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The Puzzle of Child-Soldiers in a New Sudan 'Lost Boys' of Sudan Struggle as Referendum Goes Smoothly

They were child soldiers, killing for a chance at freedom. Now that southern Sudan's liberation is at hand, will "Lost Boys" be forgotten or honored?

Six days into southern Sudan's referendum, voting continues peacefully. Sudanese and international experts feared that any number of possible disaster scenarios would occur, but throughout the majority of southern Sudan, voting has exceeded all expectations. The required 60 percent participation of registered voters was met with three days left to go, and some districts are reporting 90 and 100 percent participation. The world has applauded the Sudanese for this tremendous achievement, but it is also time to look ahead to the challenges this new country will face.

Of the many possible things that could go wrong in a newly independent South Sudan many have been listed on GOOD and elsewhere: tribal violence, retribution against Arabs or Muslims living in the south, general corruption, and incompetence on the part of the southern government. But there has been little focus so far on another point of division in the soon-to-be independent south: soldiers who spent years, and often decades, fighting in the bush, and the refugees who fled.

The refugee and internally displaced persons population from Sudan's second civil war is estimated to be as high as 4 million. The "Lost Boys" are part of this generation—children who grew up in refugee camps, Sudanese nationals who may not remember their country. Many of these children, like the "Lost Boys" themselves, benefited from opportunities not afforded to those who remained in Sudan. They learned English while living in Kenya or Uganda. They had schooling and education, and received many of the protections of the international community.

Those who remained in southern Sudan have not been been so fortunate. While the hardships of being a refugee are nothing to be scoffed at, southerners who stayed faced atrocious conditions. Their cities, towns, and villages were shelled and attacked, changing hands many times between the government and the Sudan People's Liberation Army forces.

Thousands of young men were child soldiers who joined the army when their guns were almost taller than they were. Soldiers had a hard life, going days without food, living in the bush, and fighting with no end in sight, at times turning on one another and the southern population. Now, these former child soldiers form the bulk of Sudan People's Liberation Movement, the political wing of the SPLA. By and large, these young men are thrilled: The day they fought so long and hard for has come. And yet will they be the ones to benefit from Sudan's new freedom?

The young men who made up the SPLA lack many of the skills their refugee brothers and sisters acquired. They dropped out of school at early ages, and never had the benefit of formal educations. They speak a dialect of Arabic known as “Juba Arabic” that is looked down on by, and often unintelligible to, other Arabic speakers. Most of them cannot read or write in Arabic, and many are illiterate in English as well. Many have lost their families and rely heavily on the SPLM structure to support them.

In my discussions with former and current SPLA soldiers over the past week, the refrain is the same: They want the benefits of freedom and peace for which they and their comrades sacrificed so much. They are not entitled or overly demanding; they want schooling and jobs, they want to support their families, to have enough to eat. And yet because they lack skills, it will be hard for them to find work, especially as highly qualified Ugandans, Kenyans, and former Sudanese refugees are already snatching up jobs in the boom town of Juba, the southern capital.

There is also an undercurrent of disdain when the soldiers, former and present, speak of young men who did not take up arms to defend the country. They are viewed as having skipped the hardship of the war and received benefits to boot. The former refugees, in turn, worry that these young mostly-uneducated and untrained men are a liability. Even soldiers and refugees from the same tribes are suspicious of one another.

The government of southern Sudan and the SPLM leadership have an obligation to honor the sacrifices made by these young men and a practical incentive to keep them out of trouble. But they are also struggling to form a competent government with incredible challenges ahead, and privileging former or current soldiers may only cause further resentment and accusations of tribal favoritism. Whatever they decide, the international community will do well to support education and training programs for this generation. Otherwise, they may return to the kind of work they know best.

(UPDATE: An earlier version of this post used slightly different language explaining the relationship between SPLM and SPLA.)

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