Christine Ryan / Current Affairs

Children of War

Christine Ryan collects the voices of child soldiers from the Sudan civil war.


Poverty, small arms proliferation and the onset of AIDS have long been the accepted understanding of why children join armies in Africa, but this was shattered by the use of child soldiers in the Sudan Civil War (1983-2005). Each year, thousands of children sign up to war, yet so far the international community views them as victims rather than participants. In Children of War, Christine Ryan challenges this preconception using face-to-face testimonies of former child soldiers of the Sudan Civil War, demonstrating the multi-dimensional motivations which children had for joining the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), and revealing the complexity of their political participation.

Below is a small selection of the interviews Christine Ryan conducted with over 100 former soldiers.

Motivations to become involved with the SPLA often suggest circumstance over accusations of being forced:

‘Life was miserable and coupled with unprecedented series of bad events, which involve emotional distress when trying to describe them. The journey which took us three months to reach Ethiopia was deemed dangerous and unsafe to take but the risks were justified taking because it wasn’t safe at home and dying while looking for weapons to protect oneself and the lives of innocent civilian and properties was deemed appropriate.’
Diing Bul Arok, Interviewed 20/01/2008. Joined the SPLA age 14.

‘There were no way to deny it or to run away. Either Khartoum government kill you or you be with the SPLA.’
Stephen Dut Deng, Interviewed 11/05/2007. Joined the SPLA age 9.

‘You know politicians sit from Nairobi, from Kampala, or from Khartoum and they make allegations that children are forcefully put into the army, that is like a political pulling rope, like if I’m against you I will say that she is taking children into the army by force but that’s not the real scenario, the real scenario was that there was not any other option, no schools, other than join the army so that you get protection from the enemy and you get material support.’
Stephen Dut Deng, Interviewed 15/03/2008.

‘I was not forced but I was also knowing that even though I stay without fighting I will be killed so would be better to go and fight.’
Emmanuel Juma, Interviewed 20/03/2008. Joined the SPLA age 13.

‘It was not a personal choice. I didn’t have a choice to become a soldier. There is nothing interesting in the army. It was the circumstances that dictated it.’
Abraham Kur, Interviewed 15/03/2008. Joined the SPLA age 9.

‘It was actually circumstances that were forcing people. Initially there was nobody forcing people, people were joining voluntarily but it came to the point when you are trained, you have the gun, you are now abide by the manifesto of the SPLA so if you want to leave it was not possible.’
First Lieutenant Joseph Lam Paulino, Interviewed 25/10/2007. Joined the SPLA age 17.

‘I was saying there was no intimidation it was the truth because they were the killers, the Arabs they killed my father.’
Captain Morris Modiloro, Interviewed 25/02/2008. Joined the SPLA age 16

‘I’ve never seen a case [of forced conscription] at least to the best of my knowledge, I’m not saying it’s hasn’t happened, but I’ve never seen a situation where the SPLA went and started collecting a batch of boys and girls, arresting them and taking them to be recruited, no.’
James Lam Dak, Interviewed 08/04/2008. Joined the SPLA age 12.

‘I was never completely forced. As much as many people object to me coming back to be engaged in the front line, I have never thought of staying in a refugee camp and continue my studies. I escaped from Kenya to Southern Sudan in order to be engaged. So I was never really forced to join the SPLA.’
Khang Chol Khang, Interviewed 15/04/2008. Joined the SPLA age 9.

In some instances soldiers, including Khang Chol Khang, would try to make themselves look older so as to join:

‘When we were also there when they come and select people to go to be trained and go to war, everybody was happy. Even if you’re short, you put a stone so that you are selected, people got motivated holding gun, fighting.’
Khang Chol Khang

‘I was very small and I was very excited and I need to join, I need to go to the fighting, so what are you going to do, I used to put on two uniforms I can even remember . . . , I put one and put another one so that I will become big and make a . . . a sack and sit on it so that I become taller than others so that I will be picked, but my face could not, my face could tell me no, they will just look at my face and say ‘no you are very small.’ 
Simon Akuel Deng, Interviewed 03/11/2007. Joined the SPLA age 11.

NGOs often claim that the primary reason why children join is survival. Specifically they mention situations where children lack basic needs, so they say to themselves ‘ok the SPLA, I can get food and clothes there’. Although this is sometimes a factor, as with Morris Modiloro,

‘My family’s life was based on cow’s milk and local produces. Their lives became miserable when they started running into the bushes to save their lives from government backed militia who were looting and burn house down.’
Captain Morris Modiloro

generally former child soldiers cite more political motivations:

‘There was not any non-political motivations, I was not going there for survival because if it is survival I was not going to go out of Juba because I have relatives they provide they take care of my basic things for survival, so that one was not the reason, the reason was basically for political purpose.’
Anjelo Magena Wade, Interviewed 16/03/2008. Joined the SPLA age 16.

‘Well that’s not accurate. That is not accurate because first of all the way our communities work, I can survive anywhere I go. If I went to any corner of this country in Southern Sudan, I’ll be given food and our communities have very strong responsibilities towards children. So that is not a reason, that’s not a reason.’
Simon Akuel Deng

‘I initially liked how soldiers dressed, that was the best thing and then when we were told what was happening down in our area, how people are being killed massacred, like the 1991 massacre… I was motivated to continue fighting because it was like now nature, we didn’t know anything good but protecting than fighting, until we went to Kenya when we saw a different world.’
Captain Ngor Ngor Kuany, Interviewed 21/01/2008. Joined the SPLA age 14.

‘If there was no war then if there was equality in Sudan the better thing I would have finalised my education, built my own house and bring up my children in a stabilised country but there was no[ne of] those things in the first place. So joining the SPLA was better than remaining in Sudan or at home in the first place.’
Granag Majak, Interviewed 03/10/2007. Joined the SPLA at 14.

‘Gun, liberation, self-defence, protecting of my relatives or peoples and properties.’
Philip Malok, Interviewed 03/10/2007. Joined the SPLA age 13.

‘Yeah I was very happy because I joined the SPLA to protect our country and to protect our mother and my father.’
Jonas Acouth Mayom, Interviewed 12/04/2008. Joined the SPLA age 9.

‘The police at the time could not provide adequate protection for us, the police was more of a paramilitary, the military could not provide protection to us, so we thought maybe since the SPLA has been fighting for a cause and some of these fundamental elements are the mismanagement of the security institution of the government of Sudan so we would rather go to the SPLA and seek the very security that we are looking at. So basically our security progressed from family to communities and then to the SPLA as a bigger institution.’
Lam Tungwar Kueigwong, Interviewed 03/11/2007. Joined the SPLA age 9.

‘What I want to gain is this you know the most important human being always just to know your dignity where you are, by then we Southerners in Sudan we were not knowing ourselves we were just staying life foreigners as you see now how South Sudan is, so this is why people, our grand people was decide to go and fight so when we come up we children who have been told that now this is the situation that we have and the people to make us leave are these certain group who come and took our land by force so the only option is just to go and fight because you can’t live as somebody to come and take your land while you are there so you are better to die from your own land.’
Peter Kuot Jel, Interviewed 30/01/2008. Joined the SPLA age 15.

‘What I had feelings of the problem was anger. That’s also after the schools were closed I was feeling bad about that, when you reach the villages in 1985 they introduced this looting of the cattles and the things that’s why we feel more angry and then we say let me join even if, if I get a gun then I’ll have to defend my place and maybe sure make stop these things of looting my properties.’
Granag Majak

‘Protection of life and dignity.’
Marial Kuol Aguto, Interviewed 03/10/2007. Joined the SPLA age 15.

‘I think I was motivated because our house was burnt down in ‘86 by the Sudan government, so I felt like if I have a chance then I should go and vengeance or to that was one of the motivation that I had and it was also because others like me were joining so there was no way I was to be without everybody.’
Sergeant Machar Malet Kuol, Interviewed 14/02/2008. Joined the SPLA age 9.

Former child soldiers on guns:

‘I had political thought. The political motivation that I joined the SPLA is that I need a gun to defend my cattle that was the whole majority.’
Lam Tungwar Kueigwong, Interviewed 03/11/2007. Joined the SPLA age 9.

‘Ok in the first place there were two things, I was overjoyed because having a gun was like power and protection and another thing was the fear of unknown because when you are in the field you may expect death or injury or anything like that. So when I was trained and got my gun I was overjoyed because of having the gun and the power but later on when I was in the field I developed a sense of hopelessness and fear because you know anything can happen from that time.’
Lieutenant Colonel Dut Riak, Interviewed 19/03/2008. Joined the SPLA age 17.

‘Even at the age of fifteen when you don’t have a gun, its like you have a gun because even the way you are being taught its already like you know what’s happened, its like you have already carried a gun, its like you have gone to fight.’
Garang Majak

On killing:

‘You cannot say I was the killer and we were not murderers, we were freedom fighters, we were fighting to liberate the area but it was not our interest to kill the people but to get freedom that was our aim during the war.’
Napolean Adok, Interviewed 14/04/2008. Joined the SPLA age 14.

‘There are places where you, in the beginning you feel enthusiastic because it became a model for bravery, [but]  when you see your colleague die and something happen to them, you know you begin to feel that actually it’s quite dangerous what you thought was fun. So then you begin to think of ‘is this really the right thing, do I die like that person or, I didn’t come up for this.’
Anjelo Magena Wade

‘It’s not about killing it’s also that you are in the line to be killed.’
Captain Luka Loku Natana, Interviewed 14/04/2008. Joined the SPLA age 12.

On what they gained:

‘I think that despite the fact that I have spent my best part of my life in the SPLA I believe that I’m, despite the fact that I’ve lost a lot of things, a lot of chances that I would have gone and finished my education, I feel that I’m better off because in near future if Southern Sudan amends with the stability that we got today I feel that I’ve done something, my children will not face the same problem that I’ve faced.’
Captain Ngor Ngor Kuany

‘Oh I cannot say I’m better off, I cannot join the SPLA better off, but I could have been better off if I could be out some other country to study and achieve . . . free, I could be better off but I don’t regret, when I get our land or get our freedom and I’m better off I don’t regret but I make sure that my kids they are better off in future but I don’t regret being in the SPLA.’
Captain Morris Modiloro

‘I want to make sure that I also participate so that I enter the history of my country.’
John Madol Puou, Interviewed 17/03/2008. Joined the SPLA age 16

Children of WarChristine Ryan gained her PhD in Politics at SOAS, University of London. She is currently Lecturer in Politics and Global Studies at the University of Winchester and her new book, The Children of War: Child Soldiers as Victims and Participants in the Sudan Civil War, is out now.

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