Kon Kelei: You lose who you are

Your gun hides your face.
Your ripped and dirty uniform
hangs on a skinny child.
You focus on staying alive,
and your pain and shame and betrayal
explode in mayhem.
You lose who you are
In blood rinsed by tropic rain.
You lose your mind,
your terrified arrogance
on a hair trigger reflex.
You run for your life.
You walk for days to safety.
You stand before your chiefs.
You cannot accept their embrace.
You cannot forgive yourself.

Sandra Renew

Author: Sandra Renew

Sandra Renew lived and worked in war-affected areas of Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Indonesia and Sudan from 2000 to the end of 2010. Her latest project, Triage, a chapbook of poems on Afghanistan in collaboration with artist Karen Bailey will be launched early in 2014.

4 thoughts on “Kon Kelei: You lose who you are”

  1. This poem is a story about child soldiers in Southern Sudan. It is a composite story, made up of common elements of several stories, not about one young person, but many hundreds, who were abducted violently from their villages and forced to assist the rebel groups of the Lord’s Resistance Army.

    I wrote it after talking with a government official in Juba who told me that the most important single thing we could do for the child soldiers was to tell them their families forgave them.

    In writing about the terrible stories of child soldiers the biggest challenge is not to romanticise the story. I was trying to convey that the only way they could survive was to lose who they are.
    Sandra Renew

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  2. This poet brings subtlety, nuance and resourcefulness to her poem vs the sound bites of politics. Here is free verse that is straightforward, that seduces the reader’s intellect and emotion; here is a spirit that reaches into man’s concerns, that does not proselytize but simply and honestly discloses.

    Who is Kon Kelei? The reader is put in the position to inquire.

    Kon Kelei is/was a boy soldier from the Sudan who testifies about malodorous tasks he has been ordered to do which is to kill the innocent. The “you” and “your” invites the reader to become Keiei himself and thus experience his pain and atrocity. He is forced to adopt an aggressive pose. Here is the idea of metaphor in the dominant attitude to the subject matter. One is made attentive. The repetition stops you, leaving you charged. Poems survive because they are true. As Keats said, “Beauty is truth, truth beauty.” Telling any kind of truth can be fierce art, tough and unforgettable.

    The poem employs concrete words like face, uniform, child, blood and rain. It also employs abstract words like arrogance, shame and betrayal. With a combination of both the story is told coherently expressing the presence of the human creature. Something is urgent here, something to fear, something to learn.

    The poem is mostly in iambics that is the backbone of its heartbeat. You walk for days for safety. The pace of walking aligns with the iambic heartbeat. Pound said a poem atrophies when it gets to far from music. But here is music. Simple but terrifying.

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