South Sudan delegates revel in new nation status, wonder where in New York they're going to work and live
12:50 pm Jul. 20, 2011
“Now we’ve been recognized, where are we going to sleep tonight?”
Miyong Kuon was walking back to the Doubletree Hotel at 51st and Lexington, where he and the rest of the United Nations delegation from the new nation of South Sudan had been staying, so he did, in fact, have somewhere to lay his head for the night. But behind his joke was a salient point.
A few hours ealier, the General Assembly had unanimously voted to admit the Republic of South Sudan as the U.N.’s 193rd member, and now there were myriad details to be attended to.
For starters, Kuon and his colleagues needed to get diplomatic tags for their cars, and they needed to get more cars. (Some of the delegation members who had left the U.N. building with Kuon had been whisked away in a gleaming black SUV with ordinary Virginia tags, but a good half-dozen of them didn’t have any transportation at all and had decided to walk.)
I had been trying to get in touch with someone from the government of South Sudan for the better part of a month, but what with declaring independence from the north, celebrating the birth of their nation and trying to get roads built, businesses started and medical facilities off the ground, officials had been hard to reach. A consular officer finally found a minute to call me from the U.N. after the ceremony and suggested I meet her and her colleagues there in the Indonesian Lounge, where they were having meetings.
They ended up having to meet me outside the building. A guard at the security booth outside the U.N. building had advised me that “anyone with a delegate's tag can escort you in,” but the South Sudanese still had temporary tags.
At least the South Sudanese weren’t hard to spot: Nearly everyone in the delegation was over six feet tall and imposing. Kuon was carrying some camera equipment he’d used to tape the days’ events, but the lack of wheels was particularly burdensome for him. When the group he was walking with stopped in front of the building where they were scheduled to meet with the Colombian Ambassador to the United Nations—they’d been having bilateral talks all day with officials from other countries proffering their expertise—he opted to go back to the hotel so he could dump his gear.
He, like the rest of the delegation, was coming down from the high of the past few days’ events and was starting to get tired. Now that the rousing part was over—the singing of a new national anthem, the hoisting of newly sewn flags, the delivery of a number of moving speeches—it was time to turn to the more mundane work.
There were countless details to be attended to, including making determinations about how to deal with journalists and who should take responsibility for doing it.
I asked Kuon, who had been my point man for the day, whether he was going to be the press liaison from now on.
“That is a question that needs to be answered,” he said, diplomatically. That would be his response to many of the questions I asked him that day.
A few matters had already been taken care of. South Sudan had been assigned its seat in the General Assembly—delegates sit in alphabetical order, and they would be on the aisle, next to Spain. The delegation from Sudan, the nation from which they had just seceded after a 32-year civil war, occupies the chair on the other side of the Spanish delegate.
“They’re going to have to be good mediators,” Kuon said, deadpan.
But even though they had a seat, the Southern Sudanese still didn’t have a desk at the U.N. Kuon had a manila envelope tucked under his arm that contained the forms that needed to be filled out to apply for office space.
We reached the Doubletree and I sat down in the lobby to wait for Kuon to dump his gear and come back down. After a few minutes, he called me on my cell phone and instructed me to come up to one of the delegation’s rooms on the 18th floor.
I took the elevator and found him sitting in the hallway. He escorted me to a suite and introduced me to South Sudan’s vice president Riek Machar. Machar was one of the earliest members of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army, having taken up arms in 1983 after earning a PhD in strategic planning. He’d been fighting for independence for much of his adult life, and now it was real.
“It’s a lifetime dream,” he said.
He talked about the challenges of translating that dream into a functioning reality.
“I’m apprehensive about how to meet the aspirations of the people,” Machar said. “They want services and development. We have to turn South Sudan from a backward state into a developing state.”
“We will have no excuses; we used to blame Khartoum,” he said.
Machar will be doing his work in Juba, the capital of South Sudan.
The man who has been laying much of the diplomatic groundwork for him and his colleagues in the new government is Ezekiel Lol Gatkuoth who, as head of mission for the transitional government, spent the past few years effectively serving as his unrecognized nation’s ambassador both to Washington and to the United Nations. Essentially, he has been the one checking items off South Sudan’s to-do list in preparation for independent nationhood. Now, he has a whole new list of tasks.
Where will the ambassador to the U.N. live, for example? And how does one go about finding a suitable residence?
It turns out there are real estate agents who specialize in that kind of thing.
“They’ve been calling me,” Gatkouth said. “A lot of them.”
And the mission?
“Uganda is offering space in New York, in Uganda House,” he said.
The South Sudanese government still hasn’t appointed a U.N. ambassador, which Machar says will be done in the next few weeks, hopefully before September, when the General Assembly convenes and many of the year’s most important decisions are made. Until an ambassador can be sworn in, a couple of junior officers have been sent up to “keep the seat warm,” Machar said.
The delegation was expected that evening at the residence of Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., who was throwing a fancy party in their honor. The banalities could wait—this was a day to look back and reflect on the decades of war that led up to it.
“Here, it was emotional,” Machar said.
Being recognized in front of all the worlds’ nations brought home the reality of what they’d accomplished. After he’d given his speech at the U.N. and had been escorted back to the office of the president of the General Assembly, the former guerrilla commander sat down and cried.
“Here, we are at the mercy of others,” he said, referring to the family of nations who, in one voice, recognized the existence of the Republic of South Sudan. “Here we say, ‘Finally. We made it.’”