In early 1987, John Garang, the southern Sudanese rebel leader who laid the groundwork for his country’s independence, issued a radio order to his field commanders: gather up children from their villages in southern Sudan and ship them to camps in Ethiopia where they would receive military training and later serve as the independence movement’s child soldiers.
The order marked the official endorsement by the leader of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) of a policy that would result in the forced recruitment of tens of thousands of children from southern Sudan who would form the Red Army, a little-known force of child soldiers within the SPLA.
In her deeply researched book The Child Soldiers of Africa’s Red Army, Carol Berger, an anthropologist and former foreign correspondent, details the rise of the SPLA’s youth wing, which played a critical, though largely unacknowledged, role in southern Sudan’s decades-long insurgency against Khartoum, culminating in South Sudan’s independence in 2011.
It adds a dark footnote on the legend of Garang, who was championed by Christian evangelicals in the United States and lauded by Republicans and Democrats alike as a heroic African revolutionary. U.S. President George W. Bush would eulogize Garang, who died in a helicopter crash in Uganda, as a “visionary leader and peacemaker” for signing the landmark 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement, which ended Sudan’s longest-running war and secured him the vice presidency; Garang took office in July 2005, just weeks before his death. It also demolishes a widely held misperception about the Lost Boys as a generation of orphans, displaced by war, who found refuge in Ethiopia and Kenya.
According to Berger’s research, tens of thousands of children, some as young as 5, were forcibly separated from their families in southern Sudan, trained in Ethiopian military camps, and conscripted into the SPLA. When the southern rebels’ Ethiopian benefactor, President Mengistu Haile Mariam, was overthrown by a coalition of rebel groups in 1991, the SPLA abandoned thousands of the recruits who made their way on foot to the border with Kenya.
The book also offers reason to question the prospect, shared by many American observers, that had Garang survived long enough to lead South Sudan through its first years of independence, he might have succeeded in averting its civil war. Despite Garang’s advocacy of a unified Sudanese state, ethnic divisions were already becoming institutionalized within the SPLA command. Khartoum, meanwhile, declared a jihad against the SPLA, portrayed by the Islamist government as a holy war of “righteous Muslims against Black African infidels,” Berger writes, only reinforcing the country’s religious and ethnic divides. Over time, those divisions were manifest in internal factional fighting.
Those rifts came to a head in 1991, when Riek Machar, an ethnic Nuer, led a mutiny against Garang, a Dinka, and began advocating for an independent South Sudan. Those splits would persist after independence, when South Sudan’s first president, Salva Kiir, went to war in 2013 with Machar, who became Juba’s first vice president.
Berger traces the origins of the child army back as far as the early 1980s, following a military mutiny by Garang and other Sudanese officers in Bor, the capital of Jonglei state, that started Sudan on the course of Africa’s longest-running conflict, one that resulted in the deaths of some 2 million people from hunger, illness, and conflict and drove millions more from their homes.
In the ensuing chaos, which involved large-scale raids against Dinka villages in northern Bahr el Ghazal and towns in southern Kordofan by Sudanese-backed Arab militias, large numbers of southern Sudanese civilians, including children, fled their homes for Ethiopian refugee camps in Itang, Bonga, and Panyidut.
But the SPLA saw an opportunity, a ready source of boys and teenagers who could be compelled to serve as the core of a future rebel army. With the help of the Ethiopian security forces, the SPLA established the Bonga Revolutionary War Institute, also known as the Bonga Military College, to train the children for warfare.
“Thousands of children and youth had made their way across the border in search of safety … but the majority, particularly after 1987, were part of the organised movement of children by the SPLA,” Berger writes.
The SPLA cast a broad net, sweeping up boys in the Ethiopian refugee camps and launching its first of three waves of forced recruitment in southern Sudanese villages.
“Some would have lost parents in the war but the reason for their presence in the camp was not their lack of a parent but their recruitment by the SPLA, often in violent sweeps through small villages and rural countryside,” Berger writes, referring to press reports of tens of thousands of orphans at Panyidut. The boys, she said, were not there because they were fleeing civil war and respite from famine but because they were “put into training in support of the rebel army.”
Successive recruitment waves were launched after the 2005 peace agreement ending the civil war and in the years leading up to the civil war pitting Kiir against Machar.
Drawing on extensive interviews with former recruits, Berger paints a grim portrait of life for the youth, many of whom died of hunger, thirst, and drowning on the arduous journey to Ethiopia. In one particularly tragic episode, Machar loaded hundreds of children onto the lower deck of a barge overloaded with fuel and cattle at the port of Adok in Unity state. The boat capsized, and some 500 children headed to Ethiopia drowned.
Those who survived the journey were routinely subjected to torture by sadistic military trainers who beat, starved, and killed children for infractions as insignificant as speaking out of turn. “[C]omplaints by the children and youth about ill health were met with beatings by trainers that sometimes resulted in death; in particular, children who complained of having a stomach ache or diarrhea were repeatedly kicked in the stomach by adult trainers,” Berger writes.
Punishment included savage beatings and the withholding of food for up to 45 days. One former recruit recalled a particularly violent trainer: “If you were lined up in a row and it was not perfect, he would shoot you.”
South Sudanese leaders have long insisted that the children were sent to the camps for education and that when they were deployed, it was in noncombat roles, preparing food and acting as bodyguards for senior SPLA officers. But Berger dismantles that narrative, citing former child soldiers who claimed kids were sent to the front lines, sometimes with only enough training to pull a rifle trigger. Among the tasks largely assigned to youth were the laying of land mines and the detonation of explosives. One young recruit who excelled at math told Berger that he was charged with measuring the range of mortar fire.
The book tracks the movement’s evolution from a Soviet-backed insurgency into a darling of American Christian evangelicals, who viewed it as a “David and Goliath” struggle of a Christian minority against powerful Islamist rulers in Khartoum.
Garang envisioned a united, socialist Sudan in which religious and ethnic differences were managed by a single national identity. An early manifesto published in 1983 by the SPLA proclaimed the urgent need to “transform the Southern Movement from a reactionary movement led by reactionaries and concerned only with the South, jobs and self interest [sic] to a progressive movement led by revolutionaries and dedicated to the socialist transformation of the whole country.”
But Garang, a Christian and a charismatic figure who was educated in the United States, developed close ties to American evangelicals and liberal political advocates. You’d be hard-pressed to find another African movement that enjoyed the same level of bipartisan support. Conservative political leaders, including Bush, and American progressives like Susan Rice placed their bets on Garang’s ability to transform Sudan into a pro-American force.
In doing so, Washington has tread gingerly over the forced recruitment campaign. In 2008, the United States passed the Child Soldiers Prevention Act, which criminalized the use of child soldiers and prohibited the provision of military assistance to countries that employ child soldiers. South Sudan has appeared each year on the list of countries—which includes Myanmar, Iraq, Nigeria, and other countries—targeted by the law. But both Democratic and Republican administrations have given the South a pass. In 2012, the Obama administration issued the first presidential waiver to South Sudan, which allows the United States to fund U.N. peacekeeping operations in Sudan and South Sudan, Berger writes. It has been renewed each year since.
Berger’s research began with a fascinating, but ultimately heartbreaking, side story in the Sudanese saga. Between 1985 and 1986, the SPLA and its political wing, the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement, sent a group of 619 Red Army children and teenagers to Cuba, where they received political, medical, ideological, and military training. These kids—many of them children of senior SPLA officers—were to form the vanguard of a new socialist Sudan. The “cadres,” she writes, “were politicised to identify themselves as ‘Sudanese’ rather than ‘South Sudanese’ and to envisage the taking up of arms as a means to unite rather than divide the country.”
But the movement they served had already begun shifting in a new direction. Back home, the Sudanese government declared its jihad against the SPLA, and the southern Sudanese began to increasingly identify with their ethnic and religious groups. The notion of a unified, socialist state was slipping away. And after more than a decade in Cuba, the youngsters found themselves in limbo. “Theirs was something of a Rip Van Winkle existence,” Berger writes. “They knew next to nothing of the changes back in their home country.”
Some 200 immigrated to Canada, where they found work at Lakeside Packers, then the largest cattle slaughterhouse in Canada, just outside the small town of Brooks, a two hours’ drive east of Calgary.
Those who did return to Sudan either found that their families—some of whom led the rebellion against Garang—had fallen out of favor or encountered hostility and suspicion among junior SPLA officers, who had fought throughout the war and feared their Cuban-trained cadres would supplant them. The officers often sent them to the front lines, where most were killed. “The result was that highly specialised, Cuban-trained soldiers were sent into frontline situations as virtual fodder,” Berger writes.