Philadelphia-educated South Sudanese political prisoner returns to US, recounts experience

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PHILADELPHIA (KYW Newsradio) — A Philadelphia-educated peace activist, who became a political prisoner in his home country of South Sudan, has returned to the United States. Following his recent release from captivity, he says he feared for his life, because the president of South Sudan had ordered that he be captured or killed.

Peter Biar Ajak, 36, arrived in Washington, D.C., with his family Thursday night. In a virtual news conference with reporters Friday morning, he said he thought back to the first time he fled to the U.S.

“I first came here in 2001 as a 'Lost Boy' when I was 16 years old,” he said. 

Some 20,000 young boys, the Lost Boys of Sudan, were displaced by the Second Sudanese Civil War, from 1983 to 2005, which eventually resulted in the independence of South Sudan.

Ajak attended Central High School and La Salle University. His friends from school were among those who lobbied for his freedom when he was arrested in South Sudan in 2018.

“I want to say to those people in Philadelphia — I want to say thank you. U.S. is my second home, and Philadelphia is my second home, and I can’t wait to be back in Philadelphia, to be back at La Salle and Central High School to give them my thanks,” Ajak said.

He fled to the U.S. this time from Kenya, where he had been living after his release from prison in South Sudan in January.

“For the last five weeks, I’ve been basically living, hiding, as sort of like a fugitive," he said. "It became very clear that Kenya was no longer safe for me."

As he first detailed in a Wall Street Journal op-ed published Thursday evening, he learned from senior government officials in South Sudan that President Salva Kiir wanted to have him silenced and had ordered security forces to abduct him from Kenya or kill him.

With the help of U.S. officials and his lawyer, human rights attorney Jared Genser, he obtained an emergency visa.

“It’s available in a very limited number of circumstances and very, very difficult to obtain. One of the circumstances is if a person’s life, health or safety are in absolutely grave danger,” Genser explained. “Ultimately, the State Department decided in relatively short order that the threat against Peter was credible.”

“We were sleeping on the cement. They removed all of our clothes, left only wearing underwear the whole time,” he recalled. “I went from October (2018) to March (2019) without brushing my teeth. There was a time, especially the early days, I was put in solitary confinement, where I was not even allowed to go to the bathroom.”

South Sudan became embroiled in another civil war in 2013, which left hundreds of thousands of people dead and millions more displaced. Peace agreements came and went. A presidential election that was slated to take place in 2015 was pushed back to 2018 and then 2021.

Ajak said he wants South Sudan to “ultimately get on a trajectory toward democracy and enduring peace." 

He is calling on the U.S. government to impose sanctions on Kiir, for the U.S. and United Nations to improve peacekeeping efforts in South Sudan, and for a new constitution and free and secure elections.