By Stefan Armbruster
Survivors of South Sudan’s second civil war gather in Brisbane to remember the past 30 years after the conflict.
Australia’s South Sudanese ‘lost boys and girls’ have celebrated the 30th anniversary of surviving the country’s brutal 20-year second civil war, during which an estimated two million people died.
Two dozen men and women in makeshift uniforms marched in military formation for a crowd of several hundreds fellow South Sudanese, recalling their military training in refugee camps.
Military senior officers from the former Sudan People’s Liberation Army joined their now grown-up charges at an enthusiastic reunion in Brisbane.
The fatigues did not fit some too well, but mixed with jewellery, some hired costumes and a range of military ranks they wore them with pride.
Not a conventional military parade, this is a ritual to remember the past, maintain unity and pass on history.
“I’m very excited because during the war I was really small so I don’t know anything,” said Mary Bul, dressed in uniform with a blue peak officers cap.
In the late 1980s, tens of thousands of orphaned children fled Sudan for Ethiopia, witnessing barbaric acts of war along the way.
The SPLA marshalled them into refugee camps. Described as a ‘lost generation’, in some camps they were abused and press-ganged to become child soldiers.
In other camps like one called Dimma they were better cared for but still ravaged by disease and hunger.
The parade revives memories of hardships in the camps but also of the SPLA schools that educated and gave them boot-camp military training.
“It is symbolising many things, the suffering we had at the time, we were trained with military discipline, and many of our people went to war,” said Philip Ayom, a ‘lost boy’ who now lives in Brisbane.
“I wasn’t in the military then but my friends went and died. We need to remember what they did for our country, even if I’m here.
“It is a very important day, because many people did not reach this time, many people died, but if I reached the 30th anniversary from this time, when I was in Ethiopia, then I should celebrate.”
Australia resettled thousands of the ‘lost boys and girls’, who back in South Sudan were known as the ‘Red Army’ or ‘Seeds’ and were being trained to be the future leaders and soldiers of South Sudan.
They came as refugees as the war lead to the creation of a new nation of South Sudan.
Thousands of the orphans were saved from disease and starvation by a military nurse in the refugee camps of Ethiopia thirty years ago.
Brigadier Victoria Adhar Arop was then a lieutenant in the SPLA, and is now in her late-70s and a member of parliament, but to the orphans she is it simply known as “mother”.
“I am very happy to see my children, the children I was responsible for in the war,” she said to a rapturous greeting.
“Now I’m very happy to see my people in another country, this country has taught and accommodated my children and they are well educated. I’m very happy. Thank you Australia.
“But we would also welcome them back. We need them too.”
Also in Australia from South Sudan is another hero to these people, General Pieng Deng Kuol, who ran the Dimma camp in Ethiopia.
“When we decided to fight against the government of Sudan we knew it wasn’t going to be easy and each of us was ready to died,” he said.
“We regret the war definitely but we don’t regret the reason why we fought. We are proud that we are an independent country.”
In the late 1980s the conflict heightened, leaving many children orphaned who then spent sometimes years making their way to the relative safety of the camps in Ethiopia.
“Sometimes people may be confused between why they were trained and if they were going to be child soldiers,” said general Piang.
“There was definitely training going on in the camp. As somebody who was in charge of them, I had to say, ‘Okay you are going to be a soldier but not now’, so we keep engaging them in training and not sending them to the war.
“We told them the war has to be fought by educated people, that’s how we convinced them to stay in the camp.
“We want them to be the future leaders and future generation of our country.
“Maybe why they are happy with me is because there were no abuses, maybe there were some abuses but not intended or planned abuses, and not where I was.”
After relocating to Kenya camps in the early 1990s, many were given refugee status and resettled in Australia, United States and Canada.
With their basic schooling in the camps, they continued their education becoming lawyers, accountants, teachers, nurses and many other professions.
“When I arrived Australia, it is a beautiful place, they welcomed us warmly,” said Philip Ayom.
“We had never seen this in Ethiopia, or in Kenya. We did not expect to be so warmly welcomed and they helped us orient to their society, I’ve been integrated.”
First Published by SBS NEWS