JUBA, South Sudan — Sitting in fading daylight in the front yard of a small hotel in Africa’s newest nation, Jimmy Makuach recounts a life torn apart by civil war.
At the age of 6, he fled the conflict that claimed the lives of both his parents. He traveled between refugee camps in Ethiopia and Kenya before eventually grabbing an opportunity to study in the United States.
Today, he is among hundreds who have returned to the new Republic of South Sudan, bringing with them the skills they learned in exile to help build their new homeland.
“Most of us who went to the U.S. are back home now,” said Mr. Makuach, 30, an aide to South Sudanese President Salva Kiir Mayardit. “I wanted to be part of history, a part of those who helped rebuild the country.”
In 2006, he traveled from his adopted home in Knoxville, Tenn., to Juba, which would become the capital of South Sudan five years later.
The war that claimed about 2 million lives from 1983 to 2005 had ended in an uneasy truce between the Arab Muslims of Sudan’s north and the black Christians and animists of the south. A referendum in January resulted in independence for South Sudan on July 9.
All of that was once an impossible dream for Mr. Makuach, one of the so-called Lost Boys of Sudan, a group of more than 20,000 children orphaned and displaced by the war.
As boys and girls, they walked for weeks and months across unforgiving terrain and waded through treacherous rivers to get to refugee camps in countries that were willing to accept them.
They came back to a nation born in extreme poverty and a high rate of illiteracy. South Sudan lacks proper infrastructure and basic services, according to the United Nations Development Program.
Its fledgling government also faces immense security challenges posed by armed rebels, rampant cattle rustling and unresolved issues with their old rulers in Khartoum.
“What we have seen outside is very exciting, and we wish we could do it in our country in two months, but that is not possible,” Mr. Makuach said as he talked about the massive challenges facing South Sudan.
“It will take time. But we have a lot of experience, and we have the opportunity to make things right.”
It is this desire to help build a country that brought Abikok Riak to South Sudan, where she serves as aid director for the Christian humanitarian organization World Vision.
Growing up in California, Ms. Riak was raised on her father’s stories about his distant homeland, which he fled at the age of 15.
“Every single conversation at the dinner table since I was a baby was about South Sudan,” she said.
Her name means “a child born in exile.”
“It is very indicative of my family’s life story,” said Ms. Riak, who arrived in Juba last year.
“You have thousands of Sudanese diaspora who have had a different life, a different culture, a different approach to things. What you now have is this wonderful merging of cultures, traditions and experiences.
“Through that merging, you have the opportunity of creating something that is different. Is it going to happen overnight? Of course not. Changing from a military mindset to a developmental, nation-building mindset is a challenge.”
Victor Dut Chol inspires that hope. In 1986, as a 9-year-old, he walked for three months to get to a refugee camp in Ethiopia. His father was killed in the war, and he was separated from the rest of his family.
The First United Methodist Church sponsored him to study in Maryville, Tenn., where he lived for 11 years.
Mr. Chol, now 32, is back in Juba, where he works with the Ministry of Education. He also is providing communities with clean drinking water, a rarity in much of the country.
“What makes you want to come back here is you know that people are going through a bad experience. A lot of the youths have no education, people are dying of diseases,” he said.
The years he spent in the United States changed his outlook on life.
“When I was here [in Sudan] as a child, I would think, ‘Will I live to see tomorrow?’ Now when I am here I think, ‘How can I bring things we had in America like education to my country?’ ” he said.
Their experiences in the United States left positive impressions on most of those who have returned to South Sudan.
Lilian Rizik, who left Sudan in 1996 and spent almost a decade in Phoenix, said she was most impressed by the American can-do attitude.
“The system they have [in the United States] is great, but that system was built by people,” she said. “We don’t have that attitude here. There are problems with corruption, nepotism and tribalism. That attitude needs to be changed.”
Ms. Rizik runs a nongovernmental organization that works on women’s rights and education.
Many who have returned talk with fondness about their lives in the United States.
Mr. Makuach, who jokingly describes himself as a “good ol’ country boy,” said he misses country music and often would wake up at 4 a.m. in South Sudan to watch National Basketball Association games.
He is a U.S. citizen, and his twin loyalties are on display in the pin that adorns his dark blue suit - a South Sudanese flag and an American flag.
All of those interviewed for this article said they did not regret their decision to return.
“Regrets? Zero,” Ms. Rizik said. “It feels great to be back. I am in my home.”