Opinion | The legacy of Simon Dau
Simon Dau felt a calm come over him when he listened to the Japanese flute music. At night his cellmates would wind down and prepare for sleep while the music played softly on one of the phones they kept hidden in Juba Central Prison. The flutes seemed to carry nature’s song. Simon would listen and think of his childhood, and the quiet moments he remembered as a small boy walking through the forest and taking care of the goats. He could close his eyes and hear the birds whistling on his walk home to the village, and smile with peaceful memories.
In general, their nights were uneventful. The pain of prison was lessened by the solidarity of brotherhood. A feeling of safety emerged from the bonds of trust they built on their shared experiences. They were each one capable of defending themselves and the group, even in the most repressive of circumstances.
Simon Dau was raised in Rumbek and trained as a soldier. He took his training seriously and believed in the mission to serve his country with duty and honor. He was deployed in the oil sector and then to the airport. But he soon learned that working for National Security was something other than serving one’s country. Simon had not yet reached 24 years of age when he was arrested and brought to the Blue House. The reason for his arrest was as absurd as it was sinister.
One of Simon’s colleagues, a close friend, got into some trouble and tried to flee his post rather than face punishment. So National Security arrested Simon instead. He was simply the friend of a guy who ran afoul of South Sudan’s most vicious institution. Simon couldn’t answer for his friend’s absence, so National Security threw Simon in prison. Later, the friend turned himself in and was also locked up inside the Blue House. But Simon was not released. He remained condemned to his cell, without charge or trial, having committed no crime.
National Security is an authority accountable to no one in South Sudan. The Blue House is its dungeon.
The Blue House is a purgatory of silence and suffering, a place where men are beaten, starved, and tortured, and then transferred to the killing fields for execution. Awash in terror of the midnight pickups, the inmates listen in darkness as their fellow prisoners are picked from their cells by agents of National Security in orchestrated abductions. They live in fear that at any time, any one of them can be picked, killed, and disappeared.
Simon Dau was just a young soldier, arrested under false pretenses, likely to be forgotten along with so many women and men made victims of state terror in the world’s youngest country. But it would be inside the Blue House where Simon would find his brothers, and find his courage.
The young men who had trained together as soldiers felt a shared sense of injustice in prison. They recognized in each other the conviction that they could no longer participate in a system designed to repress their own people. Abraham Majak knocked on the doors of those held in solitary confinement to assure them that they were not alone. Kerbino Wol was warned of impending danger and resisted an attempted abduction with his bare hands, fighting off the masked agents liked a caged lion until they gave up. Solidarity was built upon small gestures of kindness and a determination to resist their oppressors. Above all, they trusted each other because they had all experienced betrayal.
Over time, the young men studied the patterns that preceded the midnight pickups. They recognized the perpetrators when they would show up at the Blue House. They knew that the next round of midnight pickups was coming.
They regarded each other as solid guys and good soldiers. In the desperation of their captivity, they had become a family. So when the decision came, they agreed to stand in solidarity. They said, ‘We cannot allow anyone to be picked. We have to stick together. If they shoot one of us, they shoot all of us. But nobody will take any one of us.’
Simon Dau was ready to act. They planned an operation to break free from their cells and take control of the Blue House. On October 7, 2018, they disarmed their guards, took weapons from the armory, and called international news outlets to demand justice and the rule of law in South Sudan. On that day, they had command of National Security’s most notorious prison.
Simon stood by the side of Kerbino Wol as a bodyguard during the operation. The team took fire from the forces amassed on the perimeter, but they maintained their discipline and did not discharge their weapons. After their voices were heard around the world, they negotiated with government officials to end the standoff. The young men then laid down their arms and returned willingly to their cells, back into the unforgiving hands of National Security. Simon would spend several more depraved months in the Blue House, at turns starved and isolated.
Eventually, the regime organized a show trial on the 7 October revolt, with National Security agents patrolling the courtroom and flaunting their guns before the judges and lawyers. Simon and his brothers stood together, expressing their collective innocence and refusing to betray the solidarity of the group. They were sentenced and transferred to Juba Central Prison for their roles in the revolt, without any adjudication of their original arrests.
Despite facing harsh rounds of punishment in Juba Central Prison, Simon felt lucky to be with his brothers. In the mornings they drank tea under a tree, exercised, and looked after some of the children kept as prisoners in the facility. They discussed books and history. Friends and relatives who visited Simon remarked that there was something different about the young man. He was starting to talk with more confidence and maturity beyond his years.
One year after the 7 October revolt, Simon’s cellmates gathered to remember their fallen comrades, the participants in the revolt who had since passed. They dressed in their prison uniforms and sat around a table in the morning to say a few words each. They spoke about their duty as soldiers to serve, and if need be, to sacrifice their lives to protect their fellow citizens. They expressed pride in the role they played in history, as soldiers who had picked up arms specifically to defend prisoners. If they had to do it again, they would do it all the same, as a team. They then shared a moment of silence.
Simon Dau was one of thirty men released from prison in January 2020. On the outside, he and his brothers found it was all the same. They had re-entered a lawless society. They remained under constant surveillance. They remained under threat for their lives. Any one of them could be picked at any moment. South Sudan itself was organized like a prison.
They refused to leave their country for safety abroad. But they would not cooperate with repression. In a tragic act of selflessness, they resolved to form a movement and break their silence. They knew they would be targeted. But they loved South Sudan, and they did not fear danger.
The small group that announced the formation of the 7 October Movement in June 2020 committed no acts of violence. They merely left behind a manifesto sharing their story and their ideas, before coming under attack. Kerbino Wol and Abraham Majak were killed near Ayen Mayar on June 14, 2020. Simon Dau was killed two days later outside Mvolo. It was reported that Simon had surrendered to the authorities. It was reported that Simon was then shot dead by agents acting on the orders of Akol Koor Kuc, the head of National Security.
There was no investigation. There was no judicial procedure. Just the executions of the young men, followed by the desecration and disappearance of their bodies.
Minister of Defence Angelina Teny publicly called for the remains of the departed to be returned to their families. But no remains were returned. After all, it was National Security that ordered the killings and disappeared the bodies. In South Sudan, the authority of National Security supersedes that of the Ministry of Defence. The authority of National Security supersedes any semblance of the rule of law or respect for human rights and dignity. Indeed, the authority of National Security supersedes thousands of years of African traditions regarding respect for a decent burial.
War criminals require that their opponents are disappeared. The reasons are simple, as the executioners certainly do horrific things to the bodies of their victims. State murder is a disgusting crime and a blatant human rights violation, and war criminals fear the evidence left behind by their ghastly deeds.
More importantly, they fear the examples set by righteous people and prefer to disappear the bodies to pretend they never existed. Like Dong Samuel and Aggrey Idri before them, Kerbino Wol, Abraham Majak, and Simon Dau are part of the disappeared generation, the noble young activists who died for the cause of freedom in South Sudan. The fact of their disappearance is proof of their glory.
The regime that governs South Sudan has never accounted for the bodies of these men. The Pan-African Lawyers Union retains a case at the East African Court of Justice demanding that the remains of Kerbino Wol be returned to his next of kin for decent burial, in line with the Constitution of South Sudan, African Union Law, International Law, as well as African culture and traditions. The families deserve to bury the remains of their fallen sons, and they deserve peace.
It may well be a long time before justice in these cases is realized. But the killers made a fateful error. They took great pains to destroy the bodies of these brave young men, but they were careless with their spirits. As the mystics know, spirits of the disappeared always claim revenge at a time of their choosing.
National Security is a big tree in South Sudan. Simon Dau was a small ax. With his life, Simon left some cuts on that tree. He challenged the repressive machinery of the state, showed courage under fire, and remained loyal to his brothers. Simon Dau is one of the bold early risers who stood up for his country, and so he will forever have a legacy.
The spirits of Simon and his brothers remain strong and calm, resting on the soft notes of the flute music. There will be more brave young men to come, but there will never be better than these.
Dr. Robert Portada is an Associate Professor at the Kutztown University of Pennsylvania. He can be reached via email@example.com
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