U.N. Stopped a Rwanda-Like Genocide, but—Bad News: Child Soldiers Are Back

Famine and chaos are leading to ugly tactics in South Sudan.

A four-year-old orphan scavenges for wild fruits in the swamplands around Nyal, a village in South Sudan. (Photo: Hannah McNeish AFP/Getty Images)

Apr 21, 2014· 2 MIN READ
Scott Johnson is a regular TakePart contributor who has headed Newsweek’s Mexico and Baghdad bureaus and is the author of The Wolf and the Watchman: A Father, a Son, and the CIA.

South Sudan is on the brink of two catastrophes with political roots—a famine that could leave millions in the land-locked nation hungry and the full-fledged return to the use of child soldiers in its ongoing civil conflict.

The country of 11 million people will face critical food shortages that could leave millions of people hungry if farmers aren’t able to plant their crops by May, according to the United Nations. The food crisis—and a broad, fresh chaos that is overtaking day-to-day activity—are direct results of a political breakdown that has spiraled out of control. South Sudan gained its independence in July 2011 and was making slow but steady progress until last December. That's when political infighting led to the instability and the country’s president, Salva Kiir, began to suspect that his vice president, Riek Machar, was plotting a coup. Kiir fired Machar, and the country has been at war with itself ever since. Machar and several high-ranking army officers fled, and the two sides began fighting. Since then, the conflict has devolved further along tribal and ethnic lines.

Last week I spoke with Toby Lanzer, the assistant secretary general of the United Nations, who is in the capital city of Juba overseeing relief operations aimed at preventing the looming famine.

“It is the simplest and worst demonstration of how what was a political struggle has cascaded into an ethnically driven discussion and conflict at the level of communities,” he told me. “The genie has been let out of the bottle, and ethnic issues are at hand in this conflict, which makes it all the harder to resolve.”

Another casualty: thousands of South Sudanese children who have been swept up into the conflict. Prior to this most recent outbreak, the Sudan People’s Liberation Army, which had been fighting on and off with Sudan for South Sudan’s independence for years, had made some small progress toward ridding its ranks of the many children who had found refuge there over the years. But that trend is now being reversed.

“South Sudan had been making very good and successful efforts at not recruiting more children and also releasing those in the army to get them back into education and rehabilitation,” said Doune Porter, chief UNICEF spokeswoman based in Juba. “But once the conflict broke out again, that mechanism within the army broke down, and they started recruiting again.”

The so-called White Army, aligned with Machar’s rebel forces, has been described as an “army of youths,” with many thousands of children in its ranks. UNICEF and U.N. officials say they have received confirmed reports of small children being used as soldiers by both sides, among other vile atrocities.

The fighting for the last several weeks has been so bad at times that thousands of internally displaced people, refugees in their own country, have sought shelter and safety in some of the United Nations camps scattered throughout South Sudan. In Juba alone, one camp has become home to upward of 70,000 refugees—many of them living in squalid conditions as United Nations officials frantically try to secure healthier, more robust facilities. The aid group Doctors Without Borders recently issued a scathing condemnation of the U.N. facilities, accusing the international body of “a shocking display of indifference” to the suffering of the IDPs.

But Joseph Contreras, a spokesman for the U.N. peacekeepers mission in Juba, told me that their efforts may have already helped avert a Rwanda-like genocide.

“When this mission opened its gates to civilians seeking shelter, we did make history,” he told me. “Never before had any peacekeeping mission ever given shelter to such huge numbers of unarmed civilians. And we like to think that we did contribute toward averting a repeat of the Rwanda catastrophe this month.”

For all these efforts, however, the threat of famine could present South Sudan with a level of chaos that exceeds anything the war has wrought so far.

“We already have the second-largest aid operation in the world,” said Lanzer. “And it will grow substantially if the planting season isn’t as it could have been. We’re moving large quantities of food aid for what could be a serious decline.... I'm taking this very seriously now.”