Former Soldiers Trade Guns for Textbooks; Education Still Hard to Come by in War-Torn Sudan

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), August 5, 2004 | Go to article overview

Former Soldiers Trade Guns for Textbooks; Education Still Hard to Come by in War-Torn Sudan


Byline: James Palmer, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

LOBONE, Sudan - Joseph Arok quit school in 1993 at 12 to join southern Sudan's fight for liberation against the government in the north.

Now, at 23, Mr. Arok has set aside his automatic rifle and fatigues for textbooks and a school uniform in pursuit of an education. But his future remains precarious even as the nation draws closer to ending two decades of civil war.

"I know the importance of education," said Mr. Arok, who is focusing on history and economics with hopes of landing a government position, but realistically is prepared to return to the military. "Education requires money, and I do not have the support to attend a university. I am ready to go back, if I do not succeed in finding other work."

The Arab-dominated Muslim Sudanese government in the north and the animist and Christian black Sudan's People Liberation Army (SPLA) in the south signed a peace accord in Navasha, Kenya, in May to end Africa's longest ongoing war, which has killed an estimated 2 million people, primarily by starvation, and displaced an additional 4 million.

Fighting continues to rage in a yearlong insurgency in the Darfur region of western Sudan, where government-backed nomadic Arab militiamen, known as the Janjaweed, have forced more than 1 million black farmers from their homes.

Two decades of war have deprived millions of southern Sudanese children and adults of education, contributing to an illiteracy rate of nearly 90 percent of the people in the region, according to the United Nations.

A recent report by the United Nations Children Fund (UNICEF) said only 20 percent of children in southern Sudan have access to primary school and only 2 percent complete primary school.

The lack of educational opportunities throughout southern Sudan during the war, the staggering depth of poverty that came after the fighting and traditional cultural attitudes toward education threaten to undermine development in the region even if peace is established.

A loosely structured educational system is beginning to take root throughout southern Sudan as an estimated 1,300 schools have been established across the region in recent years, according to the U.S. Agency for International Development.

But this is little comfort for many southern Sudanese, whose opportunity for completing their education has passed - evidence of the irreparable damage inflicted across the region by two decades of fighting.

According to UNICEF, only 2,000 boys and 500 girls graduate from school annually.

Joseph Wal Garang joined the SPLA at 16 and battled Sudanese government forces for the next 20 years - at the expense of his education.

Mr. Garang, who is no relation to SPLA leader John Garang, is now an unemployed 37-year-old with a wife and four young children in Lobone, a remote southern Sudanese village along the Ugandan border.

"I would like to be a doctor, but I'm an old man now," said Mr. Garang, who is one the 31,000 residents of Lobone. "If there was a chance, I would finish school and go to a university to study, but it is too expensive."

Mr. Arok, who joined the SPLA before completing primary school, is quickly advancing toward a secondary degree, but his prospects are limited by the lack of employment opportunities and his responsibilities to his wife and 2-year-old daughter. …

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