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A child with a gun

Australian Red Cross first met Sydney lawyer Deng Adut back in 2012. Today his incredible story of survival continues to inspire, and highlights the vital role international humanitarian law must play in protecting the innocents of war

Monday February 1, 2016

Deng Adut
Deng Adut. Photo: Supplied

"I've always believed that courage is important for a person like me, and for people not to give up hope," says Deng Adut as he reaches the end of a full work day at his western Sydney law practice. "I would say I'm one of the luckiest people in the world to be able to speak to you today."

More Australians are becoming familiar with the unique success story of this farmer's son from the village of Malek in South Sudan. Snatched from his family as a six year-old in 1987, he was conscripted into the Sudanese army and forced to fight in that country's civil war, armed with an AK-47 rifle that was almost as tall as he was. The next several years were a nightmarish time of having to march hundreds of miles, witnessing people on both sides of the conflict succumbing to horrific violence, illness and psychological trauma.

Under the auspices of international humanitarian law, the use of child soldiers is considered a war crime. Yet as with many global conflicts, the laws of war were roundly ignored when it came to protecting the young Deng and his fellow combatants. Even the iconic red cross emblem did not guarantee humanitarian protection in the realities of the field.

"I saw the symbol when I was in the army, but I didn't know what it meant," he recalls. "Reflecting back, some of the members of Red Cross and Médecins Sans Frontières had been kidnapped. That's happening even recently. To go and destroy life-saving people or people helping is a war crime. I'm saying this now because I'm alive. I'm saying them so people can hear them, so I can stand before anyone and say it is the wrong thing to do."

Malnourished, maltreated, stricken with disease - and at one point, shot in the back - the young Deng struggled on through a hellish existence until he was smuggled out of South Sudan into neighbouring Kenya. By 1998 he had arrived in Australia as a refugee and settled in the western Sydney suburb of Blacktown, undertaking a law degree at the University of Western Sydney. A video recounting Deng's experiences went viral in 2015, generating millions of views and sharing his story with an audience who were shocked, moved, and even disbelieving of his journey.

"A lot of people feel sad. Some feel outrage. Some are dumbfounded. Some are unable to bear it and think it is untrue."

Despite the overwhelming attention the video brought, Deng's daily responsibilities as a defence lawyer remain unchanged, and every day at his Blacktown practice is a busy one. The district is home to a large South Sudanese population, some of which - like Deng himself - still carry the scars of the civil war in their homeland. The legacy of war, along with various misconceptions or misinformation about migrant and refugee communities, often hinders efforts to create new lives in a new community.

"There are physical injuries, there are psychological injuries. The level of mental illness is quite high," Deng explains. "It is a person who has been destroyed. They're trying to rebuild, but rebuilding takes time. It takes care. It takes commitment from other people to be able to assist. So the general Australian public are not aware of all these issues."

Deng's words and experiences continue to astonish and inspire, and this year he was invited to deliver the 20th Australia Day address at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music. Yet his motivation for change remains undiminished. He hopes one day to help build an agricultural school in South Sudan where students can be instructed in environmentally-friendly farming practices to increase self-sustainability and lessen dependence on aid.

More than three years after first telling his story to Australian Red Cross, Deng reiterates the call for nations to better adhere to the principles of IHL, as well address the trade of weapons to third-world countries and prevent the militarisation of other children.

"The children that are being caught up in this conflict have no reason to be there. The starting point for me is stop distributing the weapons. Stop selling the weapons to the third world. Stop trading with them. Let the children be children. Don't destroy the family and their community. Let them learn. A child with a gun is not a child."

Read more about Deng's story in International Humanitarian Law magazine

Read the Australia Day 2016 address

Find out more about the laws of war