This particular line has increasingly come to be used in the most recent political attacks on the Sudanese government. In so doing the international community, and particularly those bodies such as World Vision Canada and CPCCCAC which present themselves as concerned about "war-affected" children, are in danger of being irresponsible and working to a double standard with regard to the issue of Ugandan and Sudanese child soldiers. That the children abducted by the Lord's Resistance Army have been used as a propaganda weapon against the Sudanese government is clear. In responding to an issue based at least in part on a propagandistic projection, and not responding to equally valid Sudanese concerns about the thousands of Sudanese children that are missing in similar circumstances, groups such as World Vision Canada are in danger of losing legitimacy in the eyes of the Sudanese government and people.
That children have been abducted in the course of the war in northern Uganda is beyond doubt. The abduction of children and young adults and their subsequent use as soldiers is an all too frequent occurrence in civil wars throughout Africa and elsewhere. What is less clear is the nature and extent of Sudanese involvement with the Lord's Resistance Army. There are insurgencies in several parts of Uganda and one can assume that given the Museveni government's unambiguous support for the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA), the Khartoum government may well have assisted Lord's Resistance Army in retaliation.
While it is a fact that Ugandan children have been abducted, what is also beyond doubt is that tens of thousands of Sudanese children have been abducted from areas in southern Sudan and the Nuba mountains by the SPLA. This purposeful abduction of minors for use of child soldiers continues to this day. The United Nations Special Rapporteur for human rights in the Sudan, Leonardo Franco in his September 2000 report stated that the SPLA "were forcefully recruiting children" in southern Sudan.
The Special Rapporteur's statements have been confirmed by first-hand journalistic evidence. In February 2000, for example, Reuters correspondent Rosalind Russell was one of a group of journalists who visited SPLA positions on the periphery of Sudan's oil-producing areas. She interviewed Peter Gadet, the SPLA commander in the area. Ms Russell personally observed that the ranks of the rebel forces had been "swollen by shy boy soldiers". The National Post, the Canadian national daily, has also reported the presence of SPLA child soldiers. Reporting from Tabanga in southern Sudan, National Post journalist Charlie Gillis unambiguously stated that most of the SPLA "soldiers" in one location he visited were: "adolescent boys, carrying.machine guns too big for their hands."
(It should be noted that in May 2000, Amnesty International published a report entitled Sudan: The Human Price of Oil. This report claimed to examine human rights abuses in the oil-producing areas of south-central and southern Sudan and devoted a considerable section of its report to "reports" that local Sudanese forces defending the oil pipeline were using child soldiers, relying on somewhat questionable claims made by a "former commander" who had defected to the rebels. On the basis of this "evidence", the report takes up one page in addressing the issue of the government, oil companies and child soldiers. The report also goes on to include the issue of child soldiers in its concluding section. Despite this considerable focus on "child soldiers", Amnesty International does not make a single reference to the Reuters and Canadian newspaper coverage of child soldiers within SPLA ranks within the very area upon which Amnesty was supposedly reporting. It is this sort of double-standard or professional incompetence which is of understandable concern to the Sudanese government.)
What is also clear is that the Ugandan government has been a vigorous supporter of the SPLA, and has provided considerable military and logistical assistance to the organisation. In signing an agreement with Uganda at the September 2000 international conference on war-affected children in Winnipeg, Canada, the Sudanese government would appear to have sought to encourage the international community to apply an even-handed approach to the issue of child abduction.
While the plight of some of the thousands of Sudanese boys taken by the SPLA has recently been highlighted by the resettlement of some of them in the United States , it is clear that less than a quarter of the 17,000 boys originally abducted by the SPLA as child soldiers have been accounted for. This systematic abuse of children, and the disappearance of thousands of other Sudanese children while in SPLA control has seemingly been ignored at the same time as Sudan is being pressed to account for the alleged abduction of Ugandan children by the Lord's Resistance Army rebel movement in Uganda.
The SPLA has long been identified with a planned, long-term policy of abducting children for use by their organisation. The SPLA's direct role in abducting thousands of young southern Sudanese boys and holding them against their will in abysmal conditions has been well-documented. The 1991 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices placed on record that the SPLA had "forcibly conscripted at least 10, 000 male minors."
In late 1994, Human Rights Watch/Africa and its Children's Rights Project published Child Soldiers and Unaccompanied Boys in Southern Sudan. The report was based on a fact-finding visit to Sudan, Kenya and Uganda. Human Rights Watch/Africa documented the SPLA's use and abuse of boys as young as seven years of age. Thousands of these children were held in SPLA camps in Ethiopia and elsewhere. Human Rights Watch/Africa reported that "the conditions in some of these camps have been described as 'heartrending': no schooling, no hygiene, few caretakers, ragged clothing, disease and little food." Human Rights Watch/Africa returned to this issue in September 1995. In a press release it stated that:
The rebel SPLA has long had a policy of separating boys from their homes and families for military training.Thousands of boys went to the Ethiopian refugee camps hoping for an education and received mostly military training in segregated facilities for "unaccompanied boys." The SPLA inducted boys as young as eleven into its ranks. The separation of unaccompanied boys from their families continued when the refugees fled back into Sudan in 1991.boys in 'unaccompanied minors' schools in Eastern Equatoria were called up in 1994 and 1995, while the SPLA continued to recruit minors, a practice it denies. The 'unaccompanied boys' under its control now number about 4,500.
As mentioned it is also common knowledge that the Ugandan government under Yoweri Museveni has long supported the SPLA, both politically and militarily. An insight into the nature of the movement Museveni so enthusiastically supports has been provided by independent sources. Eight US-based humanitarian organisations working in Sudan, including CARE, World Vision, Church World Service, Save the Children and the American Refugee Committee, no friends of the Sudanese government, have publicly stated that the SPLA has: "engaged for years in the most serious human rights abuses, including extrajudicial killings, beatings, arbitrary detention, slavery, etc."
The New York Times, a vigorous critic of the Sudanese government, states that the SPLA: "[H]ave behaved like an occupying army, killing, raping and pillaging". The New York Times has also stated that the SPLA leader John Garang was one of Sudan's "pre-eminent war criminals". The Economist has summed up the general image of the SPLA when it stated that:
[The SPLA] has.been little more than an armed gang of Dinkas.killing, looting and raping. Its indifference, almost animosity, towards the people it was supposed to be "liberating" was all too clear.
Ugandan military assistance over the years to this organisation has been considerable, ranging from logistically assisting with the movement of SPLA mechanised regiments into Sudan in 1989, the provision of rear-bases and weapons through to the use of Ugandan air force helicopters in support of SPLA operations, and direct Ugandan military involvement inside Sudan. Despite having signed several agreements pledging an end to military support for the SPLA rebels, including the December 8 1999 Nairobi peace accord, Uganda has continued such assistance. The first Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Foreign Affairs Eriya Kategaya, appearing before the Ugandan parliamentary committee on presidential and foreign affairs, stated for example that Uganda would not stop supporting the SPLA. He said that "To be seen to abandon them because we want peace with (Sudanese President) Bashir is not correct." Six months after having signed the Nairobi accord, Museveni admitted he was still providing the SPLA with weapons. The Ugandan New Vision newspaper quoted him as saying: "When I met Gaddafi (President of Libya) in Cairo, he asked me if I supply SPLA with weapons. I said yes, so long as Sudan still supports LRA".
Uganda can only but be seen as responsible for fuelling the continuation of war in Sudan, and for actively supporting an "occupying army, killing, raping and pillaging" its way across southern Sudan. Uganda by implication is also directly or indirectly for the continued abduction of Sudanese children and their enforced use as child soldiers not only within Sudan itself but also within the many SPLA camps inside Uganda. Uganda must be held responsible for the return of the thousands of child soldiers within SPLA ranks as well as those child soldiers and minors held in SPLA bases within Uganda.
At the Winnipeg conference on war-affected children, the children's-rights advocate Graca Machel criticised governments for turning their backs on children in war zones: "They have a face. They have a name. They have feelings, they have aspirations. They can't afford to wait." Sadly, much the same can be said about some of the non-governmental organisations claiming involvement in the Ugandan-Sudanese issue. Kathy Vandergrift, of World Vision Canada and co-ordinator of the private aid agencies that attended the Winnipeg conference called on the Sudanese and Ugandan governments to free all abducted children by the end of 2000, to disband the Lords Resistance Army, and to "put into place mechanisms to ensure this never happens again." There are simple questions which must be asked. Do Kathy Vandergrift, World Vision Canada and others really believe they are equipped to differentiate between groups of murderous gunmen involved in "killing, raping and pillaging" who also abduct children? Why does Ms Vandergrift not call for the disbandment of the SPLA as well as the LRA? Surely not to do so is a subjective or political decision? What has her organisation done with regard to the thousands of Sudanese children held by the SPLA? Given that World Vision Canada is one of the founders of the 'Friends of the War-affected Children from Northern Uganda', can one ask whether there a similar 'Friends of the War-affected Children from Southern Sudan and the Nuba Mountains'?Is it not the case that groups such as World Vision Canada have turned their backs on the thousands of Sudanese children held in conditions similar to the LRA children? What has been done for them? Double standards merely further confuse an already confused and difficult situation.