from our spot.

Other people had taken refuge near us, and we could hear grownups quieting children and covering the little ones’ mouths and noses when they coughed or sneezed.

During the night, a group from the Sudan People Liberation Army attacked the Murallan. The SPLA was considered a rebel army by the government of Sudan, but they were the fighters who were protecting us Dinkas from the Arab militias; they were our heroes.

The night sky was lit with gunfire. The fight lasted about an hour. In the end, the Murallan ran off with some of the cattle. They shot their guns in the air as they rode away.

Many cows, frightened by the fighting, ran away and would have to be gathered in the coming days.

The SPLA soldiers stayed near the village waiting for morning when they would find and kill any wounded Murallan who had been left behind. There were no prisoners taken in this war.

In the morning there was some shooting and then quiet. Some of the men crept closer to the village to see what was going on. Aleu and I followed two grown men. One of them said, “Don’t come with us. You won’t be able to run if the militias are still in the village. Let us go first to find out what is going on there.”

We hung back and followed at a distance. From time to time, Aleu or I would climb a tree to watch the two men and see how far they had gotten and if it was safe. When we saw them talking with some of the SPLA soldiers, we ran up to hear what was going on.

“You boys don’t listen,” one of the men scolded. “What if these were militias and they captured us? They would have captured you, too. How would your mothers feel if you were taken by the Murallan? Who would take care of them and find them wood for cooking and food to eat? You need to be careful. Listen to your elders.”

We nodded as if we agreed, but I knew that Aleu and I would never hold back. Were we not Dinka men?

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The village was filled with dead. There were dead soldiers and militia. There were also many dead cows. Three men had been executed; their wrists were bound and they had been shot in the head. “Probably they were prisoners of the Murallan,” one of the soldiers said. “They were forced to show where the cattle were hidden, and when our soldiers came, the Arabs killed them.”

“They were lucky,” one of the villagers replied. “If you had not come, they would have been taken to be slaves.”

There were dead people and dead cattle everywhere.

One man had been shot in the head and had fallen on a dead cow. His blood and that of the cow had mixed in a pool of sticky red. The man’s head was blown open, and his brain was leaking from the wound and onto the the animal.

The villagers and the soldiers started separating bodies—people and cattle. The people of the village and the dead soldiers were taken to be buried. There was no time to bury the soldiers separately, so we dug one grave to hold them all.

A beny bith came to preside over the burying of the dead villagers. Everyone treated this man with much respect not just because he was able to speak to the gods but also because he was supposed to always tell the truth. As master of the fishing spear and the most important of Dinka spiritual leaders, a beny bith carries many spears. The beny bith’s spears were dirty. Long before, my father had explained to me that the biths of these sacred men must not be cleaned for to do so might cleanse them of their power.

The beny bith stood beside the grave holes and mumbled to himself. He asked the gods to allow the souls of the dead to join those of their ancestors. He took a spear with two pointed ends and shook it in the direction in which the surviving Arabs had gone. “The Murallan will not return,” he proclaimed.

Beny biths always speak the truth,” my father had said.

It was hard for me to believe his words. “If this man’s power can keep the Arabs from returning,” I wondered, “why have they been able to come to this village at all?”

When the beny bith had finished his praying and singing, he allowed the villagers’ bodies to be buried.

A flock of vultures and other birds had gathered nearby. The dead militia were thrown to them. The birds jumped up and down and fought over the dead bodies. First they attacked the soft parts, eyes, noses, gunshot wounds, and buttocks. Even in their feasting, they fought among themselves for the best bits.

An old man with no teeth, a bent back, and only wisps of gray hair on his head, tottered up leaning on a cane that was festooned with maroon ribbons. Dressed only in worn, holey, gray shorts, he carried a tobacco pipe and a black cow’s tail which he swished at the flies that had gathered beyond numbering and buzzed about the living and the dead. The old man stopped and watched the soldiers throwing the Arabs to the scavenging birds.

The old man coughed before each word he uttered. “They should be buried. Raanchol. They are human beings.”

One of the soldiers said, “Old man, you are crazy. These murallan would have killed you if they had found you. Let the birds eat them.”

Raanchol,” the old man responded.

One of the Murallan was wearing a strange armband. “What is that,” I asked.

“That is wals athar,” Aleu told me.

“Why is he wearing magician stuff?”

“It is supposed to protect him from being killed.” Aleu kicked a cloud of dirt at the dead man’s head.

“Oh.” I paused for a moment. “But he is dead now.”

“Let’s go,” Aleu answered. “Better that we stop looking at him.”

The dead cows were butchered and the meat was roasted. Everyone was given meat to eat. The old man would not eat.

I was given a piece of meat to eat, but when I tried to bite into it, I thought of the human brain and the blood that I had seen. I retched and wanted to vomit.

“Don’t do that,” Aleu whispered. “You will make other people throw up and they will not be able to eat the meat.”

I walked away and thought about all the death I had seen that day.

When it was time for us to go back to our village, the people gave Aleu and myself meat to take with us. Our family was very excited to see us. The meat was cooked by my sister Nuariak and my stepmother. Everyone ate it except me.

Aleu saw me spit out the meat. He looked at me, and I could see the disappointment in his eyes. I tried to shrug it off. My mouth was filled with the taste of war.

Author Ken Weene is also co-host of It Matters Radio.

Deng Atum, a survivor of the wars that led to the separation of South Sudan from Sudan. He is a leader of the South Sudanese community in Phoenix, Arizona. A Different Warrior is the story of Deng’s life as is being written in collaboration with Ken.

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3 thoughts on “The taste of war (Chapter 4 of A Different Warrior by Deng Atum with Kenneth Weene)

  1. James L. Secor

    It is interesting how you are managing to keep this from being a Westernized telling, which I think would ruin the telling since it presupposes a certain view. I imagine this is rather difficult, not having been immersed for long periods in a foreign culture. The African’s view/viewpoint of what’s going on in their civil wars has been lacking in English. There is, thank goodness, no rationalization of an Enlightenment kind, a characteristic of Western writing about other people’s situations. To my mind.

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  2. Trish

    Great story, Ken. It is terrible to think of children having to live with death like that, but Africa is a very violent place, and so many of them become inured to it. Or maybe they appear not to be affected, but like Deng, they simply have to live with the memories–and the constant fear–and life goes on. He repeats the line, “I cannot stand it anymore,” which gives us an insight into his true feelings.

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  3. John B. Rosenman

    Very authentic, very gripping, and as James indicates, non-westernized. After reading this scene from Deng’s life, my mouth was also filled with the taste of war. These young Dinka men certainly took a chance by not listening to what the SPLA soldier told them. This reminds me a little of my tales of ancient Nigerian life in my novel A Senseless Act of Beauty.

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