My 8 children: orphaned by tribal war
Dukan Diew breathed a prayer as she scrolled through the listings on her smartphone.
It was a gray Tuesday — Dec. 17, 2013 — and she'd been napping before her shift as an overnight supervisor at a Des Moines residential treatment center. Now she skimmed through 36 missed calls from relatives and friends in Iowa and South Sudan, seeking the name that mattered most: her husband's.
Their kids would be out of school soon, so she pulled on a coat and grabbed the keys to her minivan, returning a call from one of her husband's cousins in Des Moines. "Your brother made it to the U.N. Mission," he said, "but your husband is not there."
Both knew this meant that Koang Toang was, at best, running for his life. What Dukan didn't know that day was that the journey ahead would be her own — a year of seeking answers in her husband's disappearance and figuring out how to help her family let go of a father, brother and cousin whose fate might never be known.
A dual citizen of Nuer descent, Koang, 43, had returned to South Sudan in 2010 to take a job with its newly independent government. But on Dec. 15, 2013, an ethnic-based dispute between the president and vice president had erupted.
For two days, Nuer citizens had flooded into the United Nations base in Juba, telling of family members shot down as they ran from Presidential Guard forces. For two days, Dukan had prayed.
Now she put the phone on speaker, listening to messages, returning calls. Some said Koang had been spotted at the U.N. base; others said he'd been last seen facedown at gunpoint on a Juba street.
Dukan, 36, had run from war as a child and knew how to function within its chaos. As she arrived at the school, she decided to tell her kids — then ages 3 through 16 — the truth as she saw it: Their dad had been captured, but they would assume he was in jail. She resolved to stay strong.
But that day, a wound began to break open for her. If the kids lost their dad, they would grow up with an emptiness she and Koang had both known. Was it some kind of curse? She pushed down the thought.
In Dukan's earliest memories, she sees a beach where a tributary of the Nile River curved near her village, Jikou, on Sudan's eastern border with Ethiopia. In the heat of the day, she and her cousins played along its banks while aunts and uncles looked on. When the air cooled, they walked home together.
Born in the late 1970s, Dukan started life during a rare decade of peace in a place that has known little of it since 1956, when the Sudan was released from British and Egyptian rule. (Story continues at The Des Moines Register, Christmas Day, 2014)