Where Are The Children?
John Garang, the SPLA and Sudan's "Lost Boys"
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:
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:
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:
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":
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:
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.