As part of the peace negotiations with the government in Khartoum, the rebel movement Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) or rather its political arm Sudan People's Liberation Movement has been demobilising hundreds of child soldiers since March. Many of these children, ranging in age from ten to 17, had been recruited by force (some of them as young as eight) to fight as child soldiers in a civil war that has been going for decades. They were stranded in Malakal where an SOS Children's Village was established in 2002, right in the middle of the crisis zone.
Negotiations between SPLA/SPLM and the Sudanese government who have been involved in a disastrous civil war for 21 years may soon result in a lasting peace agreement. Contrary to what is going in the western region of Dafur, where a full-blown humanitarian catastrophe on a massive scale has developed, the terribly maltreated population in the country's south may have a reason to hope for better times.
For a long time, the traces of war will remain visible and it will take decades to overcome the legacy of a conflict, which left more than two million people dead. There were also many child soldiers among the victims of civil war. Up to 12,000 children have been demobilised since late 2001, an estimated 2,500 still belong to the ranks of the SPLA fighting units.
Hundreds of children and youths officially demobilised or fleeing the SPLA forces landed in Malakal coming from the borders of Ethiopia, Kenya and Eritrea after up to two weeks of marching. They leave a dark past behind them. Before them lies an uncertain future. They were trained to kill, not read and write. I
n the context of an SOS Children's Village resocialisation programme, at least a number of minor ex-combatants will get a chance to return to civilian life. Currently, SOS Children's Villages looks after 210 children and young people. The SOS Children's Village on the ground supplies warm meals, medical aid and clothes.
The initial phase of the emergency relief project saw more than 500kg of medicines being shipped to Malakal by air. Blankets, mattresses, and chairs were brought in to bring the children's emergency shelters up to minimum standards. One child had to undergo surgery to have a bullet removed, a child with special needs was given a wheelchair, and another child is now receiving successful psychotherapeutic treatment for phobias resulting from the stress and experience of war.
Leisure activities and intensive guidance are used to create a meaningful everyday life for the children, help them getting used to life in a normal context - in peace - and support them in learning the rules of social interaction anew. A soccer team, a volleyball team and a drama group with 20 members have been formed; cultural activities like dancing have also been very well received.
One of the problems with the reintegration process is that there is no official proof of identity of the children. This means they are not registered citizens and, accordingly, do not have access to any educational or medical services. SOS Children's Villages tries to organise national identity documents to make resocialisation easier for the children. A second phase of the project will include the opportunity to attend school and receive basic education, a project to be organised in co-operation with UNICEF.
The most important step on the way back to normal, integrated life is family reintegration. In many cases, this will be difficult to achieve. Past events mean that many of the children will not be accepted any more by their families. In the meantime, it has been possible for two children to be reintegrated into their families. Currently, the International Red Cross tries to locate the families of ten other children.
The resocialisation project is planned to cover a period of up to one year, depending on the progress made in family reintegration, community reintegration and political stability in the region.
SOS Children's Village Malakal is the second village in Sudan, where SOS Children's Villages became active in 1975. An SOS Children's Village located on the outskirts of the capital city of Khartoum has been in operation since 1978; there, SOS Children's Villages also operates a kindergarten, a school, a youth facility and a farm project. A few kilometres further south, SOS Children's Villages established a water well project in 1995, which secures fresh water supplies for about 25,000 people. In 1998, an emergency relief programme was implemented to help a total of 2,300 people in the southern region around the city of Wau. SOS Children's Villages established six food supply centres, provided the population with medicines and clothes, medical aid and training opportunities, and also set up a camp with 41 living huts.