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Australian hero dies in Sth Sudan

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  • Australian hero dies in Sth Sudan

    I realise that we have a thread on Sth Sudan Already, but I think the memory of this man deserves its own thread.

    John Mac Acuek was a remarkable man whose passing has not received the attention I wish it had in Australia. In an era where mediocre sportsmen are hailed 'heroes' this feat deserves at least as much. Sadly Mr Acuek died in the wrong place & belonged to a community that is too new & badly misrepresented to attract the attention he would have had he been a dumb or unlucky tourist.

    A former child soldier, he managed to escape civil war to the peace & prosperity of Australia. Here he became possibly the first Sth Sudanese refugee to graduate from an Australian university, using his skills to help not only his home nation, but his countrymen trying to find a place in a new & strange nation. When the civil war ended he returned to a nation that would not formally exist for another 4 years, becoming a respected leader in the Bor region. He died as he had chosen to live - helping others.

    John Mac Acuek is a similar age to me, and though we grew up in worlds unrecognizable to one another and shared a nation for less than a decade, he enriched the place I was born in ways I can only hope to replicate. The sort of person who makes me proud of Australia.

    A Sydney father of five killed in the South Sudan conflict has been hailed as ''selfless'' by his family after he was ambushed trying to ferry civilians out of harm's way.

    John Mac Acuek, 42, from Blacktown, was killed last Tuesday near the town of Bor after the four-wheel-drive in which he was travelling was ambushed by rebel fighters, his brother told Fairfax Media on Wednesday.

    The brother, Deng Thiak Adut, from Parramatta, said Mr Acuek had been operating vehicles to evacuate people out of the town of Malour, a hotly contested area in the escalating civil war that lies north of the capital Juba. Mr Adut said his brother was travelling with an escort made up of three government soldiers when they were overrun by rebel fighters.

    Mr Acuek had a wife and five children, aged between four and 17, his brother said. The family was deeply distraught.

    ''He was rescuing women and children but [the rebels] are targetting anyone who is against them,'' he said. ''They don't discriminate. They kill anyone they perceive as Dinka [an ethnic group].''

    Another younger brother who lives in South Sudan and is a police officer found the body, Mr Adut said. He was unable to retrieve Mr Acuek's body for a proper burial because of the danger and was forced to cover it up and leave it.

    Mr Adut said his brother may have been carrying a weapon for protection but was a civilian. He had lived back in South Sudan since 2007 and owned two hotels there but also worked with an agricultural charity.

    Mr Adut said he hoped the tragedy would highlight the unfolding disaster in South Sudan, where forces loyal to former vice-president Riek Machar are battling the government of President Salva Kiir after a failed coup attempt.

    South Sudan became the world's newest country in 2011 but ethnic conflict has reportedly led to the deaths of almost 1000 people while more than 200,000 people have been displaced.

    Mr Acuek had been a child soldier in Sudan but fled the country with the rest of the family in 1998 - before South Sudan achieved independence - and arrived in Australia as a refugee.

    He took a degree in social sciences from the University of Western Sydney in 2004.

    ''From all estimates he was the first southern Sudanese man to graduate from an Australian university,'' said Felicity Bennett-Bremner, who founded a charity with Mr Acuek after his graduation. ''He wanted to understand how people worked and what he could do to help them.''

    Mr Acuek, through his charity Life Through Livestock, worked to cure for an illness ravaging cattle in his homeland. He had made inroads into the source of the disease, Mrs Bennett-Bremner said, before conflict broke out again.

    Mr Acuek also found work with international non-government organisations and said he had previously worked with Global Communities, an organisation with an American headquarters.

    Australian William Anayar, now in South Sudan, said he first met Mr Acuek in the late 1980s when the two were refugees, fleeing conflict that had enveloped their homeland. ''We were just little boys together, we were lost boys,'' Mr Anayar said. ''We were just minors.''

    Mr Anayar said his friend had been a campaigner for cattle health in a part of the world where they are crucial to the economy.

    Tributes poured in as news of Mr Acuek's death spread.

    ''I will never forget his amazing humour and desire to help others,'' said Moses Mabior Jombo, who added that he had lived with Mr Acuek at the Iffo Refugee Camp in east Kenya. ''His passing is another big blow to his family, Bor and South Sudan.''

    Read more: Sydney man killed helping victims of South Sudanese civil war

    Win nervously lose tragically - Reds C C

  • #2
    My sincere condolences. May he Rest in Blessed Peace.


    • #3
      Every time I despair of our world men and women like John Mac Acuek step forward and restore my faith in humanity.

      May his sacrifice serve to be an example of service for others. And may his family be comforted there are people of principle around the globe or mourn his passing and respect his accomplishments.
      “Loyalty to country ALWAYS. Loyalty to government, when it deserves it.”
      Mark Twain


      • #4
        His reward will be in a Higher Place. RIP


        • #5
          Rest well, my Good Man. God Bless.


          • #6
            Some more detail on the remarkable life of John Mac Acuek. It sounds like his 9 lives finally ran out, but he managed to make so much of the life he had. As one of the first Sudanese refugees in Australia he & his family blazed a trail for others and they continue to give back to Australia & Sth Sudan alike. So much left undone.

            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 in 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.

            Hugh Riminton

            Read more: South Sudan refugee John Mac Acuik killed on mercy mission in homeland

            Win nervously lose tragically - Reds C C