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Originally published in the Summer 2009 issue of Harvard Kennedy School Magazine.
Many people graduate from Harvard Kennedy School with a clear idea of how they’d like to put their training and newly gained credentials to use. But few graduates leave the school with a greater sense of urgency about their mission than Peter Biar Ajak MPA/ID 2009, who vowed to return to his native country immediately after June commencement.
That urgency stems from Ajak’s remarkable life story and the hardships he’s endured en route to earning a Harvard degree, learning critical skills, and thereby putting himself in a position to lead his nation in a time of need.
Ajak is a former “Lost Boy,” one of tens of thousands of Sudanese youths who became separated from their families during the civil war that was waged between the mostly Christian people of southern Sudan and the mostly Muslim people of the north from 1983 to 2005, when a peace agreement was finally achieved. Though he was born in 1984, a year after the war began, his community was largely untouched by the fighting for the first five years of his life.
All that changed in 1989, when Ajak’s village was attacked by the Sudanese army. Many people were killed. Those survivors who were up to it walked hundreds of miles to a refugee camp in Ethiopia. Being just five years old at the time, Ajak was carried much of the way by his father. He remained in the camp for two years with his mother, brothers, and sisters, while his father fought for their cause with the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA).
In 1991, the Ethiopian regime that had allowed southern Sudanese refugees to stay in its country collapsed in a coup. The new regime, which was hostile to the SPLA, kicked them out. Having nowhere else to go, Ajak and his family walked toward their village, which was ostensibly safer now that the SPLA had regained control over much of the south.
But that semblance of security was short-lived. At the time, the SPLA was splitting into two factions — one dominated by the Dinka tribe, to which Ajak’s family belonged, and the other dominated by the Nuer tribe. The Nuer faction attacked his village and killed more than 10,000 people in the region.
Going home was no longer an option, which forced the family to walk even farther at the height of the rainy season, with no place to go and nowhere to live. They ended up in the southern town of Pachalla, along with thousands of Sudanese refugees who descended from all parts of Ethiopia. “With nothing to eat and diseases floating around, people were dying like flies,” recalls Ajak, who witnessed this suffering as a seven-year-old. “On top of that, we had constant worries of being attacked by both the northern army and the Nuer rebels.”
One night, as Ajak and some other boys played a game called Lions and Goats on the outskirts of the settlement, they heard some loud booms and knew that their encampment had come under fire. They lay down, covered their heads as they’d been instructed to do, and waited for the shooting to stop. After things quieted down, they went back to their town and didn’t see anyone — alive, that is. Those who hadn’t been killed had disappeared, leaving the boys to fend for themselves.
Eventually Ajak and his fellow Lost Boys came under the protection of the SPLA. They traveled with the soldiers, received some military training, and were even called the “Red Army.” About six months later, Ajak found his family again: His father, an SPLA officer, had asked his fellow soldiers to be on the lookout. Many of the other Lost Boys, of course, were not so fortunate, and remain orphans to this day.
Life was not easy for Ajak, despite the family reunion. Taking advantage of the SPLA fissure, northern forces began driving southerners off their land. In 1992, Ajak and others had to make another walk — this the most grueling of all, because it occurred during two months of the dry season. They hiked hundreds of miles in searing heat, often going for days without a drop of water. Many died of thirst along the way.
Arriving in Kapoeta, in the southeastern corner of the country, they were once again attacked by northern fighters, who took over the town. Then they walked through the desert to a refugee camp in northern Kenya. Ajak remained in Kenya until 2001, when he joined more than 3,000 other Lost Boys who took advantage of an offer to come to the United States.
He lived in Philadelphia with a man who hosted three other Sudanese boys. The 17-year-old Ajak entered 11th grade, despite the fact that he spoke no English and had the equivalent of an eighth-grade education at best. On top of his efforts to learn English, catch up with his classmates, and get acclimated to American culture, he took a job loading and unloading packages with ups, so that he could have money to send home to his mother. He still managed to do well enough in school to get into LaSalle College in Philadelphia. As an underclassman in 2006, he came to the Kennedy School as part of a public policy leadership conference, which helped pique his interest in graduate school.
Upon graduating from LaSalle in 2007, Ajak chose to continue his studies at the Kennedy School for several reasons. First, he felt the Master in Public Administration in International Development program was just what he was looking for.
“Sudan desperately needs development,” he says. “We’ll need it in five years, and we’ll need it in ten years.” He was certain the skills he acquired in economics, management, and policy would help him contribute to his country.
Second, he was inspired by the ideals the Kennedy School embodies and the dedication to public service it instills. “This school offers a way to turn that passion into concrete policy steps,” he says.
Finally, “the fact that I was going to Harvard would mean a lot to other Lost Boys who didn’t have the chance,” he says. “It shows that everything is possible. With the right combination of luck and opportunity, you can accomplish anything if you work hard for it.”
Ajak is anxious to return to Sudan because he feels he is “racing with time.” In a referendum slated for March 2011, southern Sudanese citizens will vote on whether to remain part of Sudan or become independent.
“If we are to become an independent nation,” he says, “there’s much to be done to get ourselves ready to run our own affairs.”
Though he’s prepared to serve his country any way he can, Ajak believes that working for southern Sudan’s Ministry of Defense might make the most sense. “A lot of our challenges today are security related. The peace agreements must be protected, not only by soldiers but also by having the right policies in place.”
Every generation going back to his father’s, grandfather’s, and great-grandfather’s has faced war with the north. This cycle has to stop, Ajak says. “Even though terrible experiences prepare you for whatever challenges you might encounter later, I don’t want the people of Sudan to ever have to go through that again.”