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From One Sudanese War to the Next, it is the Children Fighting the Generals’ War

By May 1, 2023June 7th, 2023Mailchimp, News, Print

By J.D. Pitts

Sudan’s existence, for all practical purposes, is an existence of war. Long lasting, bloody wars, with little-to-no peace separating one from the next. 

The first Sudanese Civil War began in 1955 shortly before Sudan’s independence from Britain, and was fought between the largely Muslim and Arabic-speaking North and the largely animist and Christian South. The conflict ended with the signing of the Addis Ababa Agreement in 1972, which granted autonomy to the southern region of Sudan.

Peace, however, was short lived, and in 1983 the second Sudanese Civil War began when the Islamist government of Sudan, based in the North, imposed Sharia law on the South and marginalized non-Muslim and non-Arab populations. The conflict was fought between the Islamist government and the Sudan People’s Liberation Army/Movement (SPLA/M), which sought greater autonomy and rights for the South. The conflict ended with the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement in 2005, which provided for power-sharing and the eventual independence of South Sudan in 2011.

The civil war in the South, however, wasn’t the only war Sudan’s self-appointed President, Omar al-Bashir, was waging during this time. Beginning in 2003, the Darfur-based Sudan Liberation Movement and the Justice and Equality Movement rebel groups began fighting against the government of Sudan, which they accused of oppressing Darfur’s non-Arab population. This resulted in Omar al-Bashir unleashing the Janjaweed militias to target villages throughout the Darfur region as part of its counterinsurgency war against the rebels. The Janjaweed would oftentimes be given ground and air support by government forces as they attacked villages and committed atrocities and war crimes throughout the region. The Darfur genocide claimed the lives of an estimated 300,000 civilians, forced 1.6 million people to flee their homes inside the country and a further 600,000 refugees to escape across the borders into neighboring countries.

In addition to the war in Darfur, the South Kordofan and Blue Nile conflicts began after South Sudan gained independence in 2011 and rebel groups in the border states of South Kordofan and Blue Nile took up arms against Omar al-Bashir’s government in Khartoum, citing discrimination and marginalization. The conflicts in South Kordofan and Blue Nile have also led to the displacement of hundreds of thousands of people and the loss of many civilian lives.

And this brings us into today, where we find General Abdel-Fattah Burhan, the leader of the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) and the de facto ruler of Sudan since 2021, and Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, the leader of the brutal Janjaweed militias AKA the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) battling one another for control of the country in and around the streets of Khartoum.

Indeed, Sudan’s existence is an existence of war. 

There is absolutely nothing worse in this world than war. That is, nothing except when grown adults force children to fight the wars they don’t have the courage to fight themselves. And for the children in Sudan, this is, unfortunately, the reality in which they are forced to live.

The UN estimates there are 19,000 child soldiers currently fighting in the many ongoing conflicts in Sudan and South Sudan. And as abhorrent as this is, in addition to the Sudanese children fighting in wars inside of Sudan, it is well documented that there are many more Sudanese children, some as young as 14, fighting in wars outside of Sudan. Thousands of children from poor and marginalized Sudanese communities have been recruited and lured away with promises of money and education to fight as part of the Saudi-led coalition against the Houthi rebels in the ongoing Yemen civil war as well by various armed groups in Libya, including those aligned with the Libyan National Army (LNA) led by General Khalifa Hartar.

Unfortunately, it is all too simple for us to pretend these atrocities don’t exist; to convince ourselves that there is nothing more we can do; to acquiesce to this absolute disregard for humanity. But the truth, as uncomfortable as it may be, is that these children are no different, and of no less worth, than our own. Yet our reluctance to confront this problem with an absolute and unwavering resolve can only be interpreted as a sign that we don’t care that children around the world are kidnapped and forced to become suicide bombers, human shields, and sex slaves; that when they close their eyes to try and go to sleep at night while clutching a gun instead of a teddybear they are unable to escape the horrors that reside inside their tortured little minds; that when they have a nightmare, they don’t have a mommy or daddy who can comfort them back to sleep.

While we as Americans and other nations around the world may disagree on how best to help Sudan navigate its way out of its seemingly neverending war, surely we can agree that we must come together and do more to end child soldiering, and we must do so now.

While there are indeed policy-related issues that need to happen at the highest levels of governments and in the so-called “Halls of Power” around the world in order to end child soldiering, addressing the root causes of poverty and despair at the grassroots level inside the refugee camps and under-resourced communities these children are coming from must also be a top priority.

We must provide alternatives to families who feel so pressured due to their extreme poverty and lack of hope for a better future that they see no other option than to sell their children into soldiering in the first place. These alternatives must be in the form of real, tangible economic aid. The international NGO and humanitarian community must focus on job skills training, microenterprise development, and educational initiatives that equip people to empower themselves. All too often the programs and services delivered by international NGOs and humanitarian agencies, while well intentioned, are of very little actual benefit to the recipients because the programs fail to address the root causes of poverty and despair, and this must change.

Most importantly, however, is that each and every single one of us must ask ourselves what role we can play in this mission to ensure that all children, everywhere, are able to experience their human right to a childhood devoid of violence and exploitation. For some that means raising awareness of and advocating to end child soldiering; for others it means generously giving financial resources to groups working to combat child soldiering; and for those in positions of power it means using that influence to bring an end to children being used in armed conflicts around the world. Numerous options exist, but doing nothing at all is irrefutably not one of them.

From one war to the next, and from one coup d’état to the next, Sudanese children are paying the ultimate price, and this must end.

About the Author

J.D. Pitts is Founder & Principal Advisor for Ahlan International, a firm specializing in equipping clients to successfully operate in Arab and Islamic contexts worldwide. Prior to founding Ahlan International, J.D. lived for 15 years in Egypt, Syria, Jordan, Sudan, Yemen, and Mauritania. While there, his professional experience included both the education and business sectors, as well as over a decade of deep involvement in humanitarian work ranging from small, grassroots operations to large-scale, UN-managed operations.

he views and opinions expressed in this paper are the author’s and not necessarily those of the Lobo Institute. For more information on the institute or to get on the mailing list for our papers and LoboCasts, please go to Lobo Institute.