Deng Adut was trained to be a killer.
Born into a peaceful village on the banks of the River Nile, in modern-day South Sudan, he soon had to contend with the outbreak of war.
As one of many children conscripted to the Sudan People’s Liberation Army, Deng was forced to march for 33 days to Ethiopia and undertook military training.
At the age of 11, he was handed an AK-47 rifle and made to fight on the front lines.
“My mission was to kill people – I didn’t have any remorse if anyone from the North of Sudan caught my bullet,” he told Newcastle Weekly.
“When I got the AK-47, I finally believed I was liberated and would go on to liberate my family and country.
“To hold that [rifle] in your hand and know your enemy, I couldn’t just let it go. I slept with it and took care of it – it solved all of my problems.
“So, that was delusions – I was trained to believe the AK-47 was my mother and father and that I should never think of them as being at home or alive.
“When you go through a training regime and have a gun in your hand, you believe no-one is going to abuse or torture you unless they take the gun away.”
Deng spent years in the army, but a chance meeting with his brother, John Mac, changed both of their lives.
A born leader, John arranged to smuggle Deng out of Sudan, risking his life in doing so.
Deng hid in a truck while it passed through several heavily-armed checkpoints to Kenya.
“When John decided to take me, I was scared,” Deng said.
“I knew if he was caught, he was going to get the firing squad and I might get locked up for a little while.“I was immune from the firing squad because I was a ‘special soldier’.
“I got in the truck and we snuck out at night.”
John’s tenacity saw the brothers secure entry into Australia, and they arrived in Sydney on 26 June 1998.
They spoke little English, had no knowledge of Western culture or ways, and bore the scars of war.But, for Deng, it was the “beginning of everything”.
The 2017 NSW Australian of the Year has gone on to become a successful criminal lawyer and public figure.He will now speak to Maitland residents about his journey at the city’s official Australia Day ceremony on Sunday 26 January.
While Deng acknowledged Australia Day, he said another date meant more on a personal level.“The most important day is the day I arrived here,” he said.
“That’s my Australia Day – it means a lot to me.
“Obviously, Australia Day is important as well for Australians to come together.
“It’s a way to recognise one another, accept there is a special knowledge we can gain from one another, and celebrate together.
“[But] I’ll also look at it in terms of the disaster with the Indigenous [Australians] and the fires.”
Deng said that he would use the occasion to reflect on the widespread loss of property and life from the devastating bushfires across the country.
He added it was not a matter of politics, but more about the community being able to voice its concerns.
“This year, I will not celebrate Australia Day like I used to – I’ll pray instead and help to work on a way to move forward for the betterment of Australia,” he said.
“We all need to pull up our socks and stop these fires from happening next year.”
Maitland’s Australia Day awards and citizenship ceremony will take place at Maitland Town Hall from 10am.
Following the ceremony, family-friendly activities will continue at Maitland Park from midday until 5pm. Go to maitlandevents.com.au for more.