Prof. Julia Aker Duaany: A wrenching journey from Indiana (US) to John Garang University, South Sudan

Posted: November 7, 2015 by PaanLuel Wël Media Ltd. in Commentary, People

The killing had ended more than a year earlier, but the university still bore the scars of battle: broken windows, looted metal safes, computers smashed beyond repair.

Walking slowly through the debris on a recent 100-degree afternoon was a 6-foot-tall woman with a Sudanese accent and a U.S. passport.

“It’s the vice chancellor,” one student whispered.

“That woman is as powerful as any man,” a group of girls chanted as she walked by.

Julia Duany was inspecting the reconstruction of John Garang Memorial University, in the city where the country’s civil war broke out two years ago. She was a remarkable figure, a woman who grew up in a family of 32 children in a village of cattle herders in Sudan, and eventually earned a doctorate at Indiana University. Then she gave up her comfortable American life to help shepherd South Sudan toward independence.

This is a country created in part because of the United States: The George W. Bush and Obama administrations championed a process through which it split from Sudan in 2011. The U.S. government provided billions of dollars in development aid. Hundreds of South Sudanese Americans came back to build the world’s newest nation, in a land so poor that only one-quarter of adults could read.

But four years after President Obama hailed the “light of a new dawn” in South Sudan, the country is crumbling. More than 10,000 people have been killed in the civil war that broke out in 2013. The United Nations reported last month that tens of thousands are now on the “brink of famine.”

In her unadorned office at the university, Duany, 59, leaned opened a laptop that contained a manuscript she wrote that documents the misdeeds of officials and rebels who had torn the country apart in recent years.

“It’s just so frustrating,” she said. “We came here to build our homeland, to make it something, and we’re still fighting amongst each other.”

Returning home 

Duany and her husband, Wal, fled their homeland in 1984. Sudan was descending into yet another round of civil war, one that would eventually leave more than 2 million dead.

Wal, a government minister, had been jailed for speaking out against the Arab-led government in the north, which was widely accused of discriminating against the mostly Christian and animist south. U.S. officials helped secure his release, and got the family to Bloomington, Ind.

To a couple coming from a region without paved roads, the United States felt wholly alien at first.

“They sold food for dogs in the supermarket!” Duany exclaimed, recalling her confusion.

The family’s rapid success as new Americans caught even Duany off guard. The couple’s three sons and two daughters all received college scholarships to play Division I basketball. Julia Duany’s picture appeared in Sports Illustrated. “Astounding,” an article in ESPN called the family’s achievements.

Duany crisscrossed the country to watch her children’s games, learning how to trash talk from the stands. “You crazy zebra,” she called referees when they made a bad call.

Wal earned a PhD in political science; Julia got one in education. They bought a house with a porch and a garden.

But they remained deeply involved in the South Sudan resistance movement, meeting with officials in the White House and State Department and communicating with rebels on the front lines.

In 2005, representatives of northern and southern Sudan signed the Comprehensive Peace Agreement, which paved the way for independence. Duany didn’t hesitate — it was time to move back. Her husband already had returned to play a prominent role in the peace process; their children would follow.

Duany became the undersecretary of parliamentary affairs — a job that involved turning illiterate former rebels into rule-following lawmakers.

“They kept calling each other ‘comrade,’ and I had to explain, ‘No, you’re in parliament. Now you call each other honorable.’ ”

But even as independence day loomed in 2011, she could see the fault lines emerging. Among them was a rivalry between two South Sudanese guerrillas who went on to play key roles in a coalition government: Salva Kiir of the Dinka tribe and Riek Machar of the Nuer.

‘Mama Julia’ 

The long-festering tension in the government exploded on Dec. 15, 2013, when Kiir, the president, accused Machar, his vice president, of planning a coup. Each man had thousands of armed followers, who turned on one another. The violence cut largely along ethnic lines.

Duany happened to be visiting Indiana when the conflict broke out. But she decided the following month to go back. It was dangerous enough that the United States airlifted its citizens out of South Sudan, including her children, who feared for her safety.

“We worried that my mom could be in the wrong place at the wrong time,” said Kueth Duany, one of her sons.

The capital, Juba, was full of military checkpoints. Entire villages had been uprooted. By then, Duany was a senior official at the ministry of public service. But in mid-2014, in a radio announcement, she learned that she had been reassigned to John Garang Memorial University of Science and Technology.

“The assignment was basically to fix a place that had been destroyed,” she said. She is based in Juba — in part because of her administrative duties, and in part because no housing is available at the university. Every month or two, she takes a one-hour commercial flight in an aging Soviet plane to visit the campus.

When she first arrived in August, her colleagues weren’t sure what to make of her. Some South Sudanese regard returnees from the United States as entitled foreigners.

“They come back and they have an American way of doing things. The way they put across their opinions — it’s as if they feel more superior,” said Deng Manassah Mac, the dean of the college of agriculture.

But her colleagues found Duany approachable, Mac said, and interested in the ideas of others. Some started calling her “Mama Julia.”

John Garang Memorial University is a smattering of small classrooms and dormitories just off the dirt road leading from a rough-hewn airstrip to the poor, sprawling city of Bor. The university is not connected to an electrical grid, and generators hum throughout the day. In their spare time, students play soccer and watch reruns of American sitcoms in a dilapidated open-air lounge.

On Dec. 17, 2013, students heard gunfire. They fled the city on foot and by boat. Rebels, mostly from the Nuer tribe, seized Bor, stealing vehicles and destroying property. Then government forces, mostly Dinka, recaptured the city, but the fighting continued for weeks. Dead bodies filled the streets.

When the violence faded and classes resumed in September 2014, Duany wasn’t sure whether the students would return. But they did — first the Dinkas and then, much more slowly, the Nuer. Duany wanted the university to be an emblem of the new South Sudan, and maybe that was still a possibility, she thought.

In August, Kiir and Machar signed a 75-page peace agreement. It should have been another sign of promise. But the cease-fire has been violated numerous times, foreign observers said.

‘Fighting alone’ 

The night before her recent trip to Bor, Duany couldn’t sleep. The police were out in force in her Juba neighborhood. There was gunfire. She was living above the American School of South Sudan, which her daughter Nok founded. There were pictures of children waving American and South Sudanese flags painted on the outside wall. The peace agreement called for a unity government in Juba, but the capital felt ever more unstable and violent.

Duany doesn’t like to talk about her own timeline. Leaving South Sudan would mean acknowledging that the country has failed. And it hasn’t, she says.

Last year, she helped start a program to enable 14 South Sudanese women to earn master’s degrees in the United States (they were sent, not surprisingly, to Bloomington). Duany’s father had taken the unusual step of supporting her studies; education could change her country, too, she thought, if more girls stayed in school. Women are now more likely to die during childbirth in South Sudan than finish high school, according to the United Nations.

In her room at night, Duany scans through photos of her grandchildren, who are growing up in American cities with American accents. Her husband died in 2013, and sometimes it feels like she’s “fighting alone,” she said. But she’ll wait to see how this peace agreement goes.

A few weeks ago, one of the 14 women she sent to the United States was in her office. That initiative has expanded the number of female university lecturers in South Sudan from three to 17.

“Tie this girl down,” Duany joked with her colleagues. “We need her here.”

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