JOHN MAC ACUEK 1972-2014

John Mac Acuek in Australia

High achiever: John Mac Acuek at home in Australia.

John Mac Acuek was killed recently while he was leading an effort to save civilians caught up in the fighting in South Sudan. It was a tragic, yet heroic, end for a man who seemed to have escaped war to make a new beginning in Australia.

John Mac, as he was known to his Australian friends, was born on December 1, 1972, the son of a Dinka chief, in 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 (SPLA), 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 SPLA 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 the government soldiers, who rarely took prisoners.


After a third serious battlefield injury, Acuek was told a beautiful woman 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.

Like Lieutenant Henry, Hemingway's hero inandnbsp;A Farewell to Arms, 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 collected Elizabeth's mother and brother, and then busted 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, she said in a 2001 interview, because he was "always charming, always cheerful, always optimistic".

Leaving nothing to chance, Acuek made a 14-hour round trip to Nairobi to phone Harrison's then-husband, Bob Campbell, in Sydney. "He basically just pleaded with me," recalls Campbell, who agreed to sponsor the family.

African violence was never far away, however. On a trip to Nairobi to process his visa paperwork, Acuek was spotted by a senior figure in the SPLA. He was seized and tortured for three days - for his "desertion" and his crime of saving his younger brother. He was being taken out to be executed when a Kenyan police patrol noticed something amiss and released him.

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. Their entire possessions amounted to their visas and a bag of nappies.

The adjustments to life in Australia were enormous.

When Bob Campbell met them at the airport and announced he was taking them to Blacktown, Acuek assumed it was a camp for black people. Campbell had to reassure him it was simply a suburb in Sydney's west.

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.

"We discovered KFC, and for months that's what we ate," Acuek later recalled.

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.

They were just the third South Sudanese refugee family to be settled in Australia, and Acuek was the first to graduate from an Australian university.

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

But there were still difficulties. As an African migrant in western Sydney, Acuek's university degree brought him no local job offers outside factory work. He wanted to do aid work in the Asia-Pacific, ideally in newly independent East Timor, but there were no offers.

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.

"After all the effort to get out of Sudan and get to Australia," says Bob Campbell, "the hardest thing he found to accept was Elizabeth's different notion of what a woman could be in Australia. That was the greatest culture shock."

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

Still needing to support his family and Deng's education, Acuek reluctantly returned to the country from which he had fled - this time as an Australian citizen.

In 2005, when Acuek was back in southern Sudan at the head of an Oxfam team, a local warlord demanded his 4WD vehicles, diesel supplies and prized communications equipment. When Acuek refused, he was beaten up and thrown unconscious into a deep pit, foul with the blood and faeces of previous occupants.

It took several days for Oxfam to get word to the Australian authorities in Nairobi. By the time a diplomat negotiated his release, Acuek was close to death. The ordeal left him with a serious skin condition that sensitised him to the cold. He could no longer tolerate even mild Sydney winters.

Acuek was again forced into long separations from his children. He was back in South Sudan when the new nation gained its independence in 2011.

Buoyed by the new possibilities there, but hardly naive about the difficulties, Acuek set up several business ventures. Noticing a disease ravaging the cattle herds in the traditional rural economy, he determined to find a vaccine. He establishing a new NGO, Life Through Livestock, to fund the research.

Acuek became a community leader, and was elected secretary of the Bor county administration.

He opened a hotel in the town last year, proud of having a full house of international aid workers grateful for some creature comforts. Another hotel was under construction.

His brother Deng, meanwhile, had graduated in law. The former boy soldier is now a criminal lawyer in Sydney's west.

The family's hard-won prosperity was jeopardised in late 2013. South Sudan's former vice-president, Riek Machar, rebelled against the government of President Salva Kiir. Machar, a member of the Nuer clan, claimed persecution by the more numerous Dinka. Amid these ethnic tensions, the army split. Bor was the flashpoint.

Over Christmas and New Year, Machar's forces were on the point of overrunning the town. 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.

John Mac Acuek is survived by his former wife Elizabeth, five children, brother Deng, and by extended family members in South Sudan, as well as by the many friends he made in Australia and across the world.