Jacob Atem thought it was over when they asked for his identification.
It was a few days before Christmas, and he and thousands of other displaced civilians had been hiding inside a United Nations compound in South Sudan to escape growing violence between government and rebel forces.
Food and water were scarce. Outside the U.N. walls were 15,000 armed rebels and a worsening conflict that threatened to plunge the world's youngest nation back into civil war.
But now, on Dec. 21, there was a plane, a way out.
Hope bloomed as Atem waited in line to board. The flight would take him to South Sudan's capital, Juba. From there, he would fly to Rwanda where his pregnant wife, Linda, waited for him.
But then a rebel carrying an automatic weapon began asking for passports. This wasn't good. Atem is Dinka, one of two major ethnic groups in South Sudan. The rebels outside the U.N. compound were from the rival tribe, Nuer.
Atem handed over his passport reluctantly, fearing what would happen if he refused.
"Are you Dinka?" the rebel asked.
Atem said yes. There was no point in lying.
"You're not leaving," he recalled the man saying. "If you get on the plane, we will shoot it down."
More than two decades after escaping civil war in Sudan, after wandering for years in the African bush with thousands of other young men later dubbed "Lost Boys," Atem feared his struggle had accomplished nothing.
He had survived the murder of his parents, the kidnapping of his sister, a lion attack, a river swimming with crocodiles, unrelenting heat and hunger.
He had eventually found refuge in America, in the warm embrace of a family in Webberville. He learned to speak English, earned his bachelor's degree at Spring Arbor University, his master's degree at Michigan State. He'd found love and life.
Then he'd returned to his home country during a brief moment of peace to help his people by opening a health clinic.
But as he looked at the end of the gun now pointed in his direction, he suddenly wondered if he had ever really escaped.
The unending violence in Sudan was going to kill him after all.
This story won a 2014 Amy Foundation Award for reporting on faith. You can read the entire story in USA TODAY here.
PHOTO CREDIT: Lansing State Journal, Reuters