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South Sudanese teenager transforms pain into art

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By Joyce Mulama

Jun 25, 2006 (NAIROBI) — The drawing shows a woman clasping a child to her chest. Aptly titled ’Embrace’, it depicts a memory that has haunted the artist, a former child soldier from the civil war in southern Sudan who goes by the name of Commander Spoon.

"This woman was carrying one baby on her chest, and holding two others in both her hands. As she was fleeing the fighting, she met me and my colleague. She was crying, asking us not to shoot them, but my colleague shot her and her children," said Spoon, describing an incident that took place in 1997.

"I really cried, and drew my gun at my colleague: I wanted to kill him. He drew his at me, but our commander intervened and we dropped the weapons...Since that time, the picture of this woman remains vivid in my mind."

The image will also be imprinted on the minds of others, on World Refugee Day (Jun. 20). Spoon’s drawing has been copied on T-shirts to be worn by those taking part in events to commemorate the day in Kenya, where the teenager now lives as a refugee.

This comes after the work took second place in a contest for child refugees attending schools in the capital, Nairobi, which was initiated by the local office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) — attracting 180 entries.

The soft-spoken ex-fighter says the woman who got shot was dressed in orange, and the baby at her chest in purple. These colours have been used in the drawing, which shows the figures positioned against a black background. Red has also been used, to depict the blood that was shed by the woman and her children.

Spoon told IPS that he wanted to show the world what had happened in Sudan during the 21-year war between rebels from the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A) and the Khartoum government. About two million people died in the course of the conflict, which also displaced close to four million, according to the United Nations.

The incident shown in ’Embrace’ was just one of several that Spoon says he witnessed after being recruited to the SPLM/A. Unable to deal with these events, he eventually fled to neighbouring Uganda, then Kenya in 2004. He is now in the Riruta Satellite Primary School in Nairobi.

Following an agreement last year to end fighting in south Sudan, Spoon would have liked to return home. But, the devastation wrought by the conflict gave him pause for thought.

Many others evidently share his fears that Sudan offers limited prospects at the moment. A repatriation exercise started by the UNHCR in December has seen only 1,500 refugees head home — a fraction of the total number of Sudanese in Kenya. Kakuma camp in the north-west of the country has over 90,000 refugees, mostly from Sudan.

"There is no infrastructure, no schools, and the international community needs to be involved in these development projects," UNHCR head António Guterres said of the situation in Sudan while addressing reporters in Nairobi, Jun. 18.

"We have observed that the number of returnees in southern Sudan increases when the school year ends. When it begins, the number reduces because there are no schools there, and refugees return to their countries of asylum where there are schools — including in camps," he noted.

Kakuma has 30,000 refugee children attending pre-primary, primary and secondary schools, according to the Nairobi office of the UNHCR.

In many instances, however, life in refugee camps is perilous for children — notably those who are unaccompanied.

"Even though these children are immediately placed under the care of a foster family once they reach the camps, the problem is that they are abused either sexually or in terms of child labour," said Eva Ayiera, programme officer in charge of advocacy at the Refugee Consortium of Kenya. This Nairobi-based non-governmental organisation seeks to promote the welfare of refugees living in the country.

The theme for World Refugee Day 2006 is ’Keeping the Flame of Hope Alive’, in acknowledgement of the resilience shown by refugees around the world.

As Guterres notes in his statement for World Refugee Day, "...if there is one common trait among the tens of millions of refugees that we at the U.N. refugee agency have helped over the past 55 years, it’s the fact that despite losing everything, they never give up hope."

Estimates from the UNHCR put the total number of refugees at the end of 2005 at 8.4 million — with more than five million having been out of their home countries for five years or longer, according to Guterres.

"We are often asked how we can face the grim reality of our work, year after year, without feeling discouraged," the commissioner says in his statement.

"And our answer is simple: if the refugees themselves don’t give up hope, how can we?"

(IPS)

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