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SOUTH SUDAN: Children Snatched Out of their Homes

Miriam Gathigah

JUBA, Sep 22 2011 (IPS) - In villages across South Sudan children are being snatched out of their homes in the dead of night, never to see their families again.

Children are abducted during cattle raids in South Sudan. Credit: Charlton Doki/IPS

Children are abducted during cattle raids in South Sudan. Credit: Charlton Doki/IPS

Some are used as soldiers by their captives in cattle wars with rival communities, while others are sold to families with no children. And there is little that the newly independent country has been able to do to protect these children.

“I was preparing dinner for my family. I was alone with my children, who are all under 12 years. Their father lives in the city (Juba) as do many South Sudanese men who abandoned the village for the glitter of city life. I sat my two-year-old on the floor of our house but as soon as I turned my back, a man grabbed my child and tried to run away with him,” says Maria Lokolong from Torit, Eastern Equatoria state.

Instinctively Lokolong held on to her baby boy as the man stabbed her repeatedly. But she would not let go. Her neighbours answered her cry for help and the intruder ran away.

“This is especially common in Eastern Equatoria state. In the evenings when women are preparing dinner and their attention is divided, an intruder is most likely to strike during this time. Often, they prefer babies,” explains Naomi Bona, a member of the Sudanese Women Union in Eastern Equatoria state, a women’s rights organisation.

If Lokolong had not been so brave she may have lost her baby forever.

“Amongst tribes that have rituals like facial scarring, once an abducted child undergoes this ritual, they can never be traced and they too will never know where they came from,” explains Richard Lugor a member of the country’s ruling party the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement.

Children are also often abducted during cattle raids. Inter-ethnic clashes over cattle have long prevailed in South Sudan as owning many cattle is a sign of wealth. But during these raids women and children are often the victims. Women are raped and children are abducted.

“Although the Murle community (the largest ethnic group in the country) have long been infamous for child abduction during cattle raids, the Nuer and the Dinka communities are also using child abduction as part of their assault during cattle raids against the Murle,” says Lugor.

Lugor says abducted children are used as soldiers in conflict situations. “Children are also placed in the forefront of conflict, they rarely second guess in the face of attack, they have no wives and children at home to think about, unlike adult soldiers,” explains Lugor. He adds that the Murle community are also known for selling abducted children to childless families.

But it seems that government is not able to do much to protect these children.

“Child abduction has been underreported in South Sudan and hence the lack of a concrete government response. There are, however, no easy solutions until tribes, especially those in Jonglei state, learn to co-exist. Until then more children are at risk of being separated from their families forever,” explains John Lochio, an expert on peace and conflict in South Sudan. A student of international relations, Lochio has been involved in peace mitigation at community level.

However, the government denies this. Member of Parliament in Jonglei state, where cattle raids are frequent, Adeng Leek, says the government is reducing the number of conflicts.

“The government is efficient in sending security forces to calm down warring tribes. This has stopped violence from escalating even further. We are also sensitising the community to change their perception of having many herds of cattle as a sign of wealth. This will reduce cattle rustling incidences and reduce conflict among tribes in Jonglei,” she says.

However, during the clashes over cattle in Jonglei state in August the country’s army, the Sudan People’s Liberation Army, did not intervene citing a lack of capacity. In that incident 640 people were killed, 761 wounded, 38,000 head of cattle were stolen and 8,924 houses were burnt down. And, the United Nations Mission in South Sudan estimates, 258 children were abducted.

South Sudan fought a 21-year civil war with Sudan for independence. But the bloodshed is far from over in South Sudan. The regularity with which conflict is flaring up in various parts of the new republic is overwhelming.

According to the U.N., since January there have been more than 330 violent incidences across South Sudan resulting in the deaths of at least 3,000 people. This conflict is largely attributed to cattle rustling and the on and off disarmament exercise.

At any given point in time, there is usually some kind of conflict and tension in one state or another, especially in Bahr el Ghazal and the Greater Upper Nile.

South Sudan is broadly divided into three regions: Bahr el Ghazal, which constitutes four states; the Greater Upper Nile; and the Equatoria regions; which have three states each. Northern Bahr al Ghazal, due to its proximity to South Kordofan, a province in Sudan, is among the most politically sensitive regions.

“The conflict in South Sudan is complex and it will not end overnight. The government has to deal with rewarding relatives of those involved in the struggle … As a result, certain tribes feel marginalised and it provokes conflict,” explains Lochio.

“Then there is the issue of illegal firearms in the hands of civilians,” Lochio adds. Eastern Equatoria state deputy speaker Paul Napwon has continued to call for the removal of illegal firearms from the hands of civilians, which he says has continued to compromise efforts towards lasting peace.

The government of South Sudan estimates that at least 2,500 illegal firearms are in the hands of the civilians. A disarmament exercise in May in Unity state was meant to promote the future peace of the country. But it had the reverse effect and provoked a conflict that led to women and girls being raped. “The horrid past that many Sudanese women have lived through may not be a thing of the past as sporadic conflict continues to thrive in various parts of the expansive 10 states, which constitute the Republic of South Sudan,” says Leek.

But other stakeholders are now partnering with South Sudan’s government to help empower women, and through them hopefully children too.

“We have a five-step comprehensive plan to empower women. This entails economic empowerment to help women achieve economic dependency, protection of women and girls from gender-based violence as well as involving more women in conflict mitigation,” says U.N. Women Acting Director for South Sudan Lucie Luguga.

The programme will be implemented alongside South Sudan’s 2012 to 2013 development plan.

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