A man from South Sudan visited Midland last weekend to talk about his experience negotiating the release of child soldiers in his home country.
Hunter Dalli said growing up in Sudan his family never spent more than three months in one place.
“Mostly I don’t have a place that was like home. There’s no home. There’s no house. There’s nothing. We just moving from one place to another for our lives. Basically, that’s how I grew up.”
Dalli grew up in Sudan during a time of constant upheaval. The country was in the midst of a 22-year long civil war that divided the country along racial, religious, and geographic lines.
But, he said, In 2011 when the people of South Sudan voted 98 percent in favor of becoming its own country, he saw a glimmer of hope.
“There was a moment of like, 29 months, where things felt much better. Families were together. People were going over what is considered the normal life.”
Around that time, Dalli said, he began working with the Nonviolence Peace Force, which had come into the country to observe the elections.
Dalli said the Peace Force worked to navigate inter-community conflicts. His first job was helping negotiate between a community that was grazing cattle on the farmland of another community - a conflict that had resulted in violence.
“So they came up with that idea that cattle keepers will only come when crops are not out that can be destroyed by the cattle. It worked.”
Roughly a year later, in 2012, Dalli said he was working with Nonviolence Peace Force in another community.
“We found out that some of the kids were taken. We had less than 95 kids at that moment that were taken.”
Dalli said it was widely known that both the government and rebel groups would take kids and train them as child soldiers.
“We try to figure out who took the kids, which rebel group or is it government.”
He said from asking around he learned that the kids were taken by a rebel group. Many of the rebel groups were headed by warlords from before South Sudan became independent.
“We start talking to some of these warlords on how to release these kids.”
Dalli said it took three months before the rebel group that had taken the kids was willing to speak with the Nonviolence Peace Force. He said finally, he was invited to meet with the leader of the rebel group. Dalli said the rebel leader had been notorious before South Sudan’s independence - Dalli couldn’t believe he was sitting across from the man.
“I’m not going to say names, but he’s really known as a fighter. He’s the main guy who can go out and fight.”
Dalli said they began to discuss the fate of the children.
“It ends up to be like we are fighting for these kids.”
Dalli said for the rebel leader, giving up the kids meant giving up his army. Dalli tried to reason with him as a fellow South Sudanese.
“I know why you are fighting. I know you are fighting for the community. If you let these kids go and grow up they might come and help you in a different way. They might help you present yourself in the international community. They might be helping you now but in the future what is your future going to be like?”
The next day, Dalli said, 28 of the 95 children were released back into the community. He said they quickly found bringing the kids back was much more difficult than they thought.
“They are kind of brainwashed and they don’t want to go back to the community. They have their weapons and they have their guns and they don’t want to put that down and feel like part of the community.”
And, Dalli said, often times family members don’t want them back because the government had warned them that returned child soldiers could cause problems.
Those were just the kids that they could return to their families. Dalli said often when kids turned up after having been taken it’s not clear who or where they belong.
In 2014 Hunter Dalli came to the US to study at San Francisco State University. He said he still thinks about how best to reunify families - and is currently working on an information system that might help.
“The idea is to build a dashboard, a database system, that different organizations that work in different field sites - these organizations can use this system.”
Dalli said his database would help organizations to track kids - and connect them back to families who are looking for them.
He said currently kids get registered at a lot of different organizations.
“These kids will go and get registered at different organizations at different refugee camps or internally displaced peoples camp. They get registered there and they don’t have any idea of what happened to this kid.”
Dalli said his system is still a long way off from being created - but he’s hopeful it’s something that could be used someday.
And, Dalli said, he’s proud of the work he’s already done.