Sudan civil war creates oasis of tough little boys

SUDAN: AN UNSEEN TRAGEDY. Part 2

April 22, 1993|By Doug Struck | Doug Struck,Staff Writer

PALATAKA, Sudan -- They are the lost boys of Palataka.

They do not know where their parents are, or if they are alive. The boys are trapped on a remote hilltop, cut off from the world by miles of rutted road and surrounded by men with automatic weapons.

They have no beds, few clothes, and often nothing to eat. Their present is dismal; their past was worse.

About 4,000 boys live here, most between the ages of 7 and 15. Leaders of the anti-government rebel group that keeps them here call this a school and say that the boys are here to get an education. But there are no books, no paper, nothing with which these students can write.

"Please, could you give me your pen?" asks a boy on seeing an unaccustomed stranger.

There could be no sadder proof of the misery of this country than the boys at Palataka. Their odyssey is a record of the suffering of south Sudan.

The boys themselves say little to outsiders about what they have seen. Are they distrustful? Afraid? Or under orders from their keepers?

They do not say, mute witnesses to the tragedy of Sudan. They are proof in flesh that Sudan is -- in the words of Jim Kunder, an official of the Agency for International Development -- "the most silent of the major humanitarian crises around the world today."

Many of the boys arrived here after years of fleeing from one refugee camp to another, often in long forced marches on which friends and brothers died.

The civil war between southern rebels and the Islamic fundamentalist government in Khartoum, the Sudanese capital, keeps them from returning to their families, even if the families could be found. The war has gone on longer than some of their lives.

'A front for rebels'

There are strong suspicions that they are being kept here so that rebel militias can siphon off relief supplies brought for the boys.

"It's a front for the rebels," says one Westerner familiar with the camp, who asked not to be named in order to retain access to the boys.

Palataka is an area of grassy hills where coffee plantations once flourished in southern Sudan. By air, it is 30 miles north of the Ugandan border. By land, it is a circuitous and jolting five-hour trip in a jeep.

From the green borders along the road emerge dozens of rebel soldiers carrying Kalashnikov rifles. They are members of the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA), which is fighting the government -- and anyone else who gets in the way.

Last September, three aid workers and a journalist were killed on this road to Palataka.

The trees open to reveal a hilltop school, built for Italian missionaries in 1948.

From a distance it seems an airy campus of about 20 buildings. But closer inspection reveals that the structures are boarded and empty. Many have no roofs.

The children who sleep on the bare concrete floors are the flotsam of Sudan's civil war. The fighting that began in 1983 scattered families. The vast, rugged land, lack of communication and hostile armies have kept them apart.

Most of the boys lost their families in attacks by the northern government in the mid-1980s.

After fighting intensified in 1988, thousands of boys were seen walking without families toward safety in Ethiopia.

Why only boys remains unanswered.

It is customary for boys and men in southern Sudan to spend summers on cattle camps away from the women, and one explanation is that the refugees were divided this way. But there seems to be no corresponding group of young girls.

Another explanation, advanced by the Sudanese government, is that the rebel guerrillas herded the boys for a source of future recruits and a magnet for relief supplies.

Like many refugees, most of the boys lost or sold all of their possessions en route, and arrived sick, hungry and exhausted, according to accounts by relief workers.

"They all lost a father and brothers and mother," said James Chigok, a teacher who has accompanied the boys on much of their route.

"Some of them still cannot think of it."

By 1991, about 20,000 young boys were among the quarter-million Sudanese in three Ethiopian refugee camps. But when rebels overthrew the Communist Ethiopian government of Mengistu Haile Mariam, they also routed the camps, sending the Sudanese streaming back across the border.

The pell-mell flight, across rain-swollen streams and under aerial bombardment, cost many of the boys their lives.

"I have never seen a disaster like it," said Paul Pancol, one of the teachers who fled with the boys from Ethiopia.

"There is nothing worse in my mind than the memory of people dying on the way."

It was the first of repeated ordeals. The boys gathered in several locations in eastern Sudan, eating nuts and leaves until relief workers reached them with sufficient food four months later.

In February, 1992, the Sudan People's Liberation Army that controlled the south decided to move the boys because of advancing government troops. Nearly 12,000 boys embarked on 300-mile, five-week march further south, some of them barely a week before their locations were attacked.

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