- Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School

Belfer Center Fellow Peter Ajak Navigates Challenges from Lost Boy to South Sudanese Activist

| Spring 2023

Peter Ajak is a Postdoctoral Fellow with the Belfer Center's International Security Program.

A South Sudanese peace activist, a scholar, former political prisoner, and a former child soldier and Lost Boy of Sudan, Peter Ajak’s life has been consumed with the commitment to bring freedom to his people. He has literally fought for his country since he was a child. 

“I was born only a few months after the Civil War (in Sudan) started in 1983. And from the time I was five years old, we were displaced to Ethiopia,” he said. “My father enrolled me in what was called the Red Army.”  

Ajak’s father was a leader in the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM). “He was preparing to leave because he was returning to the front line, and one evening, he called me [to explain his decision] and said, all these other children here, there is no difference between you and them, and you as a generation need to understand what it is we are fighting for,” Ajak said. 

The goal of the war was to “change Sudan, so that religion and ethnic identity should not have a place and people should be treated based on the content of their character, sort of like what the Americans are trying to achieve here,” Ajak said, “so we called it the New Sudan.” 

"Ajak with the then South Sudan Chief of Defense Forces, Gen. Gabriel Jok Riak, after attending a veteran event in Juba."
Peter Ajak with the then South Sudan Chief of Defense Forces, Gen. Gabriel Jok Riak, after attending a veteran event in Juba.

The Red Army was a group of refugee children recruited by the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM). Named the Red army to curry support from Communist-supported Ethiopia against a U.S.- backed Sudan, Ajak and the other children were initially not sent to fight but rather were trained to survive and taught Marxist ideology.

Ajak stayed at the camp for two and half years. He said several children died because they were not immunized against the typical childhood diseases. In 1991 the Ethiopian government they relied on was overthrown by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), who were being supported by the Sudanese government. “When the TPLF came to power, they kicked us out of Ethiopia. We fled to South Sudan and started having a lot of problems because of the end of Cold War,” he said.

The end of Cold War resulted in the dissolution of the Soviet Union, and the SPLM turned against itself internally. The continued loss of soldiers drove the SPLM leadership to the decision to use child soldiers by the mid 1990s, and many children like Ajak were armed as members of the Sudan People Liberation Army.

Despite the challenges presented by the hardship of life in the camps and the conditions of civil war, Ajak remained determined to learn. “I was very much interested in education, so I would just read whatever book I could get.”

As war began to turn against the SPLM, the leadership was concerned about the future of the Red Army members in the conditions of war and arranged for them and other promising young South Sudanese to flee to Kakuma refugee camp in Northern Kenya for safety and education. The leadership called them, “the seeds of the nation” and wanted them to access better schooling than was possible in South Sudan.

The United States government at the time had just begun an initiative to bring young South Sudanese displaced boys to be resettled and integrated in the U.S. from Kenyan refugee camps. “The Lost Boys of Sudan” initiative, as it came to be called, resettled about 4000 boys, including Ajak, who was sent to Pennsylvania in January 2001. There, he struggled to adjust as he attended high school and learned English. Following high school, he attended LaSalle University and from there, he applied and was accepted at Harvard Kennedy School.

“I came here to Kennedy School, did the MPAID [Master of Public Administration in International Development] program, then I returned to Sudan,” he said. At the Kennedy School, Ajak sky-rocketed to popularity after he mistakenly sent a party invitation email meant for students to the entire school, including faculty. That email put him on the radar of Nicholas Burns, Samantha Power, Tarek Masoud, and other Harvard professors who would not forget him.

When he returned to Sudan, he worked at the World Bank until South Sudan got its independence in 2011. From there he joined the government of South Sudan as Senior Advisor to the Minister of National Security. Ajak’s goal there was to focus on security institutions. “Our experience in Sudan has taught us that if you don't get the security institutions right, they will always undermine everything, whether it is democracy or development,” he said.

But his tenure in the government was short-lived. Ajak and the Minister, “who believed in human security - the broader definition of security to include economic security, political security, and of course, physical security” soon ran into conflict with the president and his lieutenants, “who saw security essentially as the survival of Kiir’s regime,” Ajak said.

Ajak resigned when the Minister was fired two years later and decided to pursue a PhD in political science at the University of Cambridge in the UK. He said, “I was a child during the liberation struggle, and I left toward the end of it, so I wanted to understand what really happened and I felt like I needed to do it in an academic environment.”

Civil War broke out in South Sudan as Ajak began his PhD in 2013 and, feeling compelled to speak out against the South Sudanese government, he began building a youth activist movement. “Our politics have always been militarized. This has tilted the scale toward armed actors and those who are nonviolent have always been shut out. We couldn't really build a sustainable future through politics of violence, so, I wanted elections, and I wanted a generational exit,” he said, explaining he wanted a new generation to take power in South Sudan. 

A side view of Peter Ajak holding multiple microphones as he speaks on stage.

Peter Ajak speaks at Dr. John Garang’s Mausoleum in Juba, South Sudan, at a rally organized by veteran groups in support of democratic elections.

He returned to South Sudan, where he survived two assassination attempts and numerous threats and warnings as he grew his movement, the South Sudan Young Leaders Forum. In July 2018, he was detained and kept in solitary confinement for two years in South Sudan’s infamous ‘Blue House’ prison.

Ajak’s network of friends and faculty at Harvard, the U.S and British governments, and within African countries put pressure on the South Sudanese government. “Everybody was calling the ambassador. People did petitions. There were a bunch of activities in the [Kennedy School JFK Jr.] Forum,” he said. He was released to Kenya for medical treatment and to join his family. 

“Then the South Sudanese government tried to kill me in Kenya in July 2020, in the middle of COVID,” Ajak said. 

He reached out to friends in the U.S. for help in getting him and his family out of harm’s way. They were granted visas to the U.S., and Ajak accepted a fellowship at National Defense University and the National Endowment for Democracy. Later, at the suggestion of Nicholas Burns, then professor with the Kennedy School’s Belfer Center and now U.S. Ambassador to China, he applied for a postdoctoral fellowship with the Belfer Center’s International Security Program (ISP) and was accepted. 

During his Belfer Center fellowship this year, Ajak has been writing a book analyzing the political violence in South Sudan. “The idea I'm exploring in it is what explains what is happening in South Sudan right now. How do we explain this state of chaos? The idea is to try and trace the logics of authority in the South Sudan People’s Movement which heavily relies on violence. How did that become entrenched over time? And then to think about how we break that and bring in politics in a pure sense, non-violent politics.”

He said his fellowship “has been really fascinating because we have a very good group and people that are studying different things. So, it has been a really amazing learning experience for me. And then also the feedback from the faculty Stephen Walt and Steven Miller. Very intelligent. We have amazing faculty in the ISP program.”

Peter Ajak speaking on a panel with three others.

Peter Ajak speaking on "Reinvigorating People Power: Lessons Learned from Civil Resistance Leaders" at a Harvard Kennedy School event in 2023.

The Belfer Center has given Ajak “the space that I needed to think about these bigger problems that South Sudan faces in an academic environment. And it has allowed me to put everything that I have gone through together and try to make sense out of it, from my life, from childhood to my most recent life experience and then also my academic experiences. So having that space to digest all of this and try to produce something substantive out of this has been possible because of this place and the environment that it creates.” He said he would have loved to continue his fellowship but was unable to find funding for the second year. 

Ajak has these nuggets of wisdom for incoming fellows: Focus on what you came to do here, because the time really flies; There are a lot of resources here and people willing to help; Connect better, build your network; Enjoy yourself a little bit. 

As he wraps up his fellowship, he wants to thank Susan Lynch, ISP Staff Assistant. “You can send Susan an email and wait right there, counting down, three, two, one, and the email will come. She does not hesitate. She always responds. She is like an encyclopedia of everything that you need here at the Belfer Center. She has made my time here very welcome,” he said. 

Ajak is clear that the path ahead will lead him home. “My intention obviously is to return to South Sudan and continue the journey that I started,” he said. “And that journey is to make sure that South Sudan and the people of South Sudan are able to realize the aspiration for which they waged one of the longest wars in world history.” 

The first step in getting there for Ajak is giving his people an opportunity to make a choice. “We have never had elections since independence, so more than a decade, no elections,” he said. “When those elections eventually do happen, I would have to go and participate in them. So, I suspect five years from now we would have had elections and the people of South Sudan would have had the opportunity to finally choose their own leaders.” 


For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation:

Ezeokoli, Ada. "Belfer Center Fellow Peter Ajak Navigates Challenges from Lost Boy to Sudanese Activist." Belfer Center Newsletter, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School. (Spring 2023)