Deng Thiak Adut was just six years old when he was snatched from his mother and forced to fight in a civil war that claimed two million lives between 1983 and 2005. Born in 1983 in Malek, a fishing village on the banks of the Nile in modern-day South Sudan, Adut fought for Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) in a war that ended up splitting his country.
Being a child soldier, Adut was trained to use an AK-47 at such a young age while undergoing military training.
“I had my first AK47 when I was 9, and it was a beautiful piece of equipment at the time for a child. It was just like a toy. I was a child soldier, and I was expected to kill or be killed,” Adut recalled.
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He lost friends in the war and sustained injuries in the process, including bullet wounds and shrapnel wounds from bombs and exploding landmines. He and his colleague soldiers contracted diseases like cholera, measles and chickenpox. Nevertheless, when he had his first chance to escape, he returned to the army.
“That’s how brainwashed I was. You don’t want to escape you just want to go back,” Adut said.
But things changed when around the age of 12, his brother, John, visited him and eventually convinced him to leave the army.
“He told me: ‘if you leave with me, you’re going to go to school, study. You could be somebody.’… I thought: Ok, fair enough.”
One night, with the help of his brother, Adut escaped by hiding inside a corn sack at the back of a truck. Luckily, the brothers were able to make it through all checkpoints out of Sudan and across the border into Kenya. There, in a refugee camp, the two befriended an Australian family who in 1998 helped them relocate to Australia, a report by Global Citizen said.
Adut was 15 when he got to Australia. He couldn’t read and write and did not speak a word of English, but he was ready to start a new life and felt safe.
“After the long journey to Australia, I laid my body down on the first real bed I’d ever seen, under my first duvet, and I slept in a country at peace,” he recalls in his book, Songs of a War Boy.
With determination and hard work, Adut learned English, finished his HSC at TAFE, and in 2005 won a scholarship to Western Sydney University to study law. In the meantime, he supported himself by doing menial jobs at factories, supermarkets and service stations.
37-year-old Adut is now a successful lawyer in Sydney, helping refugees find asylum in Australia. Dedicated to doing much of his work pro bono for Sydney’s Sudanese community, he once expressed his displeasure with how Australian authorities treat asylum seekers.
“Not a cent should be spent on locking up these people,” he was quoted by SBS in 2017. “That’s not how we are supposed to spend taxpayers’ money. It should be spent in schools, hospitals, [given] to police officers, to nurses who need the money.”
Adut also hit hard at the forms of discrimination in Australia, which eventually led to his brother’s death. His brother was a university graduate with a double degree in anthropology and international development but couldn’t find a job in his field in Australia due to discrimination. He went back to South Sudan where he was unfortunately killed in 2014.
In honor of his brother’s memory, Adut started the John Mac Foundation which has awarded scholarships to students from non-English speaking backgrounds.
As a community leader in Blacktown, Adut, who was named the 2017 New South Wales Australian of the Year, hopes that others would get the same opportunities he received to enable them “contribute something positive” in Australia despite the challenges.
In 2015, his alma mater, Western Sydney University, posted a video telling his story and it quickly went viral.
“I put the video up as a form of telling everyone that no matter how many journeys, how many problems, how many obstacles you have in your way, you have to acknowledge that your disadvantage is not entirely your disadvantage,” Adut told 702 ABC Sydney.
“It could be your advantage if you followed a way with the right ingredients or the right training or the right kind of people.”
Watch the inspirational video below: