Voices of hope from South Sudan: One moment of action

By Oxfam
Majak Chuol. Photo: Mackenzie Knowles-Coursin/Oxfam

Share this story:

Would you risk your own life to save a stranger’s? Deng Makwach did. Here's why.

Beyond the bloodletting and hunger in South Sudan, another story is unfolding—a story of hope and humanity. It is the story of neighbors standing up for neighbors, of strangers for strangers. It’s the story of people like 19-year-old Deng Makwach, who saw a gun trained on an elderly man—someone he had never met—and jumped to action, challenging the gunman to stop or shoot Makwach instead. In that act of courage and selflessness, one of countless like it, lies hope and the future of South Sudan.

One moment of action, one life saved.

Below, learn more about this story of everyday courage from South Sudan, shared with Oxfam by Majak Chuol, age 76, and his sister Ayak Chuol, age 55.

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.

Ayak Chuol. Photo: Mackenzie Knowles-Coursin/Oxfam

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.

Millions in South Sudan are caught in a rapid spiral downward toward acute hunger and malnutrition, prevented by the violence from planting and harvesting their crops. 

What can you do to make a difference? Help us rush life-saving food and water to families in crisis. Your one moment of action could save a life. Now is the moment to act. 

Donate now