The Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) has promised to demobilise all its child soldiers by the year end.
According to the UN children’s agency, there were more than 200,000 children in the SPLA ranks, but these numbers have reduced to around 900 today. The SPLA chief of staff has pledged that any remaining children will now be schooled and supported, stating “our future lies with the children”.
A peace agreement in 2005 ended decades of civil war between North and South Sudan. Five years on and South Sudan is to hold a referendum on independence in January. It hopes to become Africa’s first new country in almost twenty years.
The long civil war left much destruction, but there is a new atmosphere of hope. The southerners, who mostly belong to Christian or other religions compared to the largely Muslim and Arab population of the North, are hoping that all will go peacefully with the vote. 2 million people returned to South Sudan after the end of the war and another 1.5 million are expected to repatriate ahead of the referendum. Some 12,200 southerners are currently living in Egypt and the government hopes to encourage them home on trains and buses and boats down the River Nile.
Other groups occupy refugee camps in neighbouring African countries. One such camp lies in Kenya, where thousands of Sudanese remain. Recently, one of the most famous and successful of Sudan’s many exiles went to visit this camp. Given a British passport, Luol Deng came to Britain with his family and then went on to become a multi-millionaire in the United States playing basketball for the Chicago Bulls. The BBC followed Luol as he came back to help the British basketball team for the Olympics. In a moving statement Luol said “England has just done so much for me and my family....[but] England has everything. The only way I can give back is through basketball.”
Meeting his fellow Sudanese in the Kenyan camp, Luol was able to bestow something much more important as a symbol of success and hope for the future. From Kenya, Luol then journeyed over the border to Juba in southern Sudan, where he has founded schools. Addressing the children at one of his schools, Luol told them “every one of you guys is capable of being somebody special. Maybe you’ll be the president of this country and one day you’ll lead us. And we’re going to have a great country.”
South Sudan still has a long way to go in overcoming all its troubles. There are still extreme tensions with the north and the country is also facing increased attacks from the Lord’s Resistance Army, who have crossed the border from the Democratic Republic of Congo to take harvests from villagers, forcing over 25,000 people to flee their homes. But despite all the many hurdles faced by this troubled region, the southern Sudanese seem determined to build a better country for their children.