AKOT, Sudan (BP)–Boy soldiers, once forced to fight alongside rebels of the Sudan Peoples Liberation Army, are slowly adjusting to civilian life after being released.
Southern Baptist workers have joined other Great Commission Christians to meet the boys’ physical and spiritual needs.
More than 1,600 of 2,500 boys released by the SPLA in March have made their way to a refugee camp in Akot, Sudan. The boys, some as young as 8 years old, live in dilapidated buildings and makeshift tents in the camp. UNICEF has pitched in to supply some food, sanitation, a T-shirt, hat and backpack for each boy.
Most of the boys express relief at being anywhere else after their traumatic military experiences, but missionaries fear the boys soon will grow restless as conditions in the camp deteriorate.
Thousands of boys have been forcibly recruited into military units on both sides of Sudan’s 18-year-old civil war. The Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers cites Sudan as having one of the worst child soldier problems in the world.
The Sudan Peoples Liberation Army, which had held these boy soldiers, fights on behalf of largely Christian and animist southern Sudan against Muslim-backed government forces from the north. Generally, boy soldiers are kidnapped and forced to fight against their own people.
UNICEF hopes to reunite the boys with their families, who are in Sudan’s northern Bahr El Gazal region, within four months.
“UNICEF has provided some basic medicines for the boys, [which] seem to be adequate at this time,” International Mission Board worker John Witte said. While a medical clinic is being planned specifically for the camp, a separate clinic run by Southern Baptist workers and the Samaritan’s Purse relief agency is filling in the gap to care for the boys’ medical conditions.
The International Mission Board is one of the first non-governmental agencies to offer help to the boys.
“We believe God is giving us an opportunity to work with these boys,” Witte said. “We’d like to respond in three ways: medically, educationally and pastorally.”
In March, Baptist missionaries Larry Pepper, a physician, and Ben Haley traveled from Uganda to conduct medical and pastoral work among the boys. Another missionary, Janet McDowell, will supply medical help in April. Finally, a team of youth workers from the United States will do pastoral and evangelism work during May.
“We have been welcomed with open arms to share the message of Jesus Christ,” Witte said.
During the initial survey trip, Witte and Larry Pumpelly, another International Mission Board worker, were able to share Bible stories with the young boys. The missionaries told the boy soldiers about another great boy soldier who defeated a giant.
“[The boys] cheered the skill of David to kill the giant with only a slingshot,” Witte said. “I hope and pray they also heard the clear message that God can use even a boy to accomplish his greatest tasks.
“He can, you know.”
(BP) low res photo posted in the BP Photo Library at http://www.bpnews.net. Photo title: SUDAN.
Contributions toward the ministry to the boy soldiers in southern Sudan can be sent to: International Mission Board, Office of Finance, Southern Sudan Boy Soldiers, P.O. Box 6767, Richmond, VA 23230.
— Search prayer requests for southern Sudan: http://www.imb.org/CompassionNet/countries.asp.
— Missions websites on Sudan people groups: http://www.peopleteams.org/NAME.htm.
— Map, more information on Sudan: http://www.odci.gov/cia/publications/factbook/geos/su.html.
Editors’ Note: Beginning on February 23, 2001, in southern Sudan, UNICEF, with the help of World Food Programme (WFP) relief flights, airlifted more than 2,500 former child soldiers out of conflict zones in the provinces of Northern and Western Bahr el Ghazal into reception centers in safe areas in the nearby province of Lakes, where rehabilitation and family tracing programs are now underway. Ranging in age from 8 to 18 years, the children were demobilized from military camps run by the rebel Sudan Peoples’ Liberation Army (SPLA), following a personal commitment by an SPLA commander to UNICEF Executive Director Carol Bellamy when she visited southern Sudan in October 2000. Including children who received military training but never saw combat and those who lived through combat and other traumatic experiences, the former child soldiers were greeted at the transit centers by UNICEF-assisted local and international NGOs. The children, who are expected to remain at the centers for four to nine months, are receiving health care, education, psychosocial counseling and vocational training while family tracing is underway. Children for whom no family member can be traced will remain under the long-term care of local authorities and NGOs, assisted by UNICEF. There are an estimated 9,000 child soldiers in various armed groups throughout Sudan.