I Dream of Peace continued:
Though the children were poorly educated, a legacy of the war, all had something positive and unique to contribute and all of them were able to work together, with a little help from translators, to analyze their past and present and to develop their vision of a future that they would carry into the main conference. The message they developed was very focused and very clear–Children want peace, they want access to health services, and – above all – they want to go to school and learn.
The Adult Conference
Once the adult participants understood the rationale of the conference and how it was going to be different from traditional meetings, they threw themselves into the tasks. Given the deeply painful past they all shared, which included bitter conflicts between some of the different ethnic groups in the room, the ease with which they focused was impressive. Every participant had suffered trauma and loss as a result of the war. This was reflected in the time-line drawn by the group. Personal tragedies-the loss of children, parents or siblings; bombing of schools; fleeing in terror from attacks-were all included in the timeline. The list of sorries included the helplessness of parents unable to provide for their families during the famine. When participants talked about what they were proud of, it was apparent that people have tried, under very difficult circumstances to improve their lives.
One impressive story was related by the stakeholder group of tribal chiefs. Looking striking in their traditional costumes and using three different languages to communicate with each other, the chiefs told of the attempts they are making to forge reconciliation between the Dinka and Nuer tribes. The dream of the future for children created by the main conference was striking in its similarity to the dream of the children.
Peace and reconciliation came out very strongly, as did the pressing need for education and health services. The adults also identified one other issue which for them is key to securing a better future for Southern Sudan’s children: good governance, with accountable structures respecting human rights.
UNICEF hopes that these Future Searches will mark the start of a process that will place the lives of all Southern Sudan’s children outside the context of political differences, and allow everyone to make a contribution to improve their lives. At the conference, Sudanese living outside Sudan (expatriates from the UK, and South and West Africa) joined in the plan to develop curriculum material and deliver textbooks to villages over the next two years. Another task force said it would identify community members inside Sudan with existing teaching skills. A third group talked about training courses for agriculturists and farmers, while the health care professionals collaborated to work with local citizens to erect buildings to be used as centers. The children formed groups and talked about what they wanted to tell people back home about their experience in Nairobi and the kinds of gatherings they could arrange. On a personal note, one boy, from Yambio was recognized by one of the adult participants, who told him his mother was alive and well and living in Khartoum. Subsequently, UNICEF arranged for him to send a letter to her and she replied to him – the first contact between them since they were separated by war10 years ago.
Follow UP Future Search 6 months later!
UNICEF’s 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 Yang, 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.
Six Months Later – more outcomes!
UNICEF airlifts over 2,500 demobilized child soldiers out of Sudan combat zone
Wire Service Headline
February, 27, 2001
RUMBEK, Sudan, 27 February 2001 – In the largest effort of its kind ever undertaken in Southern Sudan, the United Nations Children’s Fund announced today that it had airlifted more than 2,500 child combatants out of conflict zones and into safe areas where a rehabilitation and family tracing process can begin.
In an evacuation operation that began Friday and continued through the weekend, UNICEF said it moved more than 2,500 former child soldiers from the combat zone of Bahr el Gazal using two humanitarian relief planes operated by the World Food Program. The children were taken to reception centres in the Lakes area, behind the front lines, where local and international NGOs greeted them with medical check-ups and other basic care. A single aircraft was continuing the operation through Tuesday. Children are also being moved from some garrisons by road.
The children – ranging in age from 8 to 18 – were demobilized from military camps run by the rebel Sudan Peoples’ Liberation Army under a personal commitment made by an SPLA commander to UNICEF Executive Director Carol Bellamy in October 2000. Bellamy was in southern Sudan at that time to observe polio immunization activities. “We knew the critical moment had arrived,” said Dr. Sharad Sapra, the head of UNICEF’s operations in southern Sudan. “This is the dry season, and that’s when fighting usually erupts,” he said. “The SPLA should be given credit for following through on the pledge it gave to Carol Bellamy.”
UNICEF said the children will live in transit centres for the next four to nine months while a family tracing process takes place. The centres are being run by local and international NGOs with experience in child protection. During this time the young people will be provided with education, psychosocial counselling, and vocational training. UNICEF has arranged for water points to be built at the sites and the World Food Programme has brought in food. UNICEF said the children evacuated in the airlift fall into two general categories: those who received military training but never saw combat, and those who lived through combat and other traumatic experiences. UNICEF said the former group could be expected to be reunified with family and communities in three to four months. The latter group will require more time, perhaps as long as nine months, and will be given more formal vocational training. UNICEF said children for whom no family members can be traced will remain under the long term care of local authorities and non-governmental organizations – supported by UNICEF – as close as possible to their communities of origin.
Sapra acknowledged that a long process was only just beginning. “Our first priority was to get these children to a place of safety, out of harm’s way,” he said. “Now our goal is to give them an education and some time to recover.” “Our ultimate goal, of course, is to completely and totally end the use of children as combatants in Southern Sudan,” Sapra added. “There are an estimated 9,000 child soldiers in various armed groups here, so we have a way to go. But this operation has shown what can be done with strong advocacy and follow-through. We are more inspired than ever to convince military leaders in this conflict that children have no place in armies.”
NOTE: Demobilization continued until a total of 13,000 children were sent back to their families. In 2005, Sharad Sapra called Sandra to say that the peace agreement between the North and the South had been signed and it was because of the Future Search. Sandra rejected that direct connection, saying there were too many other variables involved in ending a twenty-two year civil war. Sharad responded by saying, “In 1999 the children dreamed of peace in 2005 and, when you dream it, it can come true.”