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. 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. 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
record that the SPLA had "forcibly conscripted at least
10, 000 male minors."
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. 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
. In a separate study, Human Rights Watch/Africa
The primary purpose, however, of luring and keeping
thousands of boys away from their families and in separate
boys-only camps was, in the judgement 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 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."
All this and more was confirmed by Scott Peterson, currently
the Middle East correspondent for The Christian Science
. 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
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,
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
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 criticised
the fact that no-one within the SPLA leadership was held accountable
for such deaths.
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 criticised 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.
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. 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 jeopardised 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.