From child soldier to Winnipeg engineer, how 1 boy escaped the bloodshed

Barely able to hold a rifle and just six years old, Daniel Riak Mach was learning how to be a soldier. It's a memory that won't ever escape the now 31-year-old, who grew up in a camp for child soldiers in South Sudan.

Rebel fighters took him and other children from his home village in 1991 after a bloody fight, leaving families like his broken apart. It was part of the Bor massacre, which left an estimated 2,000 people dead during the Second Sudanese Civil War. 

He remembers the day he ran for his life and the moment he was separated from his mom and dad who was herding cattle.

"We just ran out and everyone was crying and yelling."

Mach said rebels came to defend his village after learning it had been under attack when the government decided to collude with rebel defector to destroy a rebel leader at the time. After the fighting was done, rebel troops scooped up Mach and other kids.

"What they did mostly is collect all the kids that were not able to find their families or that were not united with their families and I was one of them."

At first, he thought it was OK — the rebels had food and there was a school that taught kids English. "I liked the idea of being in the active army," he said. "It was a fun thing at the time and people like it and we thought they were getting fed better than the Red Army."

But then the drills came.

The AK47 test

"We wake up in the morning we run like the regular military exercise," Mach recalls.

But when they got older, the soldiers added another test for the boys.

"They would bring AK47, so you will stand next to the AK47 and if your height is about that or a little bit taller, you would be recruited into the active army."

Many of Mach's friends never came back after passing that test, leaving the then 12-year-old with a good suspicion of what had happened.

"I assumed that they were getting killed in the line of fire."

One day a teacher in the village decided he'd had enough and asked Mach if he wanted to escape.

The answer at first was no but then Mach took his chances and fled with the instructor to a refugee camp in Kenya where he registered with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

He'd end up living in the camp for nearly a decade but always maintained a desire to get a higher level of education. That's where the student refugee program run by the World University Service of Canada came in.

"I know it was my only hope."

'A moment of excitement' 

The program helps bring refugees from around the world to Canadian universities and colleges giving them a new shot at life and brought Mach in 2008 to the University of Manitoba to study engineering.

He finished his degree in 2014 and then went on to work for the City of Winnipeg as an engineer. 

"It was a moment of excitement, proud," Mach said.

Mach will be speaking at the World Refugee Day benefit concert at the Gas Station Arts Centre on Tuesday night at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $15.