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First They Came for My People, Then They Came for the Jews

A South Sudanese former slave recognized the Palestinian pogrom on Oct. 7

Simon Deng
January 22, 2024
The author, at right, volunteers at a strawberry farm in Kibbutz Kadima Zoran, December 2023. He was joined by more than 20 other South Sudanese.

Courtesy the author

The author, at right, volunteers at a strawberry farm in Kibbutz Kadima Zoran, December 2023. He was joined by more than 20 other South Sudanese.

Courtesy the author

My name is Simon Aban Deng. I am from South Sudan. I am a Shilluk. I am a Christian. I am a former slave.

I will not forget that day when Arab Sudanese government troops came and raided my village. We didn’t know what was going on until we heard gunshots from every direction. I was only 9 years old, but the militiamen were shooting anybody they saw, including children.

Myself, my family, and five of my friends had to run. But the Arabs ran after us: While we were running, they shot two of my friends. We ran wildly, not knowing where we were running. We just wanted to get away from these men, and the bullets, chasing us.

We ran until they disappeared. We then spent the night in the bush, terrified, and wondering if we would see these men again.

A relative of mine who was pregnant had escaped the village with us, but she couldn’t run like the other people. She collapsed from exhaustion as we were running, but we had to leave her, knowing that the Arabs would catch us if we tried to carry her or run at her pace. In the morning, as we returned to our village—wondering if it was still standing—we found that she had been eaten by wild animals during the night.

When we got there, the elders who were able to escape returned to bury the dead and try to save whatever the Arabs had not destroyed. And they had destroyed plenty. The whole village had been burned to the ground with the people inside the houses, including a blind man and an elderly lady we knew.

Seeing our beautiful village reduced to a wasteland of burned grass and rows of bodies, my father made the painful decision to leave. Now refugees, we walked to the town of Malakal, capital of Upper Nile state, where we lived for six months. Our neighbor there was an Arab named Abdullahi. One day, he asked to help him with putting his luggage onto the ferry since we lived so close to the riverbank.

He didn’t seem to be like the men who had destroyed my village; he seemed friendly and didn’t scare me. I was more or less alone, and I trusted him. I said I would help him with the luggage and I did. But then he was gone, saying he had to buy something at the market; he only appeared again when the steamer was just about to leave and I was still on it waiting for him. He rushed onto the boat just as it was leaving the dockside and told me “Don’t cry.” Since we were already on the ferry, we just had to wait until we got to where he was going: Kosti, the capital of White Nile state. He promised he would put me on the next boat going back to Malakal, and everything would be fine. All I could do was believe him, because what else could I do? I was a little boy, alone and with nothing.

But everything wasn’t what it seemed. When we arrived in Kosti, I found that this gentleman had three other Black boys waiting for him. Abdullahi then took me and an older boy to northern Kosti where he brought us to meet an Arab family. Abdullahi talked with the family for a while but then an argument started between two of the men: Each wanted the “big boy,” since he was stronger. I didn’t understand why they cared so much about this, but, eventually, the two men came to a compromise: The man with the larger family would get the older boy, and the other man, with the slightly smaller one, would get the other boy. The other boy was me.

I left with that man and his family for their farm and I never saw Abdullahi again. Three days later, I stupidly asked the family where Abdullahi was, since he was the way I was going to get back to Malakal, and to my parents. For that question I was beaten terribly. Bleeding and in pain the man told me that I should never ask anything about Abdullahi again, since he had given me away as a “gift.” In other words, I was now a slave.

From then on, I had no one to whom I could turn. I could not complain about anything which was done to me. I belonged to this family, and they knew exactly how I should feel about who I was and how I should behave. My “master,” as I now understood him to be, showed me a Sudanese pound note which had an image of a man with no legs. “If you think you can try to escape,” he said, “this is what is going to happen to you.”

The author, second from left, on a solidarity walk from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, 
 December 2023
The author, second from left, on a solidarity walk from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, December 2023

Courtesy the author

In Fashishoya, the suburb of Kosti where the farm was, there was no running water. Water is usually drawn from the Nile by donkeys, but the family had a new slave, so I now replaced the donkey. I was the one who would go and get the water from the river and carry the heavy containers of water back to the house. I was the first person to get up in the morning and do all of the domestic jobs, and I was the last person to go to sleep.

Concerning going to sleep, as we all know, every human being has some kind of clean, comfortable place to sleep. But, as a slave, I shared a place with the animals. Every night I had to try to keep my little spot clean from my animal neighbors.

Describing what happened to me is one thing, but actually being a slave is something I cannot describe with words. You have to be a slave to know how bad slavery is. You’re talking about treating a human being worse than an animal. Yes, I was beaten; I was made to haul water for people who believed I wasn’t human; I lived with people who didn’t love me; I was made to sleep with farm animals. But living as someone’s possession—as a slave—is not something I can describe.

Two and half years went by, and the family that owned me decided to move out of the suburbs into Kosti proper. One day, when I was alone near the new house, miraculously, I ran into some Black people who happened to have the facial marks of my Shilluk tribe—the first I had seen since the day Abdullahi kidnapped me. I didn’t know them—and I didn’t have the Shilluk marks, as I do now—but I seized my chance: I told them who I was, what had happened to me, and where I was born. They told me that a coworker of theirs was from my destroyed village. They told me to slip away from the Arab family and meet them the next day. When I came to the meeting place and met this man, it turned out that he was a relative of mine, and he began to cry. From the time I was kidnapped, he told me, my father had offered a reward of 10 cows for anybody who could free me. This was proof my father had never given up on me: Ten cows is the equivalent of many thousands of dollars in America. He was crying because he could now bring me back to my father, who had waited and waited for me for two and half years, refusing to believe that I was dead.

As I described, by this time, my master did not always watch me closely, and the man was able to arrange for Shilluk people to help me escape. Two weeks later—enough time to keep things quiet so that the family would not find out and move me to a place where I would never be found again—the man secured my escape. He, as Abdullahi had falsely promised all that time before, put me on a ferry back to Malakal and I finally was reunited with my family.

That is my story. But one little boy’s story is just one part of this drama.

On Oct. 7, 2023, I watched the news and was sick. Seeing the video of the attack on the music festival in Israel, everything welled up inside me. From the experience of my people, from my own experience, I knew exactly what had just happened and how those terrified hostages were going to suffer. Israelis had been raped, tortured, mutilated, and burned alive just like my people had been for centuries. I will never forget the fires and the burned bodies: They looked exactly like what I saw the day my village was destroyed.

What Hamas did was precisely like what Arab Sudan’s genocidal government did to my people. Since they invaded Africa in the seventh century, Arab Muslims had always been doing jihad. We will never really know many Blacks have died between then and today. It is one of those numbers which, because it is unknown, proves how huge the suffering must be.

Both Israel and my country, South Sudan, were born through jihad, one which began in 1948, the other in 1955. In 1948, the Arabs declared a jihad against the new State of Israel and tried to finish what Hitler had started. In 1955, the Black Christian people of southern Sudan revolted against the north because the Muslim government refused to give them autonomy or freedom of religion. In response, the government declared a jihad—but not on paper, as it would later in 1989. The Arabs killed possibly up to 1.5 million Black people in the south. Nobody knows the number they enslaved, since nobody really counted.

The Israelis, like the Black Sudanese, won the war but lost the peace, and the jihad continued. People in the West only learned about jihad and slavery in Sudan in the 1990s, during the Second Sudanese Civil War, which began in 1983, but it was going on throughout the first one, which ended in 1972. I was kidnapped in the 1960s, so this terror has been happening for my entire lifetime. All we know is that about 200,000 Black Christians like me were enslaved in the Second Civil War, which only stopped in 2005, and about 2 million were killed. Sadly, there are still many Africans owned as slaves today. Now I saw what was done to me and my people being done to Israelis.

Israel secretly helped the southern Sudanese fight the north. We would never have fought the Arabs to the negotiating table without them. Today, South Sudan is independent partially because Israel chose to help us win over our Arab colonizers—because that is what they are. The Jewish people, just like us, are native to our lands, which the Arabs conquered.

Recently, I went to Israel to show my solidarity with my Jewish brothers and sisters, and with the (enslaved) hostages. I walked twice from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and back along the highway to show that we Africans love and care about Israel. I picked strawberries on a kibbutz and met with Jewish hero Natan Sharansky—a freedom fighter who went to prison, like Dr. King, for trying to free his people.

Living in New York, I see protests against Israel. These manifestations of sympathy for evil should disgust all decent people. They disgust me because Hamas is made up of the same people, acting on the same colonizing and imperial motivations, who enslaved me and murdered 4 million of my Black brothers and sisters. The Jewish people—who helped my people gain our freedom—were slaves in Egypt, just down the Nile from where I was a slave. Later, they were slaves in Auschwitz. Now they are slaves in Gaza. Our peoples have both survived slavery, and we will continue to survive it. We will triumph over the murderers who do their best to enslave and exterminate us.

True survivors are not victims. Both Africans and Israelis stand tall and will not rest until all of our people are free. And our Jewish brothers can count on us to be there for them.

Simon Deng is a former slave from South Sudan, human rights activist, public speaker, and professional swimmer. He has lived in the United States since 1989 and has been a leader of the South Sudanese expatriate community since 1993.