Sydney man dies a hero's death in Sudan

John Mac Acuek

Sydney father John Mac Acuek was one of the first Sudanese refugees to reach Australia, and the first to graduate from an Australian university. On a recent mission of mercy back in his homeland, he made the ultimate sacrifice.

JOHN MAC ACUEK , Sudanese-Australian refugee, aid worker, businessman.

Born: December 1, 1972; Died: January 2014

- Hugh Riminton, The Sydney Morning Herald

John Mac, as he was known to his Australian friends, was the son of a Dinka chief, from Bor on the Nile River, in what was then Sudan (now South Sudan).

At 13, he was pressed into service as a child soldier for the Sudan Peoples' Liberation Army fighting for independence for southern Sudan. In his first battle, he was wounded by artillery fire and left to die.

He was found alive and conscious a couple of days later, and medics operated on him without anaesthetic, removing shrapnel fragments from his brain.

In a later engagement, he was shot through the ribs and leg. His comrades carried him across the nearby Ethiopian border to save him from government soldiers, who rarely took prisoners.

After a third serious battlefield injury, Acuek was told a beautiful woman called Elizabeth, and known to his family, was in a displacement camp in a nearby town. Still far from recovered, he walked 50 kilometres to meet her. His marriage to Elizabeth, he would later recount, cost him 36 cows.

Acuek had reached his fill of war. Family connections got his new wife to Nairobi, and Acuek set off to join her. Along the way, he broke his 12-year-old half-brother, Deng, out of a child soldier training camp.

Acuek, Elizabeth and Deng spent years in dismal refugee camps in northern Kenya. Their break came in the sprawling Kakuma camp in 1997, when Acuek met visiting Australian aid worker Christine Harrison. She had formed a determination to save 'just one' refugee.

She chose Acuek.

In June 26, 1998, John Mac Acuek, Elizabeth, their baby son Joshua - who had been born in the refugee camp - and Deng flew into Sydney bringing only their visas and a bag of nappies.

The adjustments to life in Australia were enormous.

The family had never seen a washing machine or a fridge. Elizabeth's first effort at cooking ended badly when she lit a wood fire in the oven, while Deng destroyed a microwave trying to take the chill off a can of Coke.

Despite his minimal schooling, Acuek's intelligence - he spoke seven languages - helped him progress quickly from TAFE courses to the University of Western Sydney, where he studied anthropology and international development.

He later undertook postgraduate study at the University of Geneva, funded by donations after his story was published in the Catholic press.

But his university degree brought him no local job offers outside factory work.

More painfully, his marriage was collapsing. He and Elizabeth had added a daughter to their son, but Elizabeth was discovering freedoms not available to a traditional Dinka wife and mother.

Meanwhile, contract offers piled up from aid organisations working in Sudan.

Acuek reluctantly returned to the country from which he had fled - this time as an Australian citizen.

He was back in South Sudan when the new nation gained its independence in 2011.

He established a new NGO, Life Through Livestock, and became a community leader.

He opened a hotel in the town last year.

In late 2013, South Sudan's former vice-president, Riek Machar, rebelled against the government of President Salva Kiir.

Bor was the flashpoint. A large group of Dinka, mostly women and children, were trapped against a bank of the Nile. Acuek led the effort to save them, first ferrying the civilians in night-time flotillas of canoes, and later with a convoy of 4WDs. On his final effort to save those trapped, he was ambushed and shot dead.

Read full obituary: South Sudan refugee John Mac Acuek killed on mercy mission in homeland (The Sydney Morning Herald)

Related coverage:

South Sudanese bishop weeps before the suffering of his people (Vatican Radio)

South Sudan crisis: US envoy meet rebel leader Machar (BBC)

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