When Elephants Fight…
About the Book:
In the South Sudanese village of Pacong, Juba is young and old at the same time. Forced to grow up quickly in the civil war, he is nonetheless fun-loving as well as smart. But his little world cannot deflect the conflict raging around it and soon he must flee the life he loves.
Ahead lies a long trek to a refugee camp, a journey arduous and fraught. When at last it ends, Juba comes to wonder if there’s any such thing as safe haven in his country. Yet life in the camp is not all bad. There can be intense joy amid the deprivation, there are angels as well as demons.
Poised part way between heaven and hell, When Elephants Fight draws a horrifying picture of what humanity can do to itself, but Juba’s is a story of transcendence and resilience, even exultation.
Majok Tulba’s debut novel, Beneath the Darkening Sky, was shortlisted for the Dylan Thomas Prize and likened to the work of Nam Le, Markus Zusak and Primo Levi. No less brilliant, When Elephants Fight is an important testimony of the harrowing lives of refugees.
“I hear the cry of a child born in the time of war; I hear the cry of children as the elephants fight; We will all go home my child; When the elephants stop their fighting…”
When Elephants Fight is one of the most amazing novels I’ve read in a very long time. It’s a profoundly important story with a tight grip on authenticity that is rare in novel form, yet so highly sought after. I had, at best, a slim knowledge on the situation in South Sudan, even less on what life in a refugee camp might entail, but Majok’s clear and concise style has opened my eyes wide, and while what they have seen is both shocking and horrific, I feel enriched, for want of a better way to put it. To think that one can survive such horror and deprivation with so many odds stacked against them; it’s truly incredible.
The novel is split into two parts: before the refugee camp and then inside the refugee camp. At the beginning of the novel, there is a somewhat idyllic atmosphere, despite the fact that war has been raging for decades. Villagers live out their lives as best they can, the ever present threat from the Sudanese government tempering everything, along with the constant fear of the South Sudanese rebels. Life was tough, far tougher than we in Australia could ever experience, yet the sense of community was rich and the culture vibrant. There was happiness and hope and I enjoyed the way Majok recreated daily life for the reader.
Then the soldiers of the Sudanese government attacked the village and the horror of this is beyond anything I could have envisaged. I simply couldn’t tear my eyes from the pages, Majok’s skill as a writer coming to the fore as he balanced horror with truth, minus any gratuitous overplay. I was swamped with fear and absolute disbelief at all of these people becoming displaced in one violent swoop. And then, to compound the horror, this is where the South Sudanese rebels step in, ready to scoop up boys who are keen for revenge and to pressure those who aren’t, and to kidnap girls to ‘populate their future armies’. In addition to these threats, there is the landscape of Africa, hostile and populated with carnivorous beasts. Suffice to say, the tension in this first part of the novel was high, incredibly so.
For those fortunate enough to have survived the lions, the scorpions, the snakes, the lack of food and water, the relentless sun burning down and the disease that can run rife within a teeming mass of people, the next stop is the refugee camp, glittering on the horizon like an oasis. Well, it’s the next stop, but it’s no oasis. The best way to describe the refugee camp is in this passage I’ve cobbled together from a series of pages early on in the second part of the novel:
“She asks the man leading us how many people there are in this camp and he tells her eight hundred thousand. At first we think he’s got it wrong, or we haven’t heard right, but when we ask again he repeats it.
‘There are people here from every tribe in South Sudan,’ he says. ‘This war . . .’ He shakes his head. Then he tells us there are just under a thousand aid workers here, from twenty-two different organisations. Mama holds my hand tightly and I can feel her thinking the same thing. How can there be enough food and water for so many people? Then he tells us they’ve run out of tents and will bring us one when they get more. ‘In the meantime,’ he says, ‘if you could build yourselves a shelter just here.’ He points to a bare patch of ground.
‘But where will we sleep?’ Thiko’s mother asks.
‘Don’t worry,’ he says, ‘we’re working on getting more tents as soon as possible. We’ll have them to you as soon as they come in. Just hang tight for now.’
‘What about food?’ I ask. ‘And water?’
He scratches his chin as if he’s not sure what to tell us. ‘We’re working on the food too. There are two wells in this zone. You need to be prepared to wait a while for water.’
Later we discover that waiting a while often means hours at a time.
A month or so after our arrival, the UN supplies still haven’t arrived. It seems no one was prepared for this number of people in the camp.
To think how hard we longed to reach this camp while we were walking here. Only to discover more suffering. Sometimes I’m not sure where I’d rather be, here in the camp or back on the path, with all its dangers.
There’s no pride here in this camp. Pride is gone and buried. Now it’s only about survival.”
The deprivation within the refugee camp was stunning. It really blew my mind. And the ration card system was appalling. There were people in the camp who got ration cards entitling them to food and supplies, but not everyone got a card, so there were hundreds of thousands of people who were let into the camp but told to fend for themselves. Crime was rife and survival was truly up to the individual. I can clearly see why young men join the rebels, why they might reach that point where they feel they have no option. This horrified me, more than anything else, that a safe haven could prove so utterly the opposite of its intention. And it was not safe, there weren’t enough UN soldiers to protect from insurgents, which when they came, were from Uganda. Ugandan rebels intent on stealing supplies for their own cause. Even writing this review, I’m sitting here in disbelief that Africa is a continent with so much turmoil, so many threats; its beauty tainted and defiled by war spread from one corner to the next.
Despite all of this, When Elephants Fight is an incredibly hopeful novel filled with brave people and love in abundance. That’s what is so startling about it, that in the midst of such horror and danger, humanity can push on. People with nothing can still hope and people who help others selflessly can find themselves and their situations improving. I can see this novel becoming a recommended text for high school reading in the future, it has so much educational value combined with a page turning quality. I’m not going to comment on the feelings this novel has generated within me and how that makes me feel about Australia’s processing of refugees. This is a book review, not a political commentary, however I do think it would be impossible to read this without then, by extension, having an increased ability to regard the plight of refugees with compassion and empathy, rather than fear and suspicion. Sometimes you can be aware of situations but not really know anything about them. I know more now than what I did before, and it doesn’t sit well with me. The weight of this novel has left me feeling the burden of my privilege.
Thanks is extended to Penguin Random House for providing me with a copy of When Elephants Fight for review.
About the Author:
Majok Tulba was born in South Sudan and came to Australia in 2001. His first novel, Beneath the Darkening Sky, won the 2014 Kathleen Mitchell Award, and in 2013 was shortlisted for the Dylan Thomas Prize and the Commonwealth Book Prize. He was named one of the Sydney Morning Herald’s Best Young Novelists of the Year in 2013. Majok is the founder of Okay Microfinance, a social enterprise launched in 2016 that aims to improve education for girls and community health, and to find sustainable solutions for families to break free of the cycle of poverty in South Sudan. He lives in Sydney with his wife and children.