Susan Page, the first U.S. ambassador to South Sudan. / Kelly Jordan, USA TODAY
Susan D. Page was the first U.S. ambassador to the newest nation in the world, South Sudan. She arrived in 2011 amid high hopes, only to see the outbreak of civil war. On USA TODAY's Capital Download, she talks about the outbreak of violence, the reason Americans should care - and how she managed work-family balance by long distance. Questions and answers have been edited for length and clarity.
Q: There were lots of high hopes when you arrived in South Sudan in 2011.
Page: It was exciting. People on the streets were happy and proud and you saw flags everywhere. The excitement was really palpable. And the hopes were so high. People had this expectation that after independence, it would be like nirvana. Everything would suddenly arise. ...
Q: You were the first U.S. ambassador. What was your role?
Page: What we tried to do at the time was make sure the relationship between Sudan and South Sudan was a good one, and that they also could try to minimize the conflicts between the two states. ... But also to make sure that South Sudan internally was ruled peacefully, that there would be economic development, opportunity ... and help to create a stable democracy. ...
Q: When the civil war broke out in December, what was it like for you and other Americans at the embassy?
Page: We made sure we called everybody back to the compound. Events had started late in the evening. We decided to make sure that none of the staff, including the local staff, came to work the next day unless they felt like it was safe. But we didn't think that was appropriate. So luckily most people stayed home. And there were a couple of times during the first few days that we had to go into our safe havens on the residential compound because the shelling was so close to the residential compound.
Q: What's a safe haven?
Page: A safe haven is, at least in Juba, it's a trailer, and it's basically more or less bulletproof, quite safe. And inside we have provisions like water and meals ready to eat and toilets and we can see what's happening outside. But basically it's a place where you barricade yourself in, so that if you're on the compound, you are safe if there's gunfire, things like that. ....
There were a couple of us who couldn't quite make it to the safe haven, so we had to duck and cover in place where we were. So I was at the residence, and major shelling was happening, and I couldn't make it to the safe haven. So I was in my house with a bodyguard and we eventually made it once it was safe to get there.
Q: That sounds terrifying.
Page: When things are happening, you're in the moment and your adrenaline is flowing. I think, more we wanted to know what was happening and why was this happening in Juba. Because, yes, it was a political conflict. How did it become violent? What happened? Who fired the first shot and why?
It was weeks later that we started taking it a bit for granted that there was some turmoil.
Q: How did you try to find out what was going on?
Page: A number of us, we were on our cellphones. At the very beginning the cellphone coverage was very spotty, so it was very difficult to get through. A lot of people also started calling us. American citizens, non-American citizens, our own staff. ... The local staff would call in and say, this is what's happening in my area. Or, I have relatives in this town in this area and this is what's going on. So it's kind of like investigative reporting.
Q: You had to order the evacuation. Was that difficult?
Page: It was very difficult because we thought it was really important that we stay. And we had a lot of late night - very, very late night - secure video teleconferences with the State Department, the national security adviser, the Defense Department, the CIA, with basically all of the big actors, and it was they who made the decision that we would order all non-essential staff out of the embassy and also to advise all American citizens that they should leave the country.
We did a massive evacuation. Lots of flights that went out. ...
Q: It must have been disappointing, after those hopes when you had arrived.
Page: There's no question. It's disappointing, mostly for the people of South Sudan. This is not what they expected. This is not what they hoped for. Even now - it's been eight months, and it's still going on. The conflict has localized more, so it's not in Juba any more. It's now in three states. But the people of those states and in some of the other capitals where the towns have been destroyed the markets have been destroyed, the kind of human rights violations - it's just really, really sad. And now of course you have floods in certain places because of the rainy season and you also have the possibility of famine.
Q: The reports from South Sudan sound dire: More than 10,000 died in fighting. 1.5 million civilians displaced. The U.N. warns of famine.
Page: The worst part about all of this is that this is man-made. These are individuals who are fighting and they have managed to get their countrymen and women to fight on their side. And meanwhile it's the ordinary citizen that is suffering. ...
Q: How much influence does the U.S. have now?
Page: People are very well-aware that we participated a lot in the CPA (Comprehensive Peace Agreement) negotiations that ultimately led them to be able to have the referendum that created South Sudan as a state. But at the same time they're proud and rightly so. It is their country and they have to make the decisions for their country. We can assist and we can advise, but ultimately it's up to them to make the decisions.
Q: Americans worry about ISIS, about Russia and Ukraine, about the Middle East. Why should Americans pay attention to and care about what's happening in a small and distant place like South Sudan?
Page: These days the world is so interconnected that it's important that we remember - places like South Sudan, you have to remember the neighborhood that it's in. Next door is Kenya, Uganda, Somalia, Sudan. These are places where there are also terrorists operating. It's been almost a year now that the bombing occurred in Kenya at the mall. These are the kinds of things that if you have more open spaces that are not patrolled and controlled, the risks of having terrorists and others that are not what you would want in the neighborhood increase.
Q: Americans believe in democracy and self-determination. But this has been a difficult path in Egypt, Iraq, Afghanistan, South Sudan. Any lessons you learned?
Page: We expect so much, and South Sudan started off with so much less than even the nations in Africa that gained independence some 50-plus years ago. They had no paved roads. They had antiquated buildings that existed maybe from the time of the Anglo-Egyptian Condominium. They had to start everything from scratch. ...
And it takes a long time. We didn't get it right. How long did we have women who couldn't vote? How long was it only men who were landowners who could vote? African Americans weren't even considered humans. We have to remember that it does take time and that often you can't just catapult over some of these things that you have to live through before you can make changes that affect your own population.
Q: It's hard to feel optimistic about South Sudan.
Page: But when I look at the young people of South Sudan - the youth of South Sudan are the largest tribe in South Sudan. Not the Dinka, not the Nuer, not the Bari. But the youth. That is the potential of South Sudan. ...
Q: Lots of us talk about the difficulties of work-life balance. You left your husband and son in the U.S. while you were in South Sudan for three years. Was it hard?
Page: I will not lie: It was really hard. It was very difficult. We Skyped and we talked on the phone a lot. But there's nothing that can take the place of physically being present. So there were a lot of moments that I missed. My son went through freshman, sophomore and junior year of high school without me there. I was home for a few moments of different times that were really great. But I'm looking forward to being here this year and being able to see him through his senior year of high school.
Q: Did he mind?
Page: Oh yes. It's hard. We sat down and discussed it as a family before I accepted. But you don't know what you're getting into and you don't know how hard it is. My son and I are very close. It's easier for husbands and wives. You can allow each other these opportunities. But it's hard to be away from your children. So he's happy I'm home.
Read the original story: Capital Download: Hopes, then civil war in South Sudan