Courage in South Sudan: Ayak and Majak

Ayak and Majak Chuol. Photo: Mackenzie Knowles Coursin/Oxfam

While we need to investigate and make public all violations of human rights in the South Sudan crisis, we also need to shed light on the many people who went above and beyond to help those from ethnic groups different from their own. These are the voices of those who went the extra mile. Their bravery and strength in light of the situation they faced is a testament to the extraordinary power of compassion, hope and the will to survive.

Majak Chuol, 76, and his sister Ayak, 55, tell the story of how a brave young man saved their lives:

Majak: When the first attack happened, I was in Bor with my son Ajang, his children and my sister Ayak. When we heard the first gunshots, I told my son to leave with his family. I am old. I have lived my life, and would only serve to slow them down. I begged them to leave and with relief, I saw them walk away. My sister was not with them at the time but I gave instructions that she should join them.

Ayak: I joined my nephew and his children as they were walking away from Bor. I walked for one hundred meters before realizing that my brother was not going to join us. He had sent us away to safety but refused to come. I love my elder brother very much and could not imagine him dying there alone. I knew that my nephew could take care of the children and so I left them to continue with their journey and went back to be with my brother.

Majak: I was surprised when she came back, but also very touched that she did. On the 18th of December, there was a lot of fighting in Lake Yang estate in Bor. We could hear gunshots all around us but thankfully it did not come to our doorstep.

The following day, there was even more fighting. This time it sounded like it was moving closer so we went to the bedroom and hid under the beds. We stayed there for some time. After a while, there was a loud knock on the door. The door was forced open and we heard footsteps heading towards the bedroom. I don’t know what time it was, but it was getting dark. They found us hiding in the bedroom. I could not count how many they were, but they were many.

Majak: The visit was quick. They asked each of us a question in Nuer and if you got the answer wrong, you were tortured and killed. My sister and I speak Nuer so we answered correctly and were left alone.

Ayak: We decided to leave for the UNMISS (UN Mission in South Sudan) compound after that incident. While we were walking, we spoke to each other in Nuer as we were in a Nuer area surrounded by Nuer men with guns. We did not want to be anyone’s target if they found out that we were Dinka. We stopped on the way to rest and I asked Majak in Nuer whether he was thirsty.

In that unfortunate moment, he had forgotten where we were and what we were trying to do and responded to me in Dinka. Immediately, a man who was close to us grabbed him, shoved him onto a tree, cocked his gun and prepared to shoot him.

Majak: I forgot and spoke in Dinka. The man grabbed me and shouted “This man deceived us. He is not a Nuer. He is a Dinka.” At that moment, when I thought I was surely going to die, a young man, about 19 years old, saved my life. I heard a scream and saw him come out of nowhere. He stood in front of me, facing the man and his gun. His name is Deng Makwach and he is Nuer.

“How can you even raise your gun to kill this man? Look at him,” he said. “If you do it, you will be cursed, even as a Nuer man. If you shoot him, then you will have to kill me.”

The man was visibly very angry but did not pull the trigger. He lowered his gun and walked away from us. Deng walked with us the rest of the way to the UNMISS compound in Bor. He brought us to the space where his family was staying and gave us a space to settle until we found our next destination. We were with him for seventeen days and became good friends.

Ayak: I was very shocked that a young man could risk his life like that to save ours but I was very grateful for it. Without his interference, we surely would have died. After he walked with us and welcomed us to his home, I spoke to him, wondering what was going through his head when he did it.

“Why would you risk your life to save us? We’re old and have lived well. You’re very young and have your whole life ahead of you. Why sacrifice all that for a couple of old strangers?” I asked.

“When I looked at Majak, I was reminded of my father. When I saw your face, I was reminded of my mother. I knew that if I let anything happen to you then I might as well have killed them and myself. There is no difference. It did not make any sense for me to watch you die and do nothing about it. It made no sense for anyone to die,” Deng said.