It’s 9 p.m. and Sarah Chan’s high heels are clacking at top speed across this Woodley Park hotel lobby. She’s rushing hundreds of her South Sudanese brethren into cabs so they won’t miss President Salva Kiir, who’s speaking at a hotel a mile away.
With the birth of a nation comes the birth of its embassy, a powerful emblem of its legitimacy and an assertion of the country’s identity on the world stage. South Sudan will soon officially join Washington’s 190 embassies, and Chan is one of 14 employees working for the fledging mission, whose first big undertaking is Kiir’s mid-December visit here as part of a U.S. government-hosted South Sudan development conference.
It was a grand, two-day coming-out party for the world’s newest nation, with a speech by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and meetings with a lineup of elites from Washington’s international, political, diplomatic and aid-and-trade communities.
Kiir’s location wasn’t announced until the very last minute, a reminder that not everyone was eager to welcome the new country, whose July 9, 2011, independence redrew the map of the world.
“Sisters, brothers — hurry! Our president has arrived! We have to go !” Chan called out.
Tonight, Chan commands attention. That’s partly because she’s the daughter of Sudan People’s Liberation Army commander Chan Dak, who was killed while fighting in the region’s long struggle for independence.
Newly emerged from a brutal 25-year conflict that killed an estimated 2 million people, South Sudan is still building its foreign diplomatic service. While some of the Washington mission’s top envoys are trained in diplomacy, others, like Chan, are homespun talent.
What they lack in polish, they make up for in pathos.
“My feet are burning, but I have to keep running,” says Chan, who now lives in Alexandria. The curly-haired 24-year-old was dressed in her “most Washington outfit” — gray pants and a matching vest. “You know, we are all a little new at this. But we are so happy. If my father could see me now, he would know he didn’t die in vain.”
In a luxurious Dupont Circle hotel ballroom, Kiir is wearing his trademark cowboy hat, a sign that he’s a man of the people — a resonant gesture in a nation that is still largely made up of cattle herders and farmers who live in mud hut villages with few paved roads and sporadic electricity.
He welcomes the audience, a mix of Sudanese diasporans, U.N. officials and American business leaders interested in investing in the oil-rich nation.
Kiir, a former rebel commander, tells the crowd that South Sudan is now safe. He pauses. “Except for the places I listed earlier.” Some in the crowd laugh — they find his lack of calculated public relations skills endearing, they say.
Then a delegation of Sudanese villagers who were flown in to attend this International Engagement Conference spontaneously interrupt the speech with liberation songs once sung by child fighters. Even here in Washington, the Sudanese tradition of clapping and singing in the middle of a leader’s speech is difficult to tamp down. It’s in such stark contrast to the buttoned-up culture of Washington that, once again, there’s a smattering of laughter.
Unlike many Washington embassies, South Sudan’s does not yet have a high-powered K Street public relations firm. “We are doing everything on our own. But that’s going to change soon,” said Deng Deng Nhial, deputy head of the mission, who was working in corporate America until he was tapped by South Sudan’s leaders to get diplomatic training at the Netherlands Institute of International Relations Clingendael.
“Our country’s people have such a long story of struggle. Explaining our story will be the work of the embassy — introducing Washington and the community of nations to South Sudan and letting them know we are not just about war anymore. We are open for business.”
In many ways, the role of the new embassy will be to define who and what South Sudan is now, said Lawrence Dunham, former assistant chief for protocol for diplomatic affairs with the State Department — the point of contact for foreign embassies. He suggests that Americans might confuse South Sudan’s war for independence with the conflict in Darfur, which is in western Sudan and is largely a separate issue.
“Washington is a crossroads for everything, and the South Sudan Embassy absolutely needs to be here,” Dunham said. “But at first they may not have a large pool of career diplomats to select from. That’s happened in other countries before. But that will be part of the journey. It’s an exciting moment for South Sudan.”
Leading the Washington mission is Ezekiel Lol Gatkuoth, a former fighter with a degree in criminal justice from the University of Maryland. Gatkuoth was the South Sudan rebel group’s political representative to Washington before South Sudan officially broke away. And, at 6-foot-8, he is the tallest envoy in Washington, according to the Washington Diplomat.
He’s also one of the busiest. The mission will officially become an embassy by next month, he said, when it will be formally recognized by both the U.S. government and South Sudan’s new ministry of foreign affairs. “The U.S. is our most important relationship. It’s going to be nonstop busy. There won’t be time to sleep,” Gatkuoth said at the conference. “But it’s a very joyous moment. And some people never thought it would come.”
While embassies may seem like introverted bureaucracies where papers are shuffled behind closed doors, they are actually vital outposts for a country’s chamber of commerce, said Stephen Fuller, a public policy professor at George Mason University who studies the impact of embassies on the region’s economy. “It’s what makes Washington a magnetic force for businesses who want to work in those 190 countries with embassies,” he said.
The new embassy is drawing from an ad hoc talent pool. Many, like Chan, are part of a new generation, the children of the country’s lionized fighters. They’ve hired drivers and security from the Sudanese diaspora, some who fought for their country’s freedom, others who were just looking for work. There are also staffers like Nyakan Gile Lul, a Sudanese refugee who was managing the front desk at a Washington area Hilton several years ago when she noticed the leaders of her country’s independence movement reserving rooms and setting up offices.
When she heard the mission was open, she applied for a job right away.
“It’s giving back to your country,” she said. “To know that what we had been dreaming of, our own freedom, our own nation, really happened. I had to be a part of that.”
The mission is in a suite of offices on the sixth floor of a modern office building at M and 20th streets NW. The Embassy of Vietnam is in the same building, as are law offices and a college prep business. It’s only six blocks from the Embassy of Sudan.
On any given day, the new mission of South Sudan receives visits and calls from the country’s storied “lost boys,” children of war who were separated from their families during the violence. Some are living in the Washington area in resettlement programs — and hoping for a job, any job, at the mission. They also field requests from Sudanese Americans who want their U.S. student loans waived so they can move back to South Sudan and use their education to build the new nation.
A former Miss South Sudan — Cecilia Adeng, 25 — stops by to say hello. She used to work for the mission, but she was tapped to move back to the new nation’s capital, Juba, and work in the president’s office.
The mission’s most passionate booster is Emmanuel Jal, a former child soldier who is now an international hip-hop star and activist. Jal, whose harrowing story was chronicled in the documentary and memoir “War Child,” describes himself as a modern-day nomad. He performs around the world and visits South Sudan’s similar missions in South Africa and London. But he says the one in Washington is the most responsive.
Gatkuoth took him out for Ethiopian food during his last trip to Washington, Jal said, and the two spent hours talking Sudanese politics.
“I’m a people’s advocate. If the government’s not doing right, then I am going to say it,” he said. “All our efforts could be lost if the oil money is exploited and causes more fighting. ”
Jal is on hand for the president’s speech, and for a dance party the same evening. Chan is there, too, dancing as a DJ plays Jal’s hip-hop songs about fighting in the African bush as a child.
In the midst of a Sudanese line dance, she stops. She takes in the scene, one she finds amazing after so many years of war. On the dance floor, older USAID officials in suits are dancing with a delegation of Sudanese women brought to Washington for the conference and for a gender empowerment meeting with U.N. Women and the Institute for Inclusive Security.
“All of those women have family who were slaughtered during the war,” Chan said. “They have suffered more than we can understand.
“But look at us now. I’m sad because of all the people we lost. But at the same time, I am so happy. We are in a history-making period now,” she says. “We have something that’s ours. We have to make sure it’s good.”