Student discusses his missing nieces with South Sudan president

Kou Solomon waited for days in D.C. to enlist the president’s help in finding his kidnapped nieces.

by Lindsay Guentzel

On Saturday, graduate students Kou Solomon and Amanda Lyons sat in the lobby of the Hilton Hotel in Washington, D.C., with hopes of speaking to Salva Kiir Mayardit, the president of South Sudan.

For the past month, Solomon, Lyons and their classmates have been working toward the safe return of Solomon’s two nieces, Yar and Ajak, who were abducted from their village in South Sudan Oct. 3 as part of the Murle conflict.

After hearing that Kiir was going to be in Washington to meet with U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, the group of students decided to take their case to the capitol.

Solomon and Lyons, along with graduate students Robyn Skrebes and James E. Collins, left Nov. 7 hoping to arrange a meeting with Kiir.

The group had been contacting South Sudan’s diplomatic mission in Washington to try to set up an interview with the president. An interview was initially granted for Friday, but then canceled.

The four students didn’t give up. Instead, they spent Friday night waiting in the hotel lobby trying to secure another meeting.

Graduate student Dan Bernard, who was the group’s contact in Minnesota during their trip, said Ezekiel Gatkuoth, the head of the diplomatic mission, finally told the group they could meet Kiir on Saturday.

“You don’t just drop in on African presidents,” he said.

But there was still no guarantee and Lyons said the group had started to give up on the idea of meeting Kiir. They had already extended their plane tickets to Saturday and Skrebes and Collins had left for Minnesota at that point.

Solomon and Lyons were disappointed when Gatkuoth came down at 9 a.m. Saturday and told them Kiir was busy eating breakfast and they would not be meeting with him, she said.

But they waited and it paid off – around 9:45 a.m., Gatkuoth returned and ushered the students upstairs, Lyons said.

“We didn’t know until the minute that we were called that we would be meeting him,” she said. “The only thing he said to us was, ‘Do you have your camera?’ “

Solomon said meeting Kiir was important for not only his nieces, but for the other children in South Sudan who have been abducted.

“It is time for it to be stopped,” he said.

Lyons, president of the University’s Amnesty International Legal Support Network, started the group’s online petition Oct. 16 and delivered a printout of the more than 1,100 signatures to Kiir during the meeting.

It was important for him to see that this is an issue a lot of people care about, Solomon said.

“They knew it was a broader issue that comes up a lot,” he said. “It was a wake-up call.”

While the group asked Kiir for “peaceful persuasion” in returning the children, Kiir told them the overarching issue will be dealt with differently, Bernard said.

“He made it clear that he plans to use military force to deal with the Murle community,” he said.

Kiir said 1,500 troops are awaiting the country’s dry season in order to act, Lyons said, which would be in late November or early December.

Bernard said the group is afraid that the children’s lives could be endangered with the use of military force.

The group’s determination is apparent because it is not easy to set up a meeting with an African president, he said.

“The fact that these guys were able to get in there to meet with him is a testament to their perseverance,” Bernard said.

Prior to meeting with Kiir, the group spent time meeting with U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and legislative assistants from other offices.

“We never heard a ‘no,’ ” Collins said. “They were extremely supportive of what we were doing.”

The group said U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum (D-Minn.) was especially helpful in supporting the cause; during a briefing with Kiir, she brought up the abductions and presented him with information on the case.

“She really championed this,” Bernard said.

McCollum said in a statement she wants the U.S. State Department to work with South Sudan to ensure these abductions end and the children are returned to their families.

“Yar and Ajak’s abduction puts human faces on the suffering of so many children in Sudan,” McCollum said in the statement.

Solomon said while he doesn’t know what will happen with his nieces, he is happy with their Washington trip.

“We accomplished so much,” Solomon said. “It was a successful weekend.”