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
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
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
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 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
"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
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 criticised 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 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." (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 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
1 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 - 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.
2 'Sudan, Uganda Sign Pact to Return Abducted Children', News
Article by Agence France Presse, 17 September 2000.
3 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 1991, United
States Department of State, Washington-DC, 1992, p.382.
4 Children of Sudan, Human Rights Watch/Africa, New York, 1995,
5 Civilian Devastation: Abuses by All Parties in the War in Southern
Sudan, Human Rights Watch/Africa, London 1994, pp.195-224.
6 Children of Sudan, op. cit., p. 75.
7 Human Rights Watch/Africa, press release for Child Soldiers and
Unaccompanied Boys in Southern Sudan, New York, 11 November 1994.
8 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.
9 Peter Nyaba, The Politics of Liberation in South Sudan: An
Insider's View, Fountain Publishers, Kampala, 1997, p.55.
11 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.
[Founded in 1989 as the successor to the Holy Spirit Movement, the LRA seeks to
overthrow the Ugandan Government and replace it with a regime that will
implement the group's brand of Christianity.--"Lord's Resistance Army,"
Federation of American Scientists]
[The children of Northern Uganda are living in a state of seige. For almost two
decades a fundamentalist religious fanatic has been kidnapping children and
turning them into his personal soldiers. He then forces them to loot and
murder....in the name of his so-called Lord's Resistance Army. Joseph Koney,
says he is fighting to establish a government based on the biblical Ten
The child abductions have terrified all of Northern Uganda... and parents are
moving away from isolated areas...and herding their children into shelters so
they won't be seized. That's created crowded and appalling living conditions.
The Ugandan government's effort to crush Joseph Koney's army has failed and more
children than ever are being forced into a nightmare from which only a few
Children's Army," News World International, August 3, 2003]
Callum Macrae, "Killed
in the name of the Lord," The Observer, February 29, 2004