Academic Papers

To what extent did the thousands of young Sudanese boys that fled their homeland between the Civil War Years (1983 and 2005) succeed in ‘finding safety’?

Between the years 1983 and 2005 thousands of Sudanese boys (an estimated 20 000) fled their homeland in search of safety. Approximately 4000 boys were sent to America for education, and may have found security, however, the majority of the 20 000 lost boys who left Sudan during the war years did not find permanent safety. The refugee camps might have provided some form of physical safety but their chances of an effective education and economic future remained insecure and therefore, unsafe.

The lost boys fled because of a second devastating civil war that raged throughout Sudan and which ended six years later with South Sudan being granted a fragile independence. Conflict between the northern states and southern states had begun in 1955 and temporarily abated in 1972, only to fuel again in 1983. The reasons for the conflict were a result of ethnic and religious differences, as well as exploitation by the northern controlled government, primarily Arabic and with close ties to Arab countries to the north of them, whereas the Southern Sudanese states felt more closely aligned with the countries neighboring them, Kenya, Tanganyika and Uganda. Rich oil fields lay in the areas between North and South and both sides wanted to have control over these areas. In the early 1980s, the largely Arab-dominated government in the northern states introduced Shira Law, which meant strict enforcement of Muslim Law. This angered the southerners and the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), led by John Garang, was set up and called for the establishment of a “New Sudan”.

In the following years, various attempts were made to form coalition governments but these failed and instability continued throughout Sudan. Life for young Sudanese people became more difficult. Education in Sudan was severely impacted offering few opportunities for young people. The government did not invest in education and enforcement of Islamic-style education led to few economic opportunities in Sudan. Adding to the instability was the military rule and excessively harsh punishments that took place with villages often being wiped out. The Bor Massacre in 1991 was one example of this. Young boys were targets for conscription into the different armies, and if they refused, they and their families would face death. Food was extremely scarce, and therefore large emigration occurred with civilians believing that their only chance was to find refuge outside Sudan. Thousands of ‘lost boys’, travelling without parents (most who had been killed), believed that they would be safer if they left Sudan for neighboring countries such as Ethiopia and Kenya. Conditions in Sudan during the war were so terrible that they were convinced that if they stayed, they would be slaughtered by the different armies. For this reason, they fled and began exceptionally long walks hoping to survive the intense heat and cold, wild animals and army attacks. The name ‘lost boys’ was given to these young boys by the aid workers in the refugee camps where some of the boys who did survive ended up, to ultimately be resettled in America and Canada. These boys did find safety and some security and comfort. However, the terrible physical and emotional conditions for most of the boys along the journey, the enlistment into armies as young soldiers and the pain of having to adapt to new situations, meant that many of them died. Added to this, many who attempted to return to Sudan after years in America, and hoping to find lost family, faced a country riddled with insecurities.

The Sudanese People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) began to induct boys in to the movement. One of these boys who fled was 9-year-old Zachira, who left his mother, father and three siblings and set off on a 1000-mile journey to Ethiopia. Zachira was one of the fortunate boys who survived to tell his tale, and reach safety. Wild animals often attacked the boys and some drowned while crossing flooded rivers. A further danger was when the boys were caught in the crossfire of fighting forces– only half of the original 20 000 reached the Kakuma Refugee Camp in Kenya after a year of walking.

The SPLA was responsible for separating boys from their homes and families for military training. The battalions of young boys were known as the Red Army, and were deployed alongside SPLA units which is horrifying and definitely not safe for the young boys as we are told that the Red Army was always massacred first because they were not good soldiers because they were too young.

The International Rescue Committee, a global body, was closely linked to the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), which received funds from many donor nations such as America, Britain and Germany. Although the camps were permanently overcrowded, and constantly in need of funds, qualified aid workers from around the globe – International Rescue Committee and Human Rights Watch both linked to the United Nations Organisation, attempted to keep the refugees within the camps safe. The young boys who had fled from Sudan, ended up in camps such as the Kakuma Refugee Camp in Kenya. Considering that the death rate was exceptionally high in many of these camps (estimates of 8 children a day die), the eventual safety of the lost boys was debatable. The International Rescue Committee helped hundreds to start new lives across the country. They went to America with the purpose of going to school. The boys were interviewed by the Naturalization and Joint Volunteer Agencies to find out whether they would be allowed to go to school in the United States.

William Murowel was another Lost Boy who found safety in America after ten years in a refugee camp in Kenya. In the camp, they boys spent their time holding soccer tournaments and going to school where they learnt to speak, read and write English. Even though conditions in the refugee camp might have not been completely comfortable and their freedom was curtailed – confined within a 30-mile radius – the boys would have been safe to some extent although there are reports that the SPLA attacked some of these camps so that they could increase their numbers of soldiers.

To answer the question of whether the lost boys succeeded in finding safety, it is accurate to say that most young boys who fled from Sudan during the Civil War did not find permanent safety. Thousands died because of a variety of factors. Many spent years as boy soldiers or in refugee camps which to a large extent did not offer high levels of permanent safety and security, because of limited opportunities, the high number of boys in similar conditions, their years of lack of education, the fear that camps were potential targets for Sudanese military groups, and potentially permanent psychological difficulties . Some, such as Zacharia and William, as well as close to 4000 other Lost Boys were resettled in America and did find some level of safety and access to education. However, although the boys might have had physical safety in America, for those who wished to return to their home country of Sudan, conditions continued to be unsafe for years after the war.

To conclude, although the approximate 4000 boys who were sent to America for education, probably did find security, the majority of the 20 000 lost boys who left Sudan during the war years did not find permanent safety. The refugee camps might have provided some form of physical safety but their chances of an effective education and economic future remained insecure and therefore, unsafe.


By: Eben Billa, First Year Politics and International Relations student

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