Background on the Southern Sudanese Refugee Crisis
David Chanoff, Sudanese Education Fund
The civil war between North and South Sudan has been one of the world's most lethal and destructive post-World War Two conflicts. Estimates are that as many as two million mostly South Sudanese have died from violence, famine, disease and other war-related causes. The first phase of the war began in 1963 as a result of efforts by the Arab and Muslim dominated government in Khartoum to increase religious and political control over the culturally distinct south, populated by Nilotic and Equatorian ethnolinguistic communities adhering to indigenous and Christian beliefs. A peace agreement was reached in 1972, but in 1983 the Khartoum government attempted to establish Sharia (Muslim religious law) in the south, which led to a renewal of hostilities.
In 1987 Northern forces and allied Arab tribal militias launched a major offensive that devastated and depopulated large areas of South Sudan. The refugee exodus that resulted included large numbers of children whose parents were either dead or missing. Many of these were young boys who had been in cattle camps when Northern forces struck, though the refugee stream included adults and girls as well. UNHCR and International Red Cross estimates are inexact, but it is probable that somewhere between 20 and 25 thousand children walked across the desert from South Sudan to Ethiopia. The trek typically took from several weeks to several months, depending on the region of origin. With no food or water and little armed protection, attrition among the child refugees was considerable. Aid workers in Ethiopia who saw them come out of the desert called the children "the lost boys," which is how the name for this group originated.
In Ethiopia the male children, most between six and ten years of age, built their own huts and lived apart from refugee adults and families. They were organized and assisted by elder caretakers, but in significant ways grew up on their own in their own communities. Girl survivors, meanwhile, were fostered into whatever families were available, often distant relatives or people from the same home territory. The Sudanese refugee children lived in Ethiopia under these circumstances for almost four years. However, in 1991 Ethiopian rebels took power in Addis Ababa, and in the ensuing chaos forces attacked the children's camps, driving them back into Sudan, again with great loss of life.
For the next year the "lost boys" and those girls who had also escaped wandered through East Africa until in late 1992 approximately 12 thousand were admitted to the UNHCR refugee camp in Kakuma, Kenya. The lost boys and girls lived there, again the boys in separate "minors" communities, the girls with families - until in 2000/2001 when some 3,500 boys and 89 girls were resettled in the United States under State Department auspices. Major resettlement sites include Boston, Salt Lake, Phoenix, Syracuse, Jacksonville, and Atlanta.
The "Lost Boys and Girls" come from various tribal groups. The majority are Dinka-speakers, from South Sudan - largest ethnolinguistic group. Shilluk, Nuer, Barre, Acholi and others are also represented. Most of these tribes, the Dinka especially, lived tradition-based lives more or less isolated from outside influence. Displacement brought together children from different ethnic and linguistic groups. Living under extreme stress from an early age as targets and survivors of violence also helped shape a group identity somewhat distinct from that of their tribes of origin. Additionally, from early ages the Lost Boys and Girls, particularly the boys, lived in peer communities with little adult supervision. Their art and music derive from their traditional tribal modes of expression but are also products of their long experience of war, wayfaring, separation, communal living and, in essence, raising themselves. Their resettlement in the United States has provided the occasion for reflection, which has taken and continues to take various artistic and documentary forms.
Organized and archived appropriately, this evolving body of material will constitute a significant and distinctive resource for exploring areas of interest to Brandeis and other scholars, including the refugee experience, resettlement issues, the effects of war trauma and genocide, and African studies more generally.