Long road to freedom for former child soldier

Born into poverty in Sudan, Deng Thiak Adut was recruited as a child soldier before his long road to freedom brought him to Australia as a refugee where he won a scholarship and became a lawyer. Here's his story.

Born into poverty in Sudan, Deng Thiak Adut was recruited as a child soldier before his long road to freedom brought him to Australia as a refugee where he won a scholarship and became a lawyer. Nadia Daly brings you his story.

Deng Thiak Adut started using a gun when he was shorter than the weapon itself.

He was not yet four years old when he and his nephew fled their war-torn hometown of Malek in southern Sudan and walked almost 40 days to reach a refugee camp in Pinyudo, Ethiopia.

When they arrived, Deng was battling a string of diseases which he casually recalls like items on a shopping list: “Measles, cholera, chickenpox, ring worm, whooping cough…”

Fortunately, the United Nations was at the camp, providing food and basic medical assistance.

Unfortunately, that's all they were able to do, as the camp was run by the militia rebel group Sudanese People Liberation Army (SPLA). It was 1987 and they were fighting against what they saw as an unjust and repressive Sudanese government.

Pinyudo was a chaotic place, full of mostly parentless children from around 500 different ethnic groups, all miserable, disillusioned, confused and alone… the perfect targets for the SPLA who were to “take us under their wing”, as Deng said, and recruit them as child soldiers. The UN was powerless with its mandate to provide humanitarian aid.


At age seven Deng was inducted into the army. Already living at the camp controlled by the SPLA, there was little choice and many incentives - not least the security and protection that came with owning a weapon.


The initial stages involved the process of indoctrination to army rules and philosophies which Deng likens to “brainwashing”, as well as routine torture for disobedience.

A year or so later he was put through “aggressive military training” and taught to use a gun – “before I even knew how to brush my own teeth”, he recalls, grinning to reveal a missing tooth.

But his tiny body was not big or strong enough to hold the huge AK-47 rifle.

“It was too long - it was actually taller than me! So they just broke off the end to make it light enough to carry.”

Where there's a will, there's a way. And when your soldiers are children, you'd better find a way for them to shoot.

“We were training for war,” Deng continues. “And in 1993 that happened. We went to war in Kapoeta [a town in southern Sudan].”

Life in the army as a child soldier was hard, and Deng didn't have much of a childhood. “A child with a gun is somehow not a child anymore – they're a solider, a killer,” he says.

The tough times got tougher as he lost friends in the war and sustained a range of injuries – shrapnel wounds from exploded landmines and bombs (he still has a dent in his skull), bullet wounds, serious infections – that eventually took him to hospital.

“When I was well enough I went back to the army. That's how brainwashed I was. You don't want to escape; you just want to go back," he says.


This mindset was shaken when Deng received an unlikely visit from someone he'd long presumed dead: his older brother. He came to take Deng from the camp, but was coolly informed that if he did this they would both be killed.

Yet desperation once again made way for ingenuity and his brother hatched a plan to smuggle Deng out. When Deng still needed convincing, his brother knew just what to say.

“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.”

Deng snuck out one night to meet his brother. He hid under bundles of clothing inside a sack on the back of a truck.

“At the first checkpoint I remember seeing the army's flashlight pointing around the truck, counting heads. I was petrified”

But they miraculously made it through all the checkpoints and across the border into Kenya.

“I thought: I've made it. I was finally free.”

And fortune had more in store for the Adut brothers.

They settled at a refugee camp in Kakuma (a town in northwest Kenya, near the Sudanese border), this one controlled and guarded by the UN. In a remarkable turn of events, Deng's brother befriended one UN worker, an Australian lady called Christine. She saw their desperation and, with extraordinary generosity, her and her husband offered to financially support the boys' years-long visa application process, their trip to Australia and to help them settle into the country.


A 15-year-old Deng stepped off the plane at Sydney Airport in June of 1998, illiterate and not speaking a word of English, but with a taste of freedom and an eagerness to learn.

“I thought it was marvellous, a beautiful country…I'd never seen any place like it before," he recalls.

Deng hopped in a car – the first time he'd been in one – and never looked back.

Through perseverance and a little extra help from some dedicated teachers he learnt English, completed his HSC at TAFE and eventually studied law at university.

He graduated in 2009 and now works as a criminal lawyer. Deng's dream is to one day return to Sudan as an environmental lawyer to address what he sees as the root of the cause of the conflict: the mismanagement of precious water resources.

“Water needs to be used for everybody's benefit, not controlled by one group,” he says.


Despite his success story, Deng says that settling as a refugee was not easy, even with the help he received from the government and some very generous people.

“It's hard to adjust,” he says, especially for migrants who might have come from a traumatic background.


While the Australian government does offer support service for refugees, they don't go far enough. Deng says migrants generally have a great desire to integrate but he believes more help with basic education, job seeking, understanding laws and cultural sensibilities would decrease unemployment and crime rates within the migrant community.

“We [migrants] have to be recognised as people who can contribute to the Australian culture and economy…but if we're denied the resources, we won't be able to contribute meaningfully to Australian society.”

For those who've come across the sea, a solid bridging program is a crucial element of successful integration. And this, says Deng, is the key to a strong Australia.

Stay up to date with SBS NEWS

  • App
  • Subscribe
  • Follow
  • Listen
  • Watch