The plight of the thousands of Sudanese boys separated from their families and living in Kenyan refugee camps has recently been highlighted by the resettlement of some of them in the United States.(1) What was less clear has been the involvement of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) rebel movement in the tragic history of Sudan’s “lost boys”, and the SPLA’s purposeful and continuing complicity in the abduction of minors for use of child soldiers. Less than a quarter of the 17,000 boys originally abducted by the SPLA as child soldiers have been accounted for. This systematic abuse of children, and the disappearance of thousands of other Sudanese children while in SPLA control has seemingly been ignored at the same time as Sudan is being pressed to account for the alleged abduction of Ugandan children by the Lord’s Resistance Army rebel movement in Uganda. In signing an agreement with Uganda at the September 2000 international conference on war-affected children in Winnipeg, Canada, Khartoum would appear to have sought to encourage the international community to apply an even-handed approach to the issue of child abduction. (2) It is important that Sudanese concerns, as illustrated by the “lost boys” are understood.
The SPLA has long been identified with a planned, long-term policy of abducting children for use by their organisation. The SPLA’s direct role in abducting more than ten thousand young southern Sudanese boys and holding them against their will in abysmal conditions has been well-documented. The 1991 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices placed on record that the SPLA had “forcibly conscripted at least 10,000 male minors.” (3)
Human Rights Watch/Africa and the Children’s Rights Project published Sudan: The Lost Boys, which described the removal of young boys from southern Sudan by the SPLA in what has been described as the “warehousing” of children for subsequent use in the war.(4) These children are unaccompanied and the SPLA have refused any attempts at family reunification. Once suitably isolated these children were then used as child soldiers by the SPLA.
The SPLA’s purposeful abduction and isolation of southern Sudanese children can be seen as a corrupted and less sophisticated version of the Nazi use of youngsters for political and military ends, the result of which was a grouping of child soldiers within the SPLA known as the “Red Army”. The SPLA’s abduction and gathering of children, and their subsequent treatment, is dealt with over almost thirty pages in Civilian Devastation: Abuses by All Parties in the War in Southern Sudan.(5) In a separate study, Human Rights Watch/Africa concluded that:
“The primary purpose, however, of luring and keeping thousands of boys away from their families and in separate boys-only camps was, in the judgment of Human Rights Watch, a military purpose. This resulted in the training and recruitment of thousands of underage soldiers who were thrust into battle in southern Sudan and briefly in Ethiopia.” (6)
In late 1994, Human Rights Watch/Africa and its Children’s Rights Project published Child Soldiers and Unaccompanied Boys in Southern Sudan. The report was based on a fact-finding visit to Sudan, Kenya and Uganda. Human Rights Watch/Africa documented the SPLA’s use and abuse of boys as young as seven years of age. Thousands of these children were held in SPLA camps in Ethiopia and elsewhere. Human Rights Watch/Africa reported that “the conditions in some of these camps have been described as ‘heartrending’: no schooling, no hygiene, few caretakers, ragged clothing, disease and little food.” Human Rights Watch/Africa returned to this issue in September 1995. In a press release it stated that:
“The rebel SPLA has long had a policy of separating boys from their homes and families for military training…Thousands of boys went to the Ethiopian refugee camps hoping for an education and received mostly military training in segregated facilities for “unaccompanied boys.” The SPLA inducted boys as young as eleven into its ranks. The separation of unaccompanied boys from their families continued when the refugees fled back into Sudan in 1991…boys in ‘unaccompanied minors’ schools in Eastern Equatoria were called up in 1994 and 1995, while the SPLA continued to recruit minors, a practice it denies. The ‘unaccompanied boys’ under its control now number about 4,500.”
Human Rights Watch/Africa also clearly documented John Garang’s refusal to cooperate with attempts to reunite young boys under his control with their families:
“In 1993 UNICEF began a project to reunify willing unaccompanied boys in southern Sudan with their willing families. The SPLA never cooperated with UNICEF’s family reunification program, preferring to keep the boys together and close to military facilities, to call them up when needed.”
On 13 June 1996, Lois Whitman, the director of the Children’s Rights Project of Human Rights Watch, Peter Takirambudde, director of Human Rights Watch/Africa, and Jemera Rone, Human Rights Watch’s counsel and Sudan researcher, wrote to John Garang on the issue of the SPLA use of child soldiers and the treatment of Sudanese children in SPLA camps. Human Rights Watch called on the SPLA to stop using Sudanese boys in UNHCR camps in Fugnido and Dima, in Ethiopia, as underage soldiers. The Human Rights Watch/Africa letter clearly stated that “the SPLA is still continuing in this highly irregular practice, one which is detrimental to the future of the boys concerned as well as to the future of the south as a whole.”
Human Rights Watch/Africa has also recorded the almost wanton way in which these boys are used by the SPLA. The ‘Red Army’ mentioned above was described by a SPLA officer as: “Young people, ages fourteen to sixteen…(when) the Red Army fought…(it) was always massacred…They were not good soldiers because they were too young.” (7)
All this and more was confirmed by Scott Peterson, currently the Middle East correspondent for The Christian Science Monitor. He has covered the Sudanese conflict for several years, and is clearly no friend of the Sudanese government. His 2000 book Me Against My Brother: At War in Somalia, Sudan, and Rwanda: A Journalist Reports From the Battlefields of Africa, a graphic account of the “Lost Boys”:
“The drama of civilians locked in southern Sudan is perhaps best described in the saga of the Lost Boys. Their odyssey carried them 1,000 miles in six years, tracking across an expanse half as large as Europe…In the late 1980s, more than 17,000 southern Sudanese boys were separated from their parents, most of them lured to rebel “refugee” camps in Ethiopia for “education.” The exodus of boys from Sudan became routine and was promoted by the SPLA…Some boys went willingly, others were collected during rebel sweeps of villages. Though fed in the Ethiopia camps, they were completely controlled by the rebels: UN and relief workers were forbidden to stay in the camps overnight, or even to linger beyond 3 pm, for “security” reasons. That was when military training began.
Boys older than 12 years were given full military courses. Boys as young as seven were trained only during school “breaks”. The battalions created by these children came to be known among the rebels as the “Red Army.” They were deployed alongside regular SPLA units, but with little success. “In the first few years, the Red Army fought and was always massacred,” one former rebel officer said. “They were taken off the front line. They were not good soldiers because they were so young.” Nevertheless, when Ethiopian dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam was on the verge of being overthrown by Eritrean and Tigrean rebels in 1990 and 1991, the SPLA provided Red Army units to fight in the Ethiopian army. Again, few survived…
The practice of using children as fighters, as cannon fodder or as slaves behind the front lines, was so comprehensive that even the SPLA seemed to have recognized how damaging this image of these boys under arms could be. Garang denied the existence of the Red Army, but even in this admission fudged his own responsibility. He claimed that he did not know what his commanders have been “doing with kids.” (8)
In addition to being responsible for the slaughter of thousands of young boys, often in pointless, “human wave” attacks, the SPLA is also directly responsible for the deaths by starvation or disease of thousands of other minors. SPLA national executive member Dr Peter Nyaba has actually criticized the fact that no-one within the SPLA leadership was held accountable for such deaths. (9)
Where are the Nuba Children?
Also forgotten are the thousands of Nuba children who have been removed from their parents by the SPLA. Their ultimate fate is still unknown. An indication as to what may have happened to many of them was given the above-mentioned Dr Nyaba. In his 1997 book, The Politics of Liberation in South Sudan: An Insider’s View, Nyaba criticized the SPLA for not disciplining those of its members responsible for the deaths of thousands of under-age Nuba children:
“For instance, the officer responsible for Bilpam was not held accountable for the deaths from starvation and related diseases of nearly three thousand Nuba youths under training in 1988. And yet it was known that their food was being sold at the Gambella market, and the proceeds appropriated by the commander. Similarly, the deaths from hunger and starvation of hundreds of recruits in the Dimma refugee camp were not investigated.” (10)
There are still thousands of Nuba mothers anxiously awaiting news of what happened to their children. Their plight has been ignored by the international community. The whereabouts of the thousands of Nuba children taken by the SPLA and who still have not been returned to their parents, or accounted for, has never once featured.
That the SPLA continues to purposefully abduct young boys for use as child soldiers to this day is all too obvious. In his September 2000 report, for example, the United Nations Special Rapporteur for human rights in the Sudan, Leonardo Franco, stated that there were several reports that the SPLA “were forcefully recruiting children” in southern Sudan.(11) Many of the thousands of abducted Sudanese children are in SPLA bases in northern Uganda, whose government provides military and logistical support for the SPLA – a government which has itself ruthlessly used child soldiers in its past.
As touched on by Human Rights Watch/Africa, the future of southern Sudan has clearly been jeopardized by this SPLA policy. The damage that has been done to traditional society in southern Sudan and the Nuba mountains by John Garang and the SPLA is incalculable. It is perhaps a sad reality that Garang has done more to destroy traditional life and cultural structures in southern Sudan and the Nuba Mountains than any central government in Khartoum. It is also crucial that the international community respond to legitimate Sudanese concerns about these children while also focusing on the equally tragic issue of the Ugandan children.
See, for example, ‘Young Sudanese Refugees Reaching End of Long Journey’, News Article by Associated Press, 7 November 2000; ‘About 3,800 Sudanese Refugees to be Resettled in U.S.’, News Article by Xinhua, on 13 November 2000; ‘Lost Children of Sudan Find a Home ï¿½ in Seattle’, The Seattle Times, 22 November 2000; ‘Two of Sudan’s Young Wandering Refugees Begin New Life in America’, News Article by Associated Press on 13 November 2000.
‘Sudan, Uganda Sign Pact to Return Abducted Children’, News Article by Agence France Presse, 17 September 2000.
Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 1991, United States Department of State, Washington-DC, 1992, p.382.
Children of Sudan, Human Rights Watch/Africa, New York, 1995, p.75.
Civilian Devastation: Abuses by All Parties in the War in Southern Sudan, Human Rights Watch/Africa, London 1994, pp.195-224.
Children of Sudan, op. cit., p. 75.
Human Rights Watch/Africa, press release for Child Soldiers and Unaccompanied Boys in Southern Sudan, New York, 11 November 1994.
Scott Peterson, Me Against My Brother: At War in Somalia, Sudan, and Rwanda: A Journalist Reports From the Battlefields of Africa, Routledge, London, 2000, pp. 238-244.
Peter Nyaba, The Politics of Liberation in South Sudan: An Insider’s View, Fountain Publishers, Kampala, 1997, p.55.
Situation of Human Rights in the Sudan, Interim Report of the Special Rapporteur on Human Rights on the Situation of Human Rights in the Sudan, United Nations General Assembly, A/55/374, 11 September 2000.
The European-Sudanese Public Affairs Council sent this media contribution to Media Monitors Network (MMN)