Heroes of South Sudan: David De Dau

David de Dau. Photo: Stella Madete/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.

David De Dau, 38, lives in Gudele, Juba. Here is how he experienced the outbreak of violence:

On Sunday 15th December 2013, I arrived in Juba after a long drive from Gulu in Uganda. At around 8:30 pm, I heard gunshots from the Giada where the Presidential Tiger Guards were based. I got a call immediately after from a friend who worked with national security, telling me to stay put. I was shocked because I didn’t know that South Sudanese people could still take up arms against each other.

Two days after the fighting started, I had to collect my mother-in-law from Miahusaba area. As I drove back, I was stopped by some policemen on the road. I reduced my speed to a snail’s pace and rolled down the glass window. Police officer dressed in uniform: “Maale?” They asked, meaning peace be with you in Nuer.

Peace is good

“Maale mugwa,” I responded. Peace is good.

This was obviously the wrong response as they cocked their guns at me and ordered me to get out and fall to my knees.

“Get him, he’s Nuer.”

My mother-in-law wanted to scream saying he is not Nuer, I ask her to keep quiet. I got out of the car slowly and stood at the front right-side of my car. As they were about to shoot, I opened my mouth to speak. What were a few minutes of running my mouth going to cost me if I was going to die? I had a few chosen words for them. This time I chose to speak in Dinka, my native language. The surprise on their faces was priceless.

I will never die on my knees

“I am not going on my knees. Feel free to shoot but I will never die on my knees.” Bold, I know, but they did not shoot. I proceeded.

“If you had asked me in Arabic ‘Salaam Aleikum’, I would have responded in Arabic saying ‘Aleikum Salaam’. Would that mean that I am an Arab? If you can answer that convincingly, then I am now ready to die.”

They dropped their guns and looked at me intently, then at each other. “Where are you from?” they asked. Bold with the presence of life in my body, I decided to provoke them further.

“Why do you want to know? Why is it so useful for you to know where I hail from?” I asked.

“Just tell us where you’re from,” he repeated, now visibly irritated.

“I roughly speak five languages, so I am from five different places,” I said.

“You, give us your ID!”

I'm a free citizen of South Sudan

“I left it at home. And even if I had it, what reason do you have for asking for it. Am I not a free citizen of South Sudan?” I asked, now also visibly irritated. I did leave my house for a reason and this was not it.

“Give us your Driving License!!!”

I did. They could not read.

They handed it back to me and told me that if I was moving around and wanted to stay alive, I should reveal where I am from and speak my language. Not everyone would be as patient as they were to me.

"My people have shot me."

My cousin had lost his life the same way only a few days before. He had responded in Arabic and before he could finish a sentence, he was on his way out. “My people have shot me,” were his last words in Dinka.

The man who had pulled the trigger then dropped his gun and started crying. He had killed one of his own. The irony is not lost on me.

My mother-in-law and I drove to my house in silence. Sometimes there is so much to say but no one willing to say it.

No one stopped the car this time. We reached home safe. My compound had never been so full of people but I understood the need for people to find a safe space. My home is considered safe because I am a Dinka.

What does safety mean

I reflect on this as I say hello to my Nuer neighbors and their children who I have hidden in my house. How safe it is, I don’t know. I am considered safe but I was almost killed today based on flawed logic. I am considered safe, yet people constantly stalk my compound asking for “the Nuer” that live in the compound next to mine. I remember one visit clearly.

“We know there are Nuer people who live in the houses next door. Do you know where they are?” they asked.

“I don’t know where they are, they probably ran to the camp.”

“Ok, then we will do something else to send a message,” they said, walking to their houses with every intention to loot and destroy.

“Those houses belong to me. I am renting them to the Nuer neighbors you are looking for. If you destroy them, you are destroying my property. What message are you trying to send to me because you can just tell me now.”

They left.

I wonder if I’d still be considered safe if they know that the people they were looking for were in my house.