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A Child’s Memoir of War

Ghostwriting memoir for a child of war -- a painful privilege.

This morning a photo of a child refugee in Ukraine triggered memory of another child of war. His name is Gatluk Diegiew. Ten years ago, Gatluk, who had attended my community college, asked me to edit his book. I knew only that Gatluk, calm and polite, arrived in New Hampshire as a refugee from South Sudan and that he limped. I asked if reliving the past would be painful for him. He insisted he could do it. I offered to help pro bono. He sent me 40 pages.

Right away I learned that Gatluk had been conscripted as a child soldier at nine years old. He had been shot in the hip at 13 and left for dead. Yet somehow, he had survived. Some of his family did not. His draft outlined events worthy of a narrative, as Gatluk says, “To speak for South Sudanese war victims, especially the children, who are silent.”

Over the next 4 years, I helped Gatluk developed his memoir, God Threw Me Back: A Childs Survives War in Sudan. Gatluk told me first-hand about being a child in war.

He described atrocities that disturbed me deeply. Ordinarily, I could discard reading when it turned ugly, but I knew Gatluk. I could not look away. Now war had a face, his face.

Back in the days before Zoom, we relied on email attachments. I would read his draft, then respond in the margins, usually requesting more detail. This was hard for a young man who had been trained by his culture to be stoic in pain and adversity. For example, he wrote that he “walked home.” The reader needs to know that he had spent a year and a half in a hospital, his parents didn’t know where he was and may have moved, the muddy route was six hours long -- and he was on crutches. Slowly, we sketched in the details.

Gatluk and author, 2018.

During this writing time, Gatluk had found a night job in North Dakota and had no Internet. Once, he sat in his cold truck outside of the local library to pick up the WiFi to share his edits. His travel to find work and more Sudanese community determined our writing schedule. Back and forth. Back and forth.

Describing experiences that Gatluk had lived in another language, before he learned English at 17, provided a challenge. How to determine nuance in word choice? How to evoke long-buried emotion? Was that even healthy? Additionally, his point of view shifted from age nine when he was carefree to his teens when he was cruelly victimized.

Though most of our correspondence depended upon email, I met with him in person once or twice when he visited friends in New Hampshire. The time we discussed his stay in the Kenyan hospital for rehabilitation of his shattered hip, he described the pregnant woman who lost both of her legs in the war. She died. The baby died. I started to sob and Gatluk handed me tissues. “Don’t be sad,” he murmured. Imagine. He was telling me not to be sad – after all he had gone through.

And this is typical of the compassion and resilience in the refugees and New Americans I have met. None have expressed a desire for retaliation; in fact, many still fear it from their oppressors. Yet, somehow, they move forward, by telling their stories. Listening to Gatluk's story -- helping him to tell his story – remains one of the most painful privileges of my life. May the telling heal. ###

Photo credit: Trym Nilsen on Unsplash

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