By Steve Paterno
The Red Army, popularly known as the Lost Boys and Girls of South Sudan has of late being grabbing news headlines for all the wrong reasons. At the centre of this controversy of news headlining is Rebecca Nyandeng, the widow of Sudan People’s Liberation Army/Movement (SPLA/M) leader and founder, Dr John Garang. Mrs Nyandeng who is a stalwart of opposition against the government of South Sudan is on a campaign tour in the USA. The embattled widow was recently caught on al-Jeezera interview totally unprepared to answer rather simple but yet convoluted human rights questions with respect to her husband’s records, who led the successful liberation struggle.
In yet, the latest blunder, Mrs Nyandeng who is gaining infamy with her zealous criticism of President Salva Kiir was pressed hard on the issue of conscription of child soldiers, during her husband’s reign in the liberation struggle, and into which, she egregiously responded, the “Human Rights Watch report was not correct because…, children came with their parents and some of them just followed the army because sometimes when they go with the army they can find better services; food and things like that because we were in the bush. Some of the children even leave their parents and they followed the army. There was no official recruitment which was being done.” The question or the topic is perhaps too sophisticated for someone with the intellectual ilk of Mrs. Nyandeng, especially when she barely has time to digest the question, hence, attributing to her appalling response. Either that or it is just a sheer dishonesty from her part.
The so-called Red Army (or Jesh al-Ahmer also known as the Lost Boys and Girls of South Sudan) was a section of SPLA soldiers, who were exclusively composed of minors. Their history in the liberation struggle is not any different from those adults who ended up being soldiers of the SPLA in one way or the other. The pattern for becoming SPLA fighter, regardless of one’s age, generally followed conscription, enlistment, cajoling, or even by default.
Like many liberation struggles from around the world, the bulk of SPLA soldiers were made up of conscripts. Many people were rounded up compulsorily and without consent to join the fight. As a matter of fact, such practice rarely discriminated people base on age limits. It was the physically appearance and ability, which determines one’s qualification for conscription. The circumstances were actually exacerbated due to the fact that it was virtually impossible to ascertain ages of people since birth records were none existence. Then, there were folks who willingly joined the liberation struggle. Those category included minors as well. For an organisation that its support base is the people and their willingness to sacrifice, it was naturally impossible to reject those who voluntarily joined, despite their tender ages. And then, there were also those who were lured by prospect of better services such as education, shelter, feeding, health, security etc. During the devastating war of liberation, people were forced to corrugate under the den, in towns ran by the brutal regime in Khartoum. Others had no choice, but to flee into exile. And then, others ended up under SPLA liberated areas, where, therefore, the military training centres were better potentials for most Jesh al-Ahmer. Even more enticing, the SPLM political commissars, (the cadre trained as ideological propagandists and liars), made those training grounds more alluring factory for fighting force coming out of age. And finally, there were those who became SPLA soldiers by default. (I mean literally by default). Those in most cases were relatives of the commanders or soldiers, who in words of Mrs Nyandeng, “followed the army.” They were in most part, privileged individuals who received little to no formal military training at all. They avoided major deployments and remained in the rear for the most duration. They were the children of the benys who followed the soldiers for better services that Mrs Nyandeng referred to in her appalling statement as she tried to deflect the question of child soldiers’ conscription.
Therefore, the highlights above and many more constituted the composition of the popular Red Army of SPLA under the SPLA/M guidance, and yes, under the “official recruitment” rules and regulations of the movement that was led by Mrs Nyandeng’s husband, Dr. John Garang. Many of these Red Army soldiers were organised into exclusive or mixed units. They experienced deployments in frontlines. When they aimed at the enemies, they did so with intentions to kill. They bleed blood once shot at. They also died just like any other mortal being. And yes, they bore all the brant of horrors of the war more than the adults and of course, they endured. Their training centres were sources, which compelled humanitarian aid to the SPLA/M liberated areas. So, in actual fact, they never followed food, but the food rather followed them. In large scheme of things, the Red Army of the SPLA were not just the lethal fighting force, they were the hub of reserved force for the battles of the future. They were the pool by which future recruits were gathered from. Their strategic presence and significance can never be simply brushed aside in such a desperate effort of trying to defend the records of an individual leader, in the case of her husband. If those who fought in the liberation struggle are being recognised today as heroes, the Red Army of South Sudan genuinely deserves a place in history, due to their contributions and selfless sacrifices. Their records in the liberation of the country are as just impeccable.
Steve Paterno is the author of The Rev. Fr. Saturnino Lohure, A Romain Catholic Priest Turned Rebel. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org