From child soldier to criminal lawyer
Deng Thiak Adut was just 6 years old when he was robbed of a childhood. Like thousands of other children, he was forcibly taken from his family and conscripted by the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA). Deng recalls being forced to walk for days barefooted over rough ochre dirt to Ethiopia.
“I didn’t want to leave my mother – I felt like a lost child. Every day, I would just cry.”
The army promised him an education. Instead, Deng found himself in an oversized military shirt fighting a war that wasn’t his. While most children his age were learning how to read and write, Deng was being taught how to use an AK-47 rifle. His hopes of a normal childhood, seeing his family and getting an education were crushed as he became one of the Lost Boys of Sudan.
2 million people died and 4 million were displaced during the decades-long civil war, which began in 1983 and ended in 2005. For the most part of his six years in the SPLA, Deng was based in Pinyudo, Ethiopia, where he resided at a military facility. With barely any food or medicine, at age 8, Deng fell ill.
"We faced diseases we would never have had before - malaria, cholera and dysentery - you name it... all kinds of diseases that you can imagine."
At age 12, when Deng was forced into combat, he was shot and nearly bled to death.
Deng’s life only turned around when his older brother John smuggled him out of the army in the back of a truck, hiding among corn sacks. They travelled to northern Kenya, where they spent nearly two years living between dusty Kakuma and Dadaab refugee camps. Despite escaping the frontlines of war, danger prevailed. “It was horrible, one night the rebels raided the Dadaab camp and killed innocent people.”
Deng and John resettled in Australia in 1998, thanks to sponsorship from an Australian couple.
“I didn't know anything about Australia, I didn't even know that it was a country.”
In the beginning, he struggled with the language. “You can’t bring in a refugee and say six months is enough... I used to take my dictionary to the petrol station where I worked so when people came by and greeted me, I would write the words down and then when they left, I would look them up.”
Deng took every opportunity to work - at a supermarket, butcher, on a chicken farm and mowing lawns. He was motivated to keep moving forward, rebuild his life and pursue an education.
Once Deng started learning, he didn’t stop. After completing an advanced diploma in accounting in 2001, Deng was encouraged by his brother to study law.
“I became a criminal lawyer because somebody gave me a chance.”
In 2016, Deng published Songs of a War Boy, a memoir detailing his horrific experiences as a child soldier.
“At a time when I should have been going through the rituals of manhood, I was caught in a vicious war,” he writes in his book.
That same year, he set up the John Mac Foundation in honour of his late brother who saved his life. The foundation provides scholarships, work experience and mentoring for refugees whose lives - like Deng’s - were disrupted by war.
If only children caught up in war could just put down their guns and pick up books - the worst thing anyone can get from opening a book is a paper cut.
Deng’s passion is inspired not only by his brother, but by his own belief that education protects the vulnerable from being taken advantage of, especially refugees.
“I demonstrate to everyone that education can change a lot.”
Today, Deng is a co-founder and managing partner at the Australian Criminal Law Group in Sydney.
Decades later, he still carries the psychological and physical scars of his childhood.
"I don't think it's something that I can get rid of.”
The 2023 outbreak of conflict in Sudan triggered a strong reaction for him.
“There's not a single day that I go to bed and don’t think about Sudan.”
And of course, his home country too.
“Sudan and South Sudan… they share the same umbilical cord.”
Deng’s perseverance and determination has not only changed his life but also the lives of so many refugees who have found hope away from home.
Intense fighting has broken out in Sudan, with reports of civilians killed and injured in multiple parts of the country.
Prices of food, fuel and other basic goods are reportedly skyrocketing, making critical goods unaffordable for many people. Despite attempts at ceasefires, people are being displaced amid the clashes and are fleeing to neighbouring countries like Chad and South Sudan, in urgent need of basic relief items and shelter.
UNHCR teams are on the ground to meet new arrivals and provide life-saving assistance. But as the fighting displaces more people, support is urgently needed to scale up the response.