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The BBC's David Loyn
"Peter started killing the enemy when he was 11 years old."
 real 56k

Friday, 4 May, 2001, 17:45 GMT 18:45 UK
Rehabilitating Sudan's boy soldiers
Boy soldiers in Sudan
There are as many as 15,000 child soldiers in Sudan
By David Loyn in southern Sudan

The UN Children's Agency Unicef is hoping to return 3,500 Sudanese boy soldiers to their families by the end of June.

The boys were taken out of rebel forces, after the Southern Sudanese army, the SPLA, agreed to hand them over.

They come from the Bhar el-Ghazal region in the west of the country, and they were airlifted out to a string of camps run by Unicef near Rumbek in the south.


We were offered them, and we took them to a place of safety where we can look after them

Martin Dawes,
UN Human Rights programme, Sudan
Save the Children Fund, a British aid organisation working in the region, is helping Unicef to find a secure future for the boys, although they have expressed the hope that this does not become a template for how to demobilise child soldiers in the future.

Lessons learned

Wendy Fenton of Save the Children Fund is concerned about removing the boys so far from their homes.

"I think we have learned some lessons from this," she said. "You should try not to set up transit centres unless you have a particularly difficult situation where you need to keep the children away from their communities for some reason, which is probably not the case here."

But the Chief of the UN programme promoting human rights in southern Sudan, Martin Dawes, has no doubt that what has been done was the right course of action. According to him, this was a unique operation to remove child soldiers from the middle of a conflict.

Boy soldiers playing football
The boys are encouraged to take up other pursuits
"The talking had to stop about child soldiers. We were offered them, and we took them to a place of safety where we can look after them in the right way, as a transition stage before we take them back and help their communities to accept them back," he said.

A few boys who were demobilised in an earlier operation have just gone home. Community leaders told Unicef that it was important to provide good schools so that there was a reason to keep them out of the army.

Most of the boys now in safety in Unicef camps worked as servants in rebel army barracks. Some had been living with the army since they were very small children.

About 10 per cent of the boys had seen active military experience. And it is clear that there must have been many child casualties in the battles they witnessed.

Traumatic past

One 13-year-old boy, Peter, told the BBC that he had become a sergeant, and had commanded grown men in the battle to seize the government garrison town Gorial.

He said that he joined the army after his parents were killed, and his brothers and sisters taken as slaves in a raid by soldiers from the north.

Reunion
The first set of boys have already been reunited with their communities
Another ex-soldier, Daniel, described how he was in a raiding party which ambushed a column of government troops. He said that the government forces regrouped three times, until they fled after suffering heavy casualties.

"I was stepping on spent cartridges on the ground, and they were so hot that my feet got burnt," he said. "I didn't notice at the time, but I couldn't sleep that night because my feet were so burnt."

Return home

Unicef is now talking to all of the children to see how soon they can be returned to their homes. "We need to make sure that the return of the children is a catalyst to improve the area," said Mr Dawes.

"They were in double jeopardy where they were - they were in the army and they were away from their families. We hope to take them back so they are incorporated into their families, and out of the army. They will then take the same chances as everyone else."

There are no clear estimates of how many children have been drawn into Sudan's 17-year-long civil war, but some estimates put the total as high as 15,000.

The southern Sudan rebel movement has made a promise to Unicef not to recruit any more child soldiers.

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See also:

05 Oct 00 | Americas
UN backs down on child soldiers
21 Apr 01 | From Our Own Correspondent
Oil and Sudan's civil war
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