Ayen, a 16-year-old Catholic schoolgirl from Newcastle, went to visit relatives in South Sudan for Christmas, but found herself in the midst of civil war. Aided by funds from Australian parishioners, she led her relatives on a life and death dash for safety.
Ayen Dong is now safely home, a very reluctant hero, who showed remarkable bravery in rescuing her grandmother and five cousins. With the brutal violence and shocking images of South Sudan still fresh in her mind, Ayen went back to school at St Pius High School, Adamstown, last week.
But with the mother of cousins now assumed to have been killed, the popular year ten student says she only wants one thing: 'I want the children to come to Australia where they can be healthy and go to school.'
On December 22 Ayen left Newcastle for Juba in South Sudan. Having lived in Australia for nine years, she was hoping to meet her relatives.
She was supposed to have been met by her aunty Angelina at Juba airport, but no one arrived. Angelina is believed to have been killed. Earlier, she had dropped her five children off at the home of Ayen's grandmother.
Ayen was able to make contact with another relative who drove her to her grandmother's home. Sidestepping bodies that had been left in the street, Ayen found her grandmother cowering beside a bed, fearing that the knock on the door was from armed fighters. Her five cousins were hiding under the bed.
'They were all very scared,' Ayen said. 'I just knew that I had to get them all out of there. There were bodies outside, it was terrible.'
In phone contact with her mother Trazia back in Australia, money was raised through the Maitland-Newcastle Diocese and Penola House at Mayfield to buy bus tickets.
'I bought tickets for me and the children to go to Uganda,' she said. 'Grandma had to fly because [the rebels] know she is Dinka.'
Dinka elders are easily recognised because they generally have six of their bottom front teeth removed.
'I gave the children Australian names and told them to be quiet on the bus.'
When they reached the Ugandan border, Nuer rebels boarded the bus, but Ayen said she and the children were from Australia. Their teeth were checked, Ayen produced her Australian passport and the children didn't falter with their adopted Australian names.
Ayen managed to get everyone into a safe house in the Ugandan capital of Kampala. She learned to cook for the children, who are now being cared for by Angelina's husband Michael.
Read full article: Newcastle teen Ayen Dong home after Sudan rescue (Newcastle Herald)