New evidence shows that many children, mostly southern Christians, are being taken for Islamic instruction and military training at special desert camps. The drive to conscript children has been given new impetus by a series of recent defeats suffered by the Khartoum government at the hands of southern rebels as the Arab north presses its war to impose Islam on the African south.
"The army and the auxiliary government forces are kidnapping children and sending them to special camps, some around Khartoum, though mostly in Kordofan [western Sudan]", said a Khartoum lawyer with Prokid, an organisation which campaigns for the rights of kidnapped children. "The children are given Islamic names and made to pray as Muslims. Then they're trained as soldiers and returned to fight against their own people in the south".
James Panreng Alier, now16, was 12 when he was abducted from his village in southern Sudan after an attack on a nearby rebel camp. He said he was one of 18 children taken to Khartoum in an aircraft which carried President Omar Hassan al-Bashir back to the capital after a visit to the war zone.
"The army took us to a camp called Khalwa, near Khartoum", said James, who is now at school in Khartoum. "Then after a couple of months we were taken to a camp at Fao, in eastern Sudan. It was run by Dawa Islamiyaa [the Islamic missionary organisation]. I was made to learn the Koran and was renamed Ahmed. I was told Christianity was a bad religion. After a while we had to start military training and were told we would be sent to fight."
Up to 1 million people have been killed by fighting, starvation and disease since Sudan's civil war restarted in 1983. Children have been particularly vulnerable as whole tribes have been scattered and displaced. James no longer knows where his parents are. He escaped because a United Nations delegation was eventually permitted to visit the camp where he was being held. After more than a year in detention, he was freed and taken to Khartoum, where he has relatives.
There are at least half a dozen camps such as the one James was taken to, according to a confidential report just completed by the UN in Sudan. "There is definitely an aspect of conversion involved, as many of the kids are from the south and Nuba Mountains [in central Sudan]", said the document. On a visit to one camp, the UN team observed children "standing at attention in front of a flagpole with several men in green army uniforms". Many of the inmates, said the report, are displaced children picked up off the streets of Khartoum. The authorities say rounding up vagrant children is a social welfare measure.
Amnesty International has protested at the way they are treated; many, says the human- rights organisation, are subjected to flogging and other forms of degrading treatment.
"I've seen street kids being smoked out of drains by the police and taken away", said a Catholic missionary helping to locate kidnapped children. "There are also children whose families live in Khartoum being taken away to camps. By the time their parents find out, it's too late. I've got 400 missing kids on my books. These children are trained to be soldiers and put into the front line."
Southern families living in Khartoum have become so fearful that many will not allow their children out unsupervised. Child abduction and trafficking is said to be most widespread in central and southern parts of the country, where the sale of child labourers has long been the custom of certain tribes. In these areas, where the ruhhal, or Arab nomads, have been armed by the government and encouraged to attack areas "liberated" by the rebels, children are frequently captured and sold into slavery. Boys are used to tend cattle, girls to perform domestic duties. Sexual abuse is said to be common.
"Prices vary according to the type of child," says David Majur Mamur, a retired police officer, now a teacher and Prokid campaigner. "Fully- grown girls can fetch up to 50,000 Sudanese pounds (pounds 39), as they make prospective brides. But boys can be bought for less than 12,000. Children are auctioned secretly at markets . . ."
Prokid, which is funded by the Catholic Church diocese of Khartoum, has rescued from captivity 80 children over the past three years. It said tens of thousands had been kidnapped in Sudan.Reuse content