Child Soldiers in South Sudan and the SPLA

Records of the use of child soldiers in South Sudan date back as far as 1870 (Johnson 1992:168). The commercial slaving companies used ‘gun-boys’- children who were gun bearers for the professional soldiers. When the children grew older they then became slave soldiers themselves. These gun-boys started at ages as young as seven (ibid). Many professional militaries in the past, including the British as late as the twentieth century, had a reserve of child soldiers. These boys were often sons of soldiers and would be drafted in when they were old enough, or as needed (ibid). The colonial armies in northeast Africa retained some of the military slavery legacies that existed before them, including these reserves. This included both the Ugandan and Sudanese post-independence forces. Out of the 1,146 Sudan Defense Force soldiers who were involved in the Torit mutiny of 1955, thirty percent (380) were child soldiers (Johnson 1992:86).

Although the SPLA officially denied that they used child soldiers in the past, the evidence in a Human Rights Watch report from 1994 to the contrary is damning . After the start of the second civil war in 1983, many South Sudanese fled to Ethiopia. The Mengistu regime at the time supported the SPLA’s efforts and the movement set up military bases in Ethiopia while receiving supplies and support from the Ethiopian government. South Sudanese refugees were subsequently settled in camps where they could receive humanitarian support. Starting in 1986, young boys were moved to Ethiopia by the SPLA for ‘educational’ opportunities (HRW 1994). While some boys volunteered to go to Ethiopia for safety and education, many were forced against their and their parents will. Villages were required by the SPLA to send some of their sons to Ethiopia. Upon arrival, the boys were put in ‘minors camps,’ which were separate camps without any families or adults. NGO workers were not allowed to stay in these camps in the evenings and the camps were run by the SPLA.

Although the SPLA claimed that all the boys were unaccompanied, one study from the time found that 20% had family in a camp nearby (ibid:14). From 1987 the SPLA maintained these separate camps for boys in Ethiopia, and by 1988 large numbers of boys were being marched to Ethiopia by the SPLA. In 1990 one observer saw boys being moved by vehicles to Ethiopia. The SPLA claimed that the boys were unaccompanied as they had fled from attacks by the government against cattle camps. While this could be true for some of them, the fact that others came from as far as Bahr al Ghazal meant that they likely did not all flee across South Sudan to Ethiopia (ibid).

Upon arrival the boys that were sixteen and older were frequently taken directly to full time military training. The younger boys stayed in the camp, but would be taken for fighting as needed. The situation in the camp was dire; one NGO report of Fugnido camp from 1987 found many malnourished and naked boys with no shelters. Another survey from 1989 showed that 90% of the boys were either illiterate or in grade one (HRW 1994:14). The boys routinely told NGO workers they moved for education; however, one boy later claimed that they only had time for books when they had important visitors, otherwise they were working or training for the military (New Statesman 1994).

All of the boys received some level of military training. The smallest such recruits, as young as seven years old, were trained on school holidays. The older boys received full training over a period of three to four months to make them combat ready (HRW 1994:16). The boy soldiers came to be known as the Red Army, or Jesh Amer. One former Red Army officer explained that the boys were organized into battalions and were aged between fourteen and sixteen- those over sixteen having been put into normal training upon arrival (ibid). Officially the SPLA claimed the boys were being given military training in case the war effort lasted a long time and they eventually had to defend the south. They denied the boys were sent into combat, although there are many stories proving the boys were used to support the Ethiopian government against rebels as well as in battles in South Sudan.

In addition to the camps in Ethiopia, the SPLA also proposed to set up several schools in South Sudan to be run by its own Friends of African Children Educational (FACE) foundation (HRW 1994:20). Donors did not support the idea, but the SPLA created schools in Palataka, south of Torit, and in Molitokuro and Borongolei, north of Nimule. A visitor to the Palataka school in 1991 called the situation “shocking” (ibid:21). The boys were receiving military training and many of them were dying of starvation and preventable diseases.

In the first few years of operation the Red Army were sent to participate in battles but fared poorly (HRW 1994:16). As a result, they were taken away from the front line and were primarily used for more mundane tasks, such as defending towns or guarding prisoners. However, in the beginning of 1991 the Mengistu regime in Ethiopia was under a lot of pressure from rebel movements. The SPLA supplied reinforcements for the Ethiopian government, and between 900-2000 of the boys were sent to fight, some as young as eleven. The children fought against Ethiopian rebels in Dembidolo in February 1991 and in Gore in April-May. Many of the children were killed (ibid:16).

The Mengistu regime, and primary benefactor for the SPLA, fell in May 1991. The SPLA lost their military bases and supply lines and some 350,000 Sudanese refugees fled back across the border (HRW 1994:16,17). It was estimated at the time that 17,000 boys were included in this group. Many of the boys fled to places on the South Sudanese side of the border, particularly Nasir, Pakok and Pochalla. ICRC registered the boys in order to return them to their families and had registered over 14,000 by the end of 1991. Some 10,000 were estimated to be in Pochalla, 2,000 in Pakok and 2,000 in Nasir, where the boys were moved to their own camp (ibid:17). The missing cultivation season from 1991 combined with the returning 350,000 refugees created a huge hunger gap, and the Sudanese government restricted relief efforts.

One former SPLA commander reported that after the fall of the Mengistu regime he was ordered to accompany an estimated 4,000 boys to Kapoeta for education. Once they reached Kapoeta the 1,500 boys who had finished their military training were immediately assigned to the SPLA. The other 2,500 received less than three months of training in Kapoeta and were then deployed. These boys were estimated to be between eleven and sixteen years old (HRW 1994:17).

When Riek Machar broke away in August 1991 to form the SPLA-Nasir faction, he used the civilian frustration with forced recruitment of children as a means of criticizing the SPLA leadership (HRW 1994:17). This criticism of child soldiers was not forthcoming before the split, and so it was likely a populist move to increase support both domestically and internationally.

In early 1992 the boys in Pochalla had to evacuate further south to places such as Boma and Kapoeta. The Sudanese military was planning a dry season offensive and Pochalla was a target. Some relief workers believed that the attack was partially motivated by the perception of the boys as combatants, or at least a reserve force for the SPLA (HRW 1994:18). ICRC assisted the children and others with stations along the route with medical assistance and provided food and water. They were consequently expelled from Sudan in March 1992 by the government. It is believed their protection role with the children and their assistance to the evacuees both played a part in their expulsion (idid:18).

The boys were accompanied to Kapoeta by the chief of military operations for SPLA Torit at the time, Salva Kiir (HRW 1994:19). In an interview Kiir explained that the plan was to settle the boys at a new camp near the Kenyan border where they could receive humanitarian assistance. A headcount upon arrival in Kapoeta on April 22 found 12,241 boys and another 6,600 ‘teachers and dependents’ (HRW 1994:19). While some 850 of the boys were Nuer from Leer, it was estimated that 90% of these boys were Dinka (ibid:20).

At the end of May 1992 Kapoeta fell to the government, and the residents fled across the border into Kenya to Lokichogio (HRW 1994:19). The 12,000 that were estimated to arrive in Lokichogio then moved to Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya. Upon arrival it was discovered that there were 1500-3000 less boys than in Lokichogio, while some NGO and UN staff claimed that at least 1000 were seen returning to Lokichogio. It is believed that these boys were placed in the SPLA and were part of the attack on Juba by SPLA-Torit in June and July 1992 (ibid:20).

In addition to the camps in Ethiopia, the three FACE schools the SPLA had created in South Sudan were also used as training bases for boys. A visit by a journalist in February 1992 to the Palataka School found the children in awful conditions with no food and daily military exercises (HRW 1994:21). It was estimated that there were 4000 boys in the school at the time, most between ten and eleven years old, but some as young as seven. The children complained that they were taken by force from their families, including from the surrounding Acholi population. The Acholi complained that the SPLA had recruited boys from their community, some against the will of the parents (ibid:21). Due to the lack of food the boys often raided local Acholi fields, which led to fights between the local population and the boys. Evacuees in May 1992 who passed through Palataka reported they observed 3000 boys, some as young as five (ibid:21).

In April 1992 it was estimated that there were some 6000 boys in the three FACE schools, all in terrible conditions (HRW 1994:21). In July that year feeding centers were opened and health workers arrived in the schools. By that point the population had increased to 7,750 (ibid:21). Around six months later SPLA-Torit closed the Borongele and Molitoko schools claiming military threat as the reason. However, the IDP camps nearby were left and only the boys were moved. Out of the 4,350 boys estimated to be at the two schools, 3,650 received military training and were deployed into SPLA-Torit. The remaining 700 moved to the Palataka school (ibid:24). The newly deployed boys were part of the offensive in Kongor in March 1993 against the SPLA-Nasir faction.

Despite official denial that child soldiers were used by the SPLA, the evidence to the contrary is significant. Youth over sixteen were put directly into full military training, those between the ages of 11-16 were deployed as the SPLA needed, and boys as young as five still received some level of training. Although some of these boys volunteered under the pretext of an education, many were also forcefully recruited. Some 10,000 ended up in Kenya and were called the “lost boys.” Thousands of others were brought in to the SPLA as needed before they reached Kenya and were used to fight against Ethiopian rebels, the Sudanese government forces, and later in the internal SPLA wars of the 1990s.

It is unclear how much the various SPLA commanders at the time knew about the use of child soldiers. It is known that the current Minister of Defense Kuol Manyang sent boys from his region of Bahr al Ghazal to Ethiopia for education, as well as the Upper Nile commander at the time Riek Machar. Current President Salva Kiir helped accompany boys after 1991 to Eastern Equatoria with the stated intent of education in Kenya. However, with thousands of boys receiving training and participating in direct combat in Ethiopia and against Juba in 1992, it is doubtful that the major commanders at the time were unaware of their involvement. All three men are now at the top of the command structures in the current conflict. The expanding assimilation and use of civilian fighters as a means of gaining the upper hand shows the desperate need for greater numbers of fighters for both sides. As the number of adult recruits begins to dwindle in the current conflict, the potential for the recruitment and use of child soldiers is likely to increase.

In discussing the Red Army with South Sudanese many mention it, and their involvement in it, with pride. To have been a member of the Red Army holds a certain social status within much of South Sudanese society, just as being a member of the SPLA during the war does. Many Red Army members later became refugees in Kenya or elsewhere. There are extremely complex social dynamics within South Sudan between those who were directly involved in the SPLA, civilians who never left, those who were displaced regionally during the war and those who moved to western countries. Social status, and frequently access to government positions, is based partially on who are perceived to have personally sacrificed the most in the creation of South Sudan. Having been a member of the Red Army is a means of proving one’s involvement in the independence struggle. This has created a positive nostalgic perception of the Red Army within parts of South Sudanese society, although this should not be equated with support for the use of child soldiers in conflict. In addition those who were involved may have mixed feelings towards the Red Army, as well as purely negative ones depending on their individual experiences.

Human Rights Watch. 1994. Sudan: The Lost Boys- Child Soldiers and Unaccompanied
Boys in Southern Sudan. Vol 6, No. 10. (https://db.tt/OjZU0ZRf)

Human Rights Watch. 1995. “Children in Sudan: Slaves, Street Children and Child Soldiers.” (http://www.refworld.org/docid/3ae6a8264.html)

Human Rights Watch. 1994. Sudan: Civilian Devastation- Abuses by all parties in the war in Southern Sudan. New York.

Johnson, Douglas. 1989. "The Structuring of a Legacy: Military Slavery in Northeast Africa," Ethnohistory 36:I, pp. 72-88.
Johnson, Douglas. April 1992. "Recruitment and Entrapment in Private Slave Armies: The Structure of the Zara'ib in the Southern Sudan," Slavery & Abolition 13 London.
New Statesman and Society. Sept 2, 1994. “Letter from Nairobi” (https://www.dropbox.com/s/61c1fc649x602zu/New%20Statesman.docx?dl=0)