In his film War Child, Emmanuel Jal, former Sudanese child solider now world famous rap artist and peace activist, stands in front of a classroom of adult Sudanese refugee men in a camp near the northwestern Kenyan town of Kakuma. He tells them his extraordinary story of survival, about his experience of war, displacement and near starvation as well as the peace and freedom he has found through hip hop and his life in the UK.
Jal and many other former child soldiers, former refugees and former "lost boys" and "lost girls" are constantly reminded that their people continue to suffer. While they may have relative peace and safety in their new country, they cannot forget those left behind.
This is one of the predicaments which Jal and fellow survivors addressed in a Sudanese youth peace conference held in Nairobi last week. Sudanese who have established new lives in Europe, Canada, the US and Australia returned to share their skills and knowledge to help their people and prevent another civil war, which UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and many others fear is looming in Sudan in the lead up to the 2011 Sudanese referendum.
Entitled "Sudanese Summit: Peace, Change and Leadership", the conference brought together hundreds of Sudanese young people from Northern and Southern Sudan, Kenya (including some from Kakuma refugee camp) and around the world to support peace and reconciliation in Sudan — and to provide leadership and grassroots peace mobilisation in the lead up to the referendum on January 9 2011. For the first time this will give Southern Sudanese people the opportunity to vote for self-determination and secession from Sudan as per the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) signed in 2005.
Although for the past five years some points of the CPA have been adhered to — namely, South Sudan has enjoyed semi-autonomy — there are still many elements of the agreement that have not yet been met, for example border demarcation and wealth sharing of the oil resources. For this reason many fear a return to the fighting which for the past two decades, has crippled Sudan, killed 2.5 million people and displaced over 4 million, making it Africa’s longest running civil war.
One of the co-organisers of the conference in Nairobi, Sudanese Australian David Nyuol Vincent, always promised that if he were given better opportunities, he would return to help, "I remember saying to myself if ever I become a person in a better place I will do anything I can to prevent any possible war and that’s the dream I am trying to carry out, to make sure there is no war"’ he told New Matilda.
David was forced to leave his home with his dad at age three and trekked through the inhospitable Sahara desert, under constant threats of attacks by wild animals, aerial bombers, starvation and dehydration before finding refuge in Ethiopia. When the situation became unstable in the refugee camp, he fled, was separated from his father and then was recruited as a child solider. With other "lost boys" who had been separated from their families, David crossed into Kenya and lived in Kakuma refugee camp for 14 years.
Since arriving in Australia in 2004, things have changed for him. He recently graduated with a Bachelor of Arts, majoring in Political Science and Criminology from the University of Melbourne. He also established himself as a leader within the Sudanese community, and is well respected in his roles at the Brotherhood of St Lawrence, the Victorian Equal Opportunity & Human Rights Commission and UNHCR.
Similarly conference delegate Nyadol Nyoun, who spent the first 15 year of her life in refugee camps in Ethiopia and Kenya, before arriving in Australia, will never forgot those who continue to be disadvantaged by the unstable political situation in Sudan, "I am Australian and I am Sudanese and if I can use anything that is Australian of me to help Sudan then I will do it and if there is anything Sudanese of me that can help Australia I’ll use it. I am a Sudanese Australian and I cannot pretend it doesn’t affect me to see another war there or children dying in Darfur or anywhere in the world, this is suffering, this is pain losing a father or mother or daughter. I can live in Australia, I’m an Australian citizen and I can have a good life. I could if I want to not care less about what happens in Sudan. But the fact that I know what it feels to have a good life, the fact that I know I can go to university, the fact that I know I can walk the street in peace and the beauty of that- you want someone else to share that, to live that and experience that."
The engagement of youth in the peace process is crucial for Sudan as more than half the population is under 30. Since the signing of the CPA the International Organisation on Migration estimates that around 2 million South Sudanese have returned home, from neighbouring countries including, Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of Congo, Uganda, Kenya, Ethiopia, Libya and Egypt. Many of these are disaffected young people who have limited education or employment opportunities. These limited opportunities in turn have created a situation of idleness or hopelessness which some fear could lure young people to fight for armed forces if conflict arises in the lead up to or after the referendum.
David Nyuol Vincent draws on the past to create post-conference strategies in both the North and the South such as peace working groups, community workshops and engagement with political leaders to promote peace. He says, "a lot of people who fought in the war were young people and if another war breaks out, there is great potential for recruiting and then the possible recruiting or the mobilisation will be huge. We want to prevent this by bringing young leaders together and come up with a mechanism to say no to war and be able to work together towards peace."
The Nairobi conference was groundbreaking in that it invited Northern and Southern Sudanese, Dafuris and Nubians to engage in dialogue, understanding and reconciliation — to work together to achieve peace.
For Nyoun, the participation of young people in a peace strategy could be the change in tactic that Sudan needs, "We bring a new perspective to this discussion and we are able to look beyond the prejudices of our fathers and our mothers, even though that is very painful, because I lost my father to the war, so there is a very personal cost for me… I do not want to see another person lose a mother or lose a father… we the young people hope that the next generation doesn’t have to go through what my father had to go through and what I had to go through."
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