Carol Berger is both an anthropologist and a writer, and she brings these skills together in her examination of the “lost boys,” in her book, The Child Soldiers of Africa’s Red Army: The Role of Social Process and Routinised Violence in South Sudan’s Military (Routledge 2022). Berger is a Commonwealth Scholar with a doctorate from Oxford University. From 1981–1993, she was a foreign correspondent, first based in Khartoum, Sudan, where she was a stringer for the BBC World and African Services, The Guardian, and The Economist, and later in Cairo, where she reported on the Middle East for The Independent, Newsweek magazine, and CNN. After completing her doctorate, she worked as an analyst for the UN in South Sudan (2014–18). Berger’s more recent writing has appeared in The New Yorker, the LA Review of Books and the London Review of Books. She lives in Cairo.
Nicholas Coghlan, himself no slouch on these issues, (author of Collapse of a Country – A Diplomat’s Memoir of of South Sudan, MQUP, 2017), was inspired by her book to interview Berger. Their conversation on the importance of sharing the truth about South Sudan’s child soldiers, among other things, is below.
Coghlan: You had a quintessential Canadian upbringing on a cattle and wheat farm in southern Alberta. What led you to leave such a bucolic setting and take up the precarious, sometimes dangerous life of a foreign correspondent in the Middle East?
Berger: When I was twenty years old, just out of journalism school, I took a job as a reporter at the Sunshine Coast News in Gibsons, B.C. One of my first assignments was to write a profile about a woman called Edith Iglauer Daly. She was living in Garden Bay, further north along the Sunshine Coast. As I learned, Edith was one of the first women reporters from the United States to be accredited as a war correspondent for WWII. She went on to work for The New Yorker, becoming the first woman to write “Talk of the Town.” She wrote deeply researched articles, taking months and even years to complete her stories, and later books.
I realise now that she had a big influence on me. Edith made it all sound quite normal, to have had this big life. When I finished writing my profile, I took the typed pages to her. We sat in her living room and she edited my writing with a pencil. Not very orthodox, I suppose, for a subject to edit her own profile, but I was a very young and unpublished writer and she was a pro. It’s one of my fondest memories, that she took the time to show me how to improve my writing. She was a great woman. Edith died in 2019 at the age of 101.
Coghlan: How has the profession changed? Was your Canadian nationality a help — or a hindrance — to you?
Berger: Journalism has changed a great deal since 1981, when I started writing for the BBC from Khartoum. Forty years ago there was so much competition, particularly British newspapers and broadcast outlets. There was a huge demand for stories from almost everywhere. Newspapers rarely said no to the offer of a story. This is no longer the case.
There are far fewer journalists and the revenue model has almost disappeared. The young, very brave, journalists I knew in Cairo, Egypt, who reported on the overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak in 2011 really struggled, both to get space in publications but also to be paid.
When I was a foreign correspondent, I’m not sure if being Canadian was a help, but it definitely wasn’t a hindrance. Certainly, getting visas to countries like Syria and Iraq was easier with a Canadian passport. But for young Canadians living abroad who wanted to write, the tricky thing was getting work with Canadian publications. Most of us wrote for British and American publications.
Coghlan: You were in Sudan when the second Sudanese civil war broke out in 1983 and years later, when you were based in Cairo, you regularly travelled to Sudan to write about war. This war is conventionally described as a conflict that pitted the mainly Christian and animist south against the Arab, Muslim north. Is that how you would describe it?
Berger: It is somehow inevitable that the long history of a bitter conflict will be described in oversimplified ways. There were many cultural and religious differences between the peoples living in northern and southern Sudan. There were also shared beliefs and experiences. But the catalyst for the start of the war was the discovery of a valuable resource, oil, in one part of the country — the now South Sudan — and its exploitation for the benefit of another part of the country — northern Sudan.
From that history of inequality, both sides built their own narrative of worth, whether using religious reasons or enmity based on the continued injustices. And from these conditions, with the northern state suppressing the rights of peoples from South Sudan, calls for independence by South Sudanese only grew.
Coghlan: In completing a doctorate in anthropology, you carried out the research that led to your recent book: The Child Soldiers of Africa’s Red Army. It describes the phenomenon of youth fighters within the rebel Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) over this period. How extensive was child recruitment? Was the SPLA initially communist in inspiration?
Berger: Child recruitment was a sustained and systemic practice within the Sudan People’s Liberation Army. The guerrilla army began when South Sudanese soldiers in the national army rebelled against the Khartoum government and went into the bush. Over the course of the 22-year civil war that followed, thousands and thousands of children and youth were recruited by the SPLA, most often by force, to fight in the war. They were taken from South Sudanese territory but also from border areas of northern Sudan, including the contested area of the Nuba Mountains. One commander told me on the record that he had taken no less than 7,000 from his home territory in just two recruitments. The name of the youth wing — the Red Army — most likely came out of the SPLA’s early relationship with East Bloc countries.
In its early years, the rebel army received support from Ethiopia, then a self-proclaimed Marxist state, which gave the SPLA bases and military training. Cuba provided education for more than 600 South Sudanese youth, and military training to an unknown number of SPLA soldiers. But the SPLA has never been an ideological movement.
Coghlan: One of the foundational myths of South Sudan is that of the Lost Boys: the boys and young men who fled the horrors of fighting in the civil war and endured incredible hardships as they trekked to the relative safety of a refugee camp in neighbouring Kenya. In the words of John Garang, the charismatic leader of the SPLA, they would become “the seeds of the nation.” There have been dramatic portrayals of the phenomenon, such as the Hollywood movie “The Good Lie.” But it wasn’t quite like that, was it?
Berger: No, it most certainly wasn’t. Beginning in the mid-1980s, the SPLA took children and youth from their homes in South Sudan to camps inside Ethiopia. They claimed that the children would receive educations. But this wasn’t the case. They were held in terrible conditions in the camps, and then most were sent to military training and into combat. Unknown numbers died due to starvation, during the training itself, or in the fighting.
The “lost boys” came out of the flight of around 3,000 Red Army soldiers from Ethiopia after the fall of the Ethiopian leader Mengistu Haile Mariam in 1991. Mengistu had been supporting the SPLA. With his overthrow, the SPLA lost its bases inside Ethiopia and there was a massive retreat back to South Sudan.
Among the hundreds of thousands who fled was a group of Red Army soldiers who were led by the now president of South Sudan, Gen. Salva Kiir. During the retreat, the Red Army soldiers were essentially abandoned by the SPLA. They then deserted, going on foot, of their own accord, to northwestern Kenya, where they received humanitarian assistance and were housed in what became the Kakuma refugee camp.
The film that you mention, “The Good Lie,” is a feel-good movie that follows the fate of several of the “lost boys” from the Kakuma refugee camp to life in the U.S. It sustains the false narrative of who the “lost boys” were, presenting them as orphans, as having fled attacks by Arab militias, rather than being youth who had escaped from the SPLA’s youth wing, the Red Army. The Red Army veterans, a substantial number of whom are now scattered in Canada, Australia, and the U.S, have been bound to this misrepresentation because of the continued power of the original SPLA leaders in their home country.
Coghlan: Tell us a little about the strange Canadian dimension of the Red Army story, and how your research led you back close to your own roots, to the Brooks slaughterhouse that you describe so graphically. And perhaps you could amplify on the irony of young Dinka/Nuer ending up working, in all places, in a cattle slaughterhouse.
Berger: In the late 1990s, when I was living in Edmonton, I learned that some South Sudanese who spoke Spanish had arrived in the city. I realised that they must be part of the group of children and youth that the SPLA had sent to Cuba in the mid-1980s. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Cuba’s economy fell apart and the South Sudanese living there had no future. They were essentially stateless, and the continuing war in South Sudan made it impossible for them to return home. Canada accepted about 250 of them, the first of them arriving in 1999.
Most of these emigres came to live in Alberta. This was in part due to job opportunities and the sense of community, as more and more came to live in Edmonton, Red Deer, Calgary and Brooks. The cattle slaughterhouse at Brooks employed many of them. The irony, of course, is that the cow is an important part of the culture of Nilotic-speaking South Sudanese, particularly Dinka and Nuer peoples. Brooks is just 45 minutes from where I grew up, on a farm outside the town of Nanton.
Coghlan: Objectively speaking, those who recruited the child soldiers of the Red Army are guilty of war crimes. Many of them hold senior offices in the government of South Sudan today. You met with a number of them during the research for your book. To what extent is this dimension of South Sudan’s history discussed in Juba?
Berger: There’s a strange thing about most western research into the use of child soldiers, whether in Africa or elsewhere. It is not uncommon for the role of adults to be somehow erased. I tried to correct this in my research. So yes, I interviewed many of the original SPLA commanders, as well as a large number of veterans over the two decades that I spent on the research.
Should they face a reckoning? I am not an international human rights lawyer, or someone who set out to investigate war crimes. I like to figure out what happened, and I am patient. All South Sudanese know what happened, and what is still happening, inside their country. But it’s dangerous for South Sudanese to write or speak about these things, even today, a decade after independence. I do think, however, that the time will come when there is more open discussion of the sacrifices made by so many.
Coghlan: Does child recruitment still go on in South Sudan? What do you say to the argument that a 12-year-old Dinka boy is in reality a man, that the western definition of “child soldier” is a paternalistic construct?
Berger: Child recruitment has never ended in South Sudan. Both the state and non-state actors continue to take under-aged soldiers. You ask if cultural differences mean that a 12-year-old Dinka boy is seen by other South Sudanese as a man. This is a not uncommon response by well-intentioned westerners. It’s what I call “the folkloric turn,” when cultural mores are used to justify practices considered abhorrent in the northern hemisphere. It precludes an interrogation of how the individuals affected actually feel about it.
Ask the surviving veterans of the Red Army if they would accept the brutality they experienced for their own children. They would not. The men and women of the original Red Army are now in their forties and even fifties. As adults, they can see that what was done to them was inhumane. There is a bitterness about how they and their comrades were used by the original SPLA commanders, and the state’s continued denial of the true role the Red Army played in the war.
Coghlan: The story you tell is a harrowing one, an indictment incidentally of John Garang, the founding father of South Sudan. After everything you learned and heard as you researched this book, do you still hold out hope for the future of this new country?
Berger: I think we need to ask ourselves why the events that have shaped South Sudan have been misrepresented for so long. I understand people’s need to embrace a narrative of liberation, to celebrate supposed heroes, to identify who they think are the good and the bad guys. But the oversimplification of what occurred in South Sudan created false expectations about what the new country would be after independence in 2011.
Just two years after independence, South Sudan fell into a brutal ethnicised civil war. There are reasons why South Sudan is a violent and ethnically divided country. And some of those reasons date from the conduct of the rebel army during the 22-year North-South civil war. A more open discussion of that war-time conduct is really only beginning now, eleven years after South Sudan’s independence.
My intention, with the book, was to chronicle important events, the true nature of which has been suppressed for a very long time. After a review of my book appeared in Foreign Policy in January 2022, Red Army veterans in the diaspora started discussing it in online fora, particularly on Facebook. One of the veterans, now living in the U.S, posted an hour-long video in which he spoke, in Arabic and English, about the conclusions of my book.
His two main points were that what I had written about the forced nature of the recruitment into the Red Army was true. And the second was that, as he said, “It’s time to stop the lying.” He called on his fellow Red Army veterans to stop perpetuating the false narrative surrounding their involvement in the war.
Within the first two days after he uploaded the video, more than 2,000 people had watched it, and more than 200 posted comments. This meant a lot to me. South Sudanese want a more accurate accounting of the sacrifices they have made, and continue to make. For South Sudan to go forward as a country, there needs to be more honesty about the path chosen by its military leaders. I remain ever hopeful that in time this will happen.
- Preview Berger’s book at Routledge.
- Canadian Geographic podcast (May 2022) on South-Sudanese child soldiers in Alberta.
- Berger edited Jieng on the Moon (Cairo: Anglo-Egyptian Books, 2017) and The Legend of Cuei Guak and Other Stories (Kampala: Fountain Publishers 2010).
- Carol Berger, “Old Enmities in the Newest Nation: Behind the Fighting in South Sudan,” The New Yorker (23 January 2014).
- Carol Berger has written for The Guardian, The Economist, the LA Review of Books and the London Review of Books.
- Alan Twigg’s obituary of Edith Iglauer Daly White.
- Mary Schendlinger, “Remembering Edith Iglauer,” Geist rpt Tyee.
- Human Rights Watch on child soldiers in South Sudan.
- An example of the “lost boys” controversy — Reviews of Dave Eggers’ What is the What, a fictionalized account of a child refugee from South Sudan, refer to the “lost boys” as orphans but make no mention of child soldiers: The Guardian, The New York Times. The Wikipedia entry Lost Boys of Sudan mentions some recruitment of child soldiers.
Nick Coghlan was Canada’s first resident diplomat in Khartoum (Sudan; 2000-2003), then – following the separation of South Sudan – Canada’s first resident Ambassador in Juba, the new country’s capital (2012-16). He is the author of four books, including “Far in the Waste Sudan – On Assignment in Africa” (MQUP, 2005) and “Collapse of a Country – A Diplomat’s Memoir of of South Sudan” (MQUP, 2017). He and his wife Jenny were awarded Canada’s Meritorious Service Cross (MSC) for their role in the evacuation of Canadians from Juba, when civil war broke out anew in 2013. When not aboard their sailboat, Nick and Jenny live on Salt Spring Island, B.C.
Author photo: Marie-Jeanne Berger
South Sudan photos: Nick Coghlan