Southern Sudan: Becoming a child soldier
12 February 2009

A young SPLA soldier in northern Uganda before a joint attack on the Lord's Resistance Army, December 2008. (Frido Pflueger SJ/JRS)
I have learned that true peace comes from the heart of a person.
Yei, 12 February 2009 – In 1983, when the second civil war started in his country, Salomon* was only 11 years old. That year the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) was established and immediately they began broadcasting on the radio, a very powerful war propaganda tool. 

At the time, he was far too young to be able to understand what was going on; but many people and events would subsequently convince him of the necessity for war.

After playing a vital role in the first civil war, Salomon’s father was later captured and held in detention for seven years. After the peace agreement was signed in 1972, he was released and elected as a member of parliament on behalf of the Sudan Socialist Union. He attributed his achievements to his military experience and this inspired Salomon.

The power of political rallies

Then there were the political rallies. As Salomon grew older most of the rallies he attended promoted the view that power lies down the barrel of a gun.

“I was one of those who wanted power and popularity: to be like my father. I also wanted to be like my peers. Joining the army, particularly in Eastern Equatoria, was fashionable. Everybody was familiar with guns, and civilians were often considered more courageous than professional army soldiers. Even though I was not ready for action, I was becoming motivated,” Salomon told JRS.

When Magwi town was captured in 1985 everyone capable of carrying a gun was made a soldier. In February that year Salomon was also conscripted. They constituted the red army and Salomon became the bodyguard of a commissioned officer, a medical doctor.

“This sudden transition in lifestyle created many dilemmas for me. Polite words, such as ‘may I’ became very rare. Orders were heard everywhere and mistakes were punishable by 50 to 100 strokes of the cane. Singing heroic songs became part of our indoctrination. On graduation day, we were made understand that our guns were everything to us, through the use of phrases like ‘this is your father, your mother, your food, your wife’. These guns were also to be tickets to loot and rape,” Salomon recalls.

Escaping to Uganda

“My life as a child soldier was not leading me anywhere. I was not ready to face this reality, even though I desired to,” Salomon remembers.

Fortunately for Salomon his guardian recognised this and helped him to escape to Uganda in December 1985, where he was to receive an education. 

During his brief time as a soldier he learned many lessons: the cost of war and the importance of education.

War places a heavy cost on society. It not only destroys buildings, roads, the economy, leaving a country with huge debts, it extinguishes positive ideas about development and self-determination. It grooms hostility, promotes a dependency syndrome, and reduces life expectancies in so many ways. This war environment influences habits and ideas. When falsehoods are repeated again and again, people begin to believe them. 

There are no shortcuts in life

“We blindly accepted what our commanders told us until one day he instructed us to attack a convoy from the nearby town of Torit. Believing that these soldiers were poorly armed, we attacked. Hundreds of our young soldiers went missing,” Salomon remembers. 

He also learned the importance of education to personal, societal and even career development, even in the military. He has come to understand that there are no short cuts in life. 

Education teaches children not to accept everything they are told. But this, Salomon says, depends on the teachers. They look to adults as role models and adults should show children how to exercise their talent instead of deciding their future for them. 

Nineteen years later, Solomon began working as the education officer for the Needs Service Education Agency (formerly the New Sudan Education Association). In 2008, he began working with JRS helping refugees, forcefully displaced and other marginalised groups. It has become a priority for him because of his experiences.

“I have learned that true peace comes from the heart of a person”, Salomon says.

*not his real name