Any time soldiers on the South Sudan mission encountered a vehicle stuck in the mud, they stopped to help get it out no matter how long it took, because a driver left alone in a stranded vehicle when the sun set was liable to get robbed and possibly even killed by bandits. The soldiers spent almost as much time pulling out stuck vehicles as they did travelling.
by David M. Smith
In 2019, I was deployed to South Sudan by the Canadian Army to work as a military liaison officer for the United Nations. Before deploying, I received many briefings about the civil war in the world’s newest country.
The speaker I remember most was a refugee who had escaped to Canada. He was a Dinka from the Bor region, one of the Lost Boys of Sudan, a group of young boys orphaned during Sudan’s second civil war (1983–2005). Many Lost Boys were abducted, and they were often forced to fight for the rebels, playing an important role in the Southern Sudanese’ struggle for independence. The man briefing us had been one of these child soldiers.
I remember the most shocking fact about his stories was his calm demeanour while he told them. His soft-spoken voice contrasted with the atrocities he described, such as the murder of his uncle. The man’s matter-of-fact descriptions of the dynamics of the conflict seemed both horrific and endlessly complex. But the reality that much of the fighting was carried out by children — and one of them was now standing before me as an adult — was what really got inside my head. I remember driving away at the end of pre-deployment training wondering if I would speak as calmly as that man after witnessing the world he came from.
As I travelled into theatre, I read a report entitled Salvaging South Sudan’s Fragile Peace Deal, an analysis of the civil war and the peace negotiations that had been faltering since the conflict began in December 2013. I came to a sub-section called “Splinters and Detractors” that opened with the following sentences: “A longer-term challenge is to reintegrate into the peace process several groups and individuals who have rejected the current deal. The main opposition thereto comes from Equatoria, the ethnically diverse southern third of South Sudan where war is most likely to continue.”
I was slated to be stationed in Equatoria, so these words immediately caught my attention. I learned from the report that the main opposition leader in this area was a man named Thomas Cirillo, a former high-ranking army officer on the government side who defected in 2017. He now warlorded over an opposition militia called the National Salvation Front that recruited children from the displaced tribes along South Sudan’s borders with Kenya, Uganda, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. I did not know it then but investigating this militia would become a routine task while I was deployed.
When I arrived in Juba, the capital city, the other liaison officers and I received more briefings and reading packages from the UN. The representative from the Child Protection Unit informed us that it was estimated more than 19,000 child soldiers had been recruited by the government forces and opposition groups since 2013. We were also provided a breakdown of who the active opposition leaders were and how many child soldiers they were suspected to have at their command. In my notes from this time, I have a list I made of some of these men. It seemed like the more presentations I sat through, the longer that list would grow.
After two weeks of receiving background information, I was dispatched to the field office in Eastern Equatoria where I would spend the next eight months. I was only there a few days before embarking on patrol. We drove into the bush for two days to attend a meeting called by one of the rural communities. The chief there wanted to discuss the recent abduction of boys from his tribe. He formally requested the UN send representatives.
I was charged with organizing security for the Human Rights Officers selected to attend. The meeting also included religious leaders, several government representatives, a commander from one of the opposition forces, and local police officers. There were armed men from multiple factions of the civil war in the crowd. A young mother who sat near me sobbed uncontrollably. It was obvious her sons had been taken.
The chief spoke. Several recent child abductions had severely impacted his community. In every case, the circumstances were identical: a shepherd would employ his sons in grazing cattle; raiders, seeking to steal the cattle, would also take the sons so that they did not run back to the village and alert their fathers of the raid.
I would later learn that this type of raid was a root cause of the conflict in South Sudan. Over a hundred head of cattle and a dozen boys had been stolen from the village in the previous month alone. The chief believed these attacks would worsen as the rainy season set in and the herds grew larger. The Human Rights Officers, wanting to find out if the National Salvation Front was behind the attack, began their investigation immediately and decided to follow a lead to a cattle camp roughly ten kilometres away.
I coordinated the security team, and we drove to the site of the camp. The team leader from the Rwandan infantry battalion providing our protection detail got out of his truck and instructed several of his soldiers to escort him and me into the camp so we could assess the situation before the Human Rights Officers went in. We walked toward the herd. There were hundreds of cows. Several boys loitered around the herd, all of them armed but none wearing shoes. I judged all of them to be under the age of fifteen.
A boy with a smile and a rusty AK-47 slung over his shoulder approached us from the treeline. He wore the remnants of a rebel uniform. After greetings, I explained that the UN people would like to speak to the commander.
In passable English, the boy informed us he was the commander. He was very polite. He saluted us and offered us tea. We made conversation around a charcoal fire while he boiled water.
I learned that he and his colleagues felt they had no opportunities other than raiding cattle for the higher-ups in one of the opposition groups. The boy knew where his family was but would not go back to his village. I suspect this was out of fear that they would reject him for the acts of violence he had committed, a stigma that often prevents child soldiers from re-integrating into their communities. The boy did not lament his situation. He seemed proud to be doing what he was doing. I got the impression he enjoyed talking to us as fellow military men.
As I drank my tea, I realized why the Lost Boy back in Canada was so composed and why the mother in the village was so distraught. To the mother, her children were her whole world, and losing them unmoored her from reality. But the young soldier pouring me tea never had a mooring. He had been living bivouac to bivouac since before his identity was formed and was now compelled by economic necessity to keep doing so.
He was simultaneously a victim of the conflict and a driving force that kept the conflict going. The utter strangeness of this realization, the injustice of it, was impossible to put in a report or to describe in a briefing. Stranger still, the preordained nature of the whole situation made me feel very calm; there was nothing to do but carry on doing my job just as the boys in the camp carried on doing theirs. My Rwandan counterpart and I thanked the young commander for tea and then escorted the Human Rights Officers into the camp.
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