Future Search The Method

Future Search to Demobilize Child Soldiers in South Sudan: A Personal Perspecitve
By Siddharth Chatterjee (UNICEF/OLS Director, living and working in Rumbek, South Sudan.)

Rumbek, South Sudan, July, 2000: UNICEF/OLS (Operation Lifeline Sudan), under the leadership of Dr. Sharad Sapra, undertook a voyage of discovery in the Rumbek, South Sudan. Rumbek, once the beating heart of the South, is a town that has changed hands many times in the past years. It is a town razed to the ground that still continues to bear the consequence of technology in its most destructive form. Meandering on the morass of poverty and despair, the population has gone through the years of privation and degradation with quiet dignity. A town once well known for being the seat of learning in South Sudan, the ugly hand of war has led to the complete obliteration of social institutions, health centers, schools; each building stands a testimony to the ugly hand of war.

However, from the ashes of tragedy is rising the phoenix of good hope. UNICEF and other NGOs have set up operations in Rumbek and on July 4, 2000, for the first time, an effort was launched by UNICEF to look at the malady encumbering the social and demographic structures-the problem of child soldiers. A future search was planned to find a way out of this tragic situation. But one day before the future search was scheduled, death struck from above by an air raid, killing and wounding innocents who since 1998 had enjoyed a phase of peace and tranquility.

The Yin and the Yang

An ancient Chinese aphorism appropriated the week that was producing images conflicting and contradictory; the Yin and the Yong, the passive and the active principles that govern the universe, opposites yet as entwined as Siamese twins. Both the elements, the positive and the negative, conspired to drag the events in opposing directions, yet the positive prevailed with the resounding success of the future search. It was a meeting on peace. It was about demobilizing child soldiers. It was about forgetting and reconciling past animosities. Yet during the future search, as participants were involved in animated discussions, an Antonov bomber would be spotted and a sinister ominous silence would fall over the proceedings. The silence would be punctuated only by the faint drone of the hostile airplane carrying its arsenal of deadly bombs meant to kill and main the unsuspecting and the innocent.

The cult of the gun prevails in Sudan. No gun-toter, unless the gun-toting is socially institutionalized (as in the case with soldiers in established and desciplined armies), gives up the gun easily. The gun gives a sense of control and power, a peculiar pleasure and excitement and a mission. Revenge being the utmost consideration. It transcends moral power, seducing the wielder into a vortex of violence. Violence in turn gradually thrives to become an end in itself, and with its growth as a factor in influencing dialogue makes way for brutality, anarchy, and irrationality. The child soldier has fallen into this precipice of revenge and hostility and has been indoctrinated to live out the Robin Hood image, with a misplaced sense of adventure. The problem of the child soldier in South Sudan is essentially a human problem, a product of human behavior, human intellect, human character and human error. No explanation in terms of geography, climate, broad political or military considerations can possible do justice to the facts.

A Saga, and Adventure

The future search did not treat the theme of child soldiers with pity or compassion nor was it a glorification of endurance and bravery. It was a saga, an adventure, surreal in its quality, which was meant to explore the human spirit, the spirit of the community to come to terms with the tragedy of child soldiers. The stakeholders included broad spectrum of the community and child soldiers themselves, school children, parents, teachers, religious leaders, NGOs, village and tribal chiefs, and most significantly the local authorities and commanders from the SPLA (Sudanese People's Liberation Army).

The future search generated enormous discussions. It started with the theme of delving into the past, revisiting their histories as individuals and collectively, and presenting the past by a brief explanation in mixed groups. The presentations were rife with emotion and pain. The following day the participants were encouraged to navigate the present and analyze the basic problem plaguing their society relating to child soldiers and to identify the reasons that led to the recruitment of the child soldiers. Once this was done, the participants painted future scenarios and were asked to come up with an action plan including how each of the stakeholder groups would work toward demobilizing the child soldiers and prevent it from happening in the future. Despite the Antonovs flying overhead, the participants developed a sense of imperviousness to their diabolical presence and chose to continue with their deliberations.

On July 5, 2000, while the future search was in progress, a remarkable event took place in the near vicinity. A group of active child soldiers were demobilized by their military commanders and handed back to their parents and village chiefs. Once their military uniforms and AK-47 assault rifles were removed, suddenly there was a return to innocence. Boys who had been turned prematurely into men were going back to being boys. All those present to the event found it hard to keep back the tears; and the silent faces of the boys told their own stories, their agonies and turmoil, torn away from parents and relations, schools and friends, into the ugly quagmire of a protracted liberation struggle.

The future search ended on July 6, 2000 after the presentation of the action plans by each of the stakeholder groups. All walked away with a spring in their step and a note of self-congratulation, a new confidence that the international community cares and with enormous good will and gratitude toward this initiative taken by UNICEF.

For the human mind in South Sudan, where the most modern technology is the automatic weapons, to comprehend such spacious vistas of ensuing changes to their lives is a challenge as formidable as the counting of miles lying between the stars. Yet UNICEF as the facilitators of the future search felt manifest satisfaction at the outcome and would energize all possible resources to transform the mission statement of the meeting into action plans and a foreseeable reality.


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