Tears of joy streamed down Fidele Makuei’s face.
At last he was reunited with his family in South Sudan after 23 years in exile.
He hugged his mother and sisters who stood agape as this former boy soldier, now an analytical chemist and metallurgist in Port Pirie, regaled them with his life story.
Fidele was one of the “lost boys” or boy soldiers recruited in the civil war that wracked his homeland.
“I went with the rebels,” he recalled, describing how he had originally left his family during the unrest at the age of seven years.
“I sneaked and followed the rebels and decided to go and get my gun and fight. Buildings were being destroyed.”
Escaping the advancing northern-based Arabs who observed sharia law, he went to neighbouring Ethiopia.
There, in a camp, he crossed paths with, but did not meet another boy soldier, Kuol Baak, who is now a council planner based in Port Pirie.
As rebel leaders visited the camp looking to recruit boys for the war, he experienced a quirk of fate: He was considered too small to be sent on a mission.
“They would take the big boys,” he said. “Later, the United Nations came and took the kids to a refugee camp in Kenya. We lived in the camp for another 10 years. I was missing my family. I wanted to go back to them, but there was no way I could.”
In 2003, Fidele eventually found his way to Australia where, as a migrant in Sydney, he again met a familiar face in Nyirou, a young woman also from South Sudan.
“We had met in Nairobi, Kenya, but we were not together, although we knew each other,” he said.
In 2008, he travelled from Australia to be reunited with his mother and two sisters in South Sudan. His brother, another sister and father had died.
Nyirou, now married to Fidele, said, on reflection, that “sometimes fighting doesn’t solve everything … it is a scary, scary world”.
“We tell our children how to be. We are grateful because Australia is safe and you have a chance to go to school and you don’t have to worry about health and safety,” she said.
Fidele, who is Catholic, works for Nyrstar smelter and holds several university degrees. He has written a manuscript for a book on his life called The Men On The Horses’ Back.
He recalls men on horseback coming to “kill and destroy” as his family fled in the civil war.
“We ran as quickly and as quietly as we could to find a hiding place under the sorghum crops in the field,” he writes.
He described the attack, with his father gathering up a shield and spears to defend the family, as “the most horrific thing in my life”.