A SPLIT in the ranks of one of Africa's most secretive rebel groups has uncovered allegations that children as young as eight years old have received military training and entered combat in southern Sudan.Since 1983 the Sudanese People's Liberation Army (SPLA) has been fighting a civil war against the Sudanese government to seek greater political power in a united Sudan. In September, three of the SPLA's 13 commanders broke with SPLA leader John Garang, charging that he was a "dictator" who would not tolerate dissent within the SPLA. The breakaway rebels are calling for an independent southern Sudan as a way to end the civil war. "In a nutshell, our main difference with him [Mr. Garang] is that he's running the [SPLA] movement as if it were his personal property," says Lam Akol, one of the three breakway commanders. Mr. Akol also accuses Garang of training school children for combat. "The proof is that I saw them being trained," Akol claims. He says the children were taken out of Sudanese refugee camps just inside Ethiopia and given three months instruction in "how to use firearms and all sorts of other military training."
Children trained "Some of them have actually gone to combat, and some lost their lives," Akol alleges. "What is sad about this is their parents are not aware they are being trained and taken to combat." Akol alleges that only Garang and a few trusted aides knew about the training until Akol and others learned about it. In addition, Akol claims more than 40 SPLA rebels have been imprisoned "for political reasons primarily disagreeing with Garang on policies. These detentions have become one of the main topics of meetings that have been held recently between the two factions in Nairobi under Kenyan government auspices. Garang, in a separate interview, said: "What you see [in southern Sudan] are kids with wooden guns. This is the interest of children. Otherwise you will not find a situation where any of our children are engaged in combat, in warfare." Then, after digressing several times from the question of SPLA training of children, Garang said: "There can be no black and white answer to it. Southern Sudan is vast." Garang, who appeared more subdued than in previous interviews, claimed he does not know what his commanders have been "doing with kids." He challenged journalists and others to "investigate each case" of alleged military training of children. Western relief officials contacted could offer no proof of the alleged training. But they had not been in the areas in Ethiopia where the training was supposed to have taken place. Egil Nilssen, a Norwegian relief official in Nairobi, whose organization provides help to southern Sudan, says the issue probably "depends on where you draw the line" between physical and military training. "Basically every Army [in Africa] has had children," says Mr. Nilssen, who is acting representative here for Norwegian People Aid.
Factions fighting As a result of the split, fighting has broken out several times between the two rebel factions. And some experts fear the factional fighting may broaden into all-out tribal warfare in the south, with tribes loyal to opposite rebel groups battling each other. The German Embassy in Nairobi and the government of Kenya have begun encouraging the two sides to reconcile. "There's a lot of international pressure [for bringing the two sides together]," says J. Michael Semier, who heads a private German relief program for southern Sudan. m concerned that they have to get together. We can't have another Somalia in southern Sudan." Southern Somalia is being torn apart in interclan fighting, following a rebel victory in January over dictator Mohamed Siad Barre. (See related story, right.) Mr. Semier also predicts a "major offensive" before the end of November in southern Sudan by the Sudanese government against the divided rebels. A Sudanese government official said that "both sides [the government and the rebels] are strengthening their sides" during the current lull, caused by the rainy season, which makes many roads in southern Sudan nearly impassable. On peace plans, SPLA commander Akol thinks secession is the best option, with a vote a few years from now on possible reunification with the rest of Sudan. "First of all, the people of the South want it [succession]," Akol claims. He sees it as a way around the stumbling block to previous peace talks - the central government's insistence on applying Muslim law in Muslim-majority areas of Sudan, primarily the North. The SPLA insists on not having any religious law anywhere in the country. But secession is unlikely to bring United States or other Western recognition, says a Western diplomat in Nairobi. And the Sudanese official says Sudan remains strongly opposed to secession.