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A brother's burden


A brother's burden

Dak carried his disabled brother for 17 days to escape fighting in South Sudan. But it was Muon who saved them from the lion.
17 December 2014
Brothers Dak and Muon, now safe in Tierkidi refugee camp.

When the shooting started last Christmas Eve in Malakal, the capital of South Sudan's Upper Nile state, Dak's thoughts immediately went to his younger brother Muon. Confined to a wheelchair, Muon was stuck at home while everyone else ran to the nearest UN base.

"That day I didn't think of picking up my wallet, my shoes or anything else," says Dak, 50. "I just thought about saving my brother."

With Muon slung on his back, Dak ran through the town in search of a safe place to hide. They hid behind trees or in the long grass whenever Muon caught sight of soldiers.

"I saw a lot of people dying, behind and ahead of us," says Muon, 18. Among the victims was their youngest brother.

"That day I didn't think of picking up my wallet, my shoes or anything else. I just thought about saving my brother."

"I saw he was shot but we couldn't stop as we knew he was dead and that the soldiers wanted everyone dead. We had to keep moving."

Their two sisters were also killed by the clouds of bullets that somehow spared Dak and Muon, who vividly recalls "the sound of guns and smell the death."

In the fray, Dak lost sight of his wife and five children.

Entirely focused on saving Muon, he doesn't recall the details or discomfort of their dash through fields of death, despite only previously carrying his brother very short distances.

"Everyone was dying, so I couldn't even think of the heat or whether Muon was heavy," he says.

Muon received a wheelchair in Tierkidi refugee camp, after his brother carried him 17 days to safety.

As the days wore on, their diet of wild fruits and their brief intervals of sleep in the forests wore Dak down physically. But his resolve to save his last sibling never weakened.

"My whole body hurt. I had pain from the carrying when I rested."

Although there was little to drink but pitiful amounts of water from dirty rivers, Dak was constantly bathed in sweat. He tried to hide his exhaustion from Muon and strived not wince at the excruciating pain ripping through his muscles.

Even so, Muon felt his brother's agony and harboured a deep sense of guilt.

"I can't leave you. Yes, I'm tired, but if we die, we die together."

"I know my brother was tired and hurt, and told him to go and leave me. But he would say: 'I can't leave you. Yes, I'm tired, but if we die, we die together.' "

Stuck being a burden, Muon resolved to keep his brother safe by being a good watchman. Once he spotted a lion just in time, saving them both from the jaws of death.

"When I saw the lion, I thought it was coming to eat us," he says.

After he whispered in his brother's ear, the pair froze and the lion stalked on past.

Muon, right, watches neighbours repair his worn-out wheelchair at Tierkidi refugee camp in Ethiopia's Gambella Region, near the border of South Sudan.

After many days they chanced upon an abandoned wheelchair and Dak pushed his brother over the border into Ethiopia, which is now hosting nearly 200,000 South Sudanese refugees.

The brothers are now living at Tierkidi camp in the Gambella region, where UNHCR and its partners are trying to offer more support to the disabled, in addition to providing shelter, water and food and other vital services.

But as the brothers reached safety, the strain of carrying Muon such a great distance finally took its toll on Dak.

"I was so sick when I got here," he says. "When I coughed, there was blood, and although I've been to hospital, I'm still not well."

Muon, far left, attends a class at Tierkidi refugee camp in Ethiopia's Gambella region. He dreams of becoming a doctor – to stop diseases from making others disabled like him.

Muon is determined to study hard to help his eldest brother, who quit school to help pay for his siblings' education.

"I could not go to school as we were poor and in a remote area," Dak explains. "So I worked in the fields to support the others, hoping that one day they would return something good."

Muon owes a debt of gratitude. "I feel good when I go to school," he says. "I think about my brother and how I want to stop his suffering and repay him."

The wheelchair he uses to get to a nearby school is breaking on the camp's rough paths. Dak has already volunteered to carry Muon, but he has refused any further sacrificial acts.

"Without a wheelchair I would just exhaust my brother again from the carrying, so I would just stop school and just stay at home," he says.

"I think about my brother and how I want to stop his suffering and repay him."

Dak has other responsibilities to focus on now – like finding a way to support his wife and five children, whose sudden appearance at the camp literally floored him.

"The first time I saw them I was so happy I fainted and passed out for some minutes. I don't even remember what I was doing."

"I was thinking that they had been killed or the soldiers had them," he says of a conflict that has often forced women and children to serve as slaves or soldiers.

Dak would like to do some farming to ensure a brighter future for his children and brother, but he has no seeds.

Muon says helping his brother comes first, but he dreams of becoming a doctor to stop others from being crippled by whatever disease shrivelled his legs at the tender age of three.

"I don't want other people to suffer like me," he says, stealing a glance at his hero of a big brother.