The Children of Sudan's Civil War

Homeless survivors of a bitter five-year trek head further south in search of safety

WHILE some of the other boys in the makeshift refugee camp here play with toy trucks and planes they have made from flattened cooking oil cans, 12-year-old Jacob tells his story.

It is the story of some 30,000 Sudanese boys, many of them now teenagers, who have fled one war zone after another for more than five years without their parents. Now they are on the move again - to a safer, more permanent refugee camp 60 miles south of this village on Kenya's border with Sudan.

Across the frontier a civil war continues. Dearth and dreams

"I left them [his parents] in Bor," a village in southern Sudan, Jacob says. "After Bor, we went to Ethiopia. I stayed about five years. It was good, because UNHCR [the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees] was there and everything was fine there."

Asked if he wants to become a soldier, Jacob shook his head and said: "No. I would like to be a pilot."

The boys appeared full of hope for the future and resilient. They laughed, kicked makeshift soccer balls, played games with stones in the dirt, and pulled their toy cars along the ground.

But they have been through an ordeal. "Some of them have walked more than 600 miles," says Ian Lethbridge, head of the UNHCR office here. "Some haven't seen their family for six years."

Since 1983, Christian and animist rebels of the Sudanese People's Liberation Army (SPLA) in the south have been fighting the Muslim-dominated federal government. The rebels oppose the imposition of sharia, strict Islamic law, but the Khartoum government resists southern autonomy.

When the war intensified, especially in 1987 and 1988, the boys fled to SPLA camps in Ethiopia. Many of them are from the Dinka tribe, which forms the backbone of the rebel movement, and are often a target.

On the long trek across Sudan, the boys ate roots, plants, and wild fruit. Many died of starvation or exhaustion. Others drowned crossing swollen rivers in the rainy seasons.

The survivors ended up as refugees in UNHCR camps in the Gambela area of Ethiopia, where they were given education. Some of the boys got SPLA military training as well, near the camps, according to dissident SPLA commanders and UN officials.

When ethnic fighting flared up in southern Ethiopia last May, the boys fled back to Sudan. "Many died on the way from Ethiopia," Mr. Lethbridge says. This reporter saw several thousands of them just after they arrived in Nasir, Sudan, in June 1991.

About 12,500 of the boys arrived in Kenya this May after the war heated up in Sudan. The other 18,000 boys are still in SPLA-held parts of southern Sudan, according to UN officials.

The boys want either to continue their education or become soldiers, says Jacob Akol, a Sudanese man working in Kenya for World Vision, a United States-based relief and development organization.

Some adults, including teachers, fled with the boys. Their mothers and most of the sisters probably stayed with their cattle, or ended up begging for food in towns, Mr. Akol says.

It is not clear where the fathers went, or if they survived attacks by the government or government-financed militias.

It is hoped that many of the boys can be reunited with surviving family members because village chiefs keep track of families, even after they move, Lethbridge says. In fact, about 1,500 boys were reunited with family earlier from relief camps in Sudan during lulls in the fighting, he says.

Nearly one-third of the 4,000 boys now in Kenya have found relatives among the adults who have also fled to Kenya, according to Lethbridge. But the longer the war continues, the greater the chances the older boys will end up becoming rebel soldiers, Akol says. Military training

One of the foremost concerns shared by UN officials and others here is that the SPLA may be training the boys to fight as rebels. But SPLA leader Col. John Garang has denied the boys have received SPLA military training.

"There can be no black-and-white answer" to the charge, Mr. Garang says. He claims he did not know what his commanders were doing with kids. "Sudan is vast," he says.

But Lam Akol, leader of an SPLA faction that has been at odds with Garang for a year, claims that he saw the boys being trained. He alleges that Garang collected thousands of boys under the pretext of educating them, then gave many of them military training in firearms. Boys as young as eight have been killed in combat, he says.

"It's not a big secret to say that [while the boys were in refugee camps in Ethiopia], the oldest ones - 17 and 18 - were involved in military training," says Panos Moumtzis, spokesman for the Kenya office of the UNHCR.

The Sudanese government accuses the SPLA of using the boys as a "human shield" against Khartoum's advances into rebel territory. Rebel recruits

UN officials are concerned the SPLA may be recruiting the boys, both in Sudan and Kenya. Two 18-year-old boys recently disappeared from the camp here, Mr. Moumtzis says.

There is a house in this northern Kenyan town known as the "SPLA consulate," where a number of SPLA officials are said to be staying. Relief workers also suspect that some of the adult Sudanese who traveled with the boys to this are SPLA members.

For whatever sensitivity, these adults swoop in around any boy being interviewed. After a few minutes of conversation with the youth Joseph, a couple of adults, identifying themselves as Sudanese teachers, intervened.

"These children will succeed if they get education," says Manasseh Keluel Cindut, one of the teachers. Another teacher, Macut Barac Mac, adds that "these are the future leaders."

But with no end to the war in sight, the future is far from clear.

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