KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:
It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Kelly McEvers.
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
And I'm David Greene. In South Sudan, the United Nations is warning that up to a million lives are at risk from famine. This comes after months of civil war. Ethnic atrocities and reprisals have been carried out by the supporters of two bitter enemies - President Salva Kiir and his former vice president, Riek Machar, which all makes it hard to remember that just three years ago there was this -
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GREENE: - Celebration as the country gained independence after a bloody liberation struggle that went on for decades. When South Sudan won independence, Susan Page became the first U.S. ambassador to serve there. She remembers the mood when she arrived.
SUSAN PAGE: It was exciting. It was hopeful. I think everyone believed that they would be able to overcome so many of the problems that other new states had suffered from just because they had fought so long and so hard.
GREENE: A U.S.-brokered peace deal with largely Muslim northern Sudan cleared the way for the mostly Christian south to leave. That was sealed when southerners voted in favor of independence in early 2011. But looking back, Page admits things might have been rushed.
PAGE: In the run-up to the referendum, a lot of choices were made that pushed a number of issues under the carpet.
GREENE: Issues like corruption and deep ethnic divisions. By December of last year, all of it boiled over. Page and her staff found themselves holed-up in the U.S. Embassy while battles raged outside.
PAGE: The scariest part I think was for my family, because they were watching the news. And no amount of calming someone down on the phone really says everything is OK until they see you face-to-face. I have a teenage son. And him hearing my voice every day was really important for him and me.
GREENE: For Page, the low point came when she had to evacuate her staff, including one South Sudanese-American. He had fled the country once before years ago as a child soldier during the liberation war.
PAGE: Putting him on that final flight broke my heart. It was so painful to watch somebody who had invested so much to see him leave. That was the low point for me. Now having said that, about six weeks later he came back.
GREENE: What did you tell him when you put him on the plane to evacuate him and sent him to the U.S.?
PAGE: That one I have to admit. I cried. But I also got on the plane. And I said right now this is a crisis, but I believe in South Sudan. I believe in its future. And I hope and expect to see you all back here one day soon.
GREENE: Now that it is your turn to get on a plane and leave - obviously not evacuating, but you're leaving the post - I just wonder how difficult is it to leave an ambassador's post at a moment when you're leaving a country that is in worse shape than when you arrived?
PAGE: Well, I hope that doesn't mean that I'm responsible for it being in worse shape, but it's really very mixed. It's painful to leave when things are not good. But I'm leaving. And I'm going back to work in the Office of the Special Envoy for Sudan and South Sudan. So that does make it a little bit easier to depart, knowing that I helped to build up the embassy as the first ambassador - helped make some significant changes I think in the way that we do things, including not only the evacuation, but making sure that I got the right people to come back and that I got a humanitarian assistance team, you know, a rapid response team into South Sudan that can travel outside - that's working with the UN. There are still a lot of issues that need to be resolved. And I know that my successor will do a great job. And I'm doing everything possible to make sure that he or she has an easy road to go after my departure.
GREENE: You say mixed emotions. I guess just reading about how awful things are right now, I wonder, what is the positive? What gives you some level of optimism?
PAGE: The optimism is always there because I do believe in this. I believe in the people of South Sudan. And their struggles are significant. They're extremely resilient people. And that's not meant as a negative. That's a real positive. They've been through a lot. And they're also a people - even President Kiir has said this - they're traumatized. They have been at war for more years than most of the African countries have even been in existence as independent nations. So when I think back to my very first trip to then southern Sudan back in 2003 a year into the peace process and the warmth that they greeted us with, all of the dramatic changes - yes, there are problems. But there are also a lot of success stories. This country is made up of - you know, 70 percent of the population is under 30. And that's where the future is. And so the more that we can do to prepare the next generation - and I'm not talking just about political power, but as educators, as business people, entrepreneurs - they should be empowered to have those options and to live their dreams.
GREENE: Ambassador Page, thank you so much for taking the time to talk to us. And best of luck in the next job.
PAGE: Thank you very much. I appreciate it very much.
GREENE: Susan Page steps down this weekend as the first U.S. ambassador to South Sudan. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.