The Rapid Support Forces (RSF) in Sudan are reportedly recruiting children to fight in their battle against the Sudanese army, exploiting tribal customs in its power base in Darfur after the phenomenon – which had accompanied the group’s establishment in 2003 – had declined.

The New Arab (From the Arabic Edition)

Umm Kulthum Mohamed (a pseudonym for security concerns) has lived in constant fear since her 15-year-old brother left to join the RSF in June 2023. The family have had no news of him until now.

“Our neighbour – the sheikh of the tribe in Daein city (the capital of East Darfur state) convinced my father that his son Faris had to take part with his brother and fight with the RSF,” she explained to Al-Araby Al-JadeedThe New Arab’s Arabic-language sister edition.

“Since my brother left to fight with the RSF no one has told me anything about him, and we don’t know whether he is alive or dead”.

To recruit Darfuri children to fight with them against the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF), the RSF exploits the ancient “Faza’a” custom widespread among the Sudanese tribes, explains Dr Abdul Qader Abdullah, General Secretary of the National Council for the Protection of Childhood.

“There has been an uptick in the pace of child recruitment by the RSF, with 200 documented cases of children being recruited since mid-April 2023 when war broke out between the army and the RSF”

Faza’a is an ancient tradition with pre-Islamic roots, one aspect of which is where tribes call on their people and allies to support them in the face of attacks by other tribes or to take revenge for killings.

Dr Abdullah says that there has been an uptick in the pace of child recruitment by the RSF, with 200 documented cases of children being recruited since mid-April 2023 when war broke out between the army and the RSF.

Photos and video clips on social media sites appear to reveal minors within RSF ranks, including on the militia’s own account on the X social media platform. However, Nizar Seyyid Ahmad, the RSF’s media official, denied that children are being recruited.

When asked about the videos posted on the RSF’s X account, he directed Al-Araby Al-Jadeed to Dr Hasib Yonathan Hamad Koko, head of the human rights and child protection unit in the RSF. However, Dr Koko didn’t respond to repeated queries regarding the videos.

Child recruitment in the RSF

The RSF recruited children when it was established in 2003 as the ‘Janjaweed’, and this practice continues today, especially in the five states of Darfur as well as South Kordofan, says Dr Abdullah, where the faza’a custom is strong.

Two officers in Sudan’s military intelligence (who spoke on condition of anonymity) said the number of child recruits in the RSF is estimated at between 8,000-10,000 children.

Omar Abdurahman was fleeing Khartoum on a bus, heading to Northern State at the end of July, when the bus was stopped at an RSF checkpoint. He says there were child soldiers at the checkpoint, and he heard one of them asking his commander if he could kill one of the IDPs (internally displaced people).

Abdurahman, who comes from Al Kalakla Al Qubba, a neighbourhood in southwest Khartoum, said: “I have never seen children with such bloodlust in my life. They terrified the travellers, and had it not been for God’s providence and the intervention of older officers at that point, all of us would have been exterminated”.

Amal al-Mahi, who is in her sixties, also believes she witnessed child soldiers at an RSF checkpoint when fleeing Khartoum for the River Nile State in north Sudan at the start of May.

“Their weapons were longer than them,” she remarked, adding “I’m a teacher and I am almost certain that three of the RSF soldiers who boarded the bus to do the inspection were still in basic education”.

The African Centre for Justice and Peace Studies (ACJPS) (a non-governmental rights organisation in Sudan) documented “the recruitment of 20 children by the RSF in southern Darfur” as well as the release “of 30 child recruits by the Sudanese Armed Forces and their delivery to the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) on 15 September 2023”.

“The number of child recruits in the RSF is estimated at between 8,000-10,000 children”

Al-Araby Al-Jadeed interviewed two minors who were released in this way and taken by the ICRC to a camp run by the Ministry of Social Development in Wad Sharifi, south Kassala State.

Mohamed Nawai, 17, from Abu Jubayhah City in South Kordofan, and Awab Abdullah, 17, from West Kordofan both denied being fighters in the RSF.

ICRC spokesman, Adnan Hazam, refused to disclose any information about the two minors, saying meetings were confidential to preserve the dignity of the children.

However, Dr Abdullah said “doctors at the Wad Sharifi camp found marks left by carrying weapons on the children’s shoulders when they were clinically examined,” adding, “the children confessed that they were working as soldiers in the RSF, and were arrested as prisoners while participating in battles in Omdurman and Khartoum North […] all this is evidence that they were conscripts with the RSF”.

While the RSF’s media official Ahmad denied the children were in the RSF, the official spokesperson for the Sudanese Armed Forces, Brigadier General Nabil Abdullah, countered this, stating that “the children were arrested during direct fighting within the ranks of the rebels, and usually, they are taught to deny being fighters”.

Forged documents

The National Council for Child Welfare and UNICEF visited training camps belonging to the RSF in the states of north, south, and central Darfur, and south Kordofan in 2019. They uncovered 30 cases where ID documentation for child soldiers appeared to have been falsified, showing ages that seemed older than their physical appearances, according to Dr Amira Azhari, from the National Council for Child Welfare.

Dr Azhari confirmed cases of forgery with birth certificates, where the registration number (which is also the “national number” for RSF recruits) was falsified. This situation is exacerbated because of the RSF’s power base being in areas like Darfur state, where there is a lack of specialist doctors in civil registration offices to assess the age of those coming forward for recruitment.

Former Police Brigadier General Dr Essam Addin Abbas Ahmad, who worked in various roles in the civil registry between 2005 and 2021 (the last one as head of the IT department) denies that national numbers have been manipulated on documentation.

“I don’t believe there has been negligence around granting the national number to any person, except in cases that falsified papers were submitted, like birth certificates, or there has been negligence from an officer, and these are limited cases,” he says.

He continues: “We have developed an electronic verification system in the civil registry which reveals cases of manipulation, and most directors at the civil registry have been very decisive and strict in imposing the maximum penalties on policemen found to have been behind data manipulation”.

However, Ismail Tirab, a member of Sudan’s National Committee to Combat Human Trafficking (NCCT) asserts that the RSF have falsified children’s ID papers, exploiting the lack of mechanisms for age assessment in Sudan.

He says: “Upon confronting the RSF with the fact that they are recruiting children, they claim that their ID papers confirm that [the children] are over 18, which is not true”.

“There are psychological and social ramifications on child recruits, like fear, feeling unsafe, anxiety, depression, recklessness, impulsive decision-making, hyperactivity, frustration, low self-esteem, and the inability to socially adapt”

Violating international laws and conventions

A child soldier is someone under 18, who is appointed, accepted into, or forced to join any military or paramilitary force, according to Sudan’s Children’s Act of 2010, Article 43, which prohibits the “recruitment, appointment or employment of children in the armed forces or in armed groups or employment thereof to participate in war actions”.

The first clause of Article 4 of the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child stipulates: “Armed groups that are distinct from the armed forces of a State should not, under any circumstances, recruit or use in hostilities persons under the age of 18 years.”

However, “the RSF militias have run roughshod over these laws and agreements” says Brigadier General Nabil Abdullah, adding that their compliance with the law was only superficial.

Child casualties of the war

According to a letter from the UN Special Rapporteur on trafficking in persons, Siobhán Mullally, on 12 October to the Sudanese authorities: “Children in families living in poverty are targeted in the outskirt neighbourhoods of Khartoum as well as from Arab tribes in Darfur and West Kordofan”. The letter concerned allegations that children were being trafficked for recruitment.

The letter confirmed that “boys accounted for over 600 casualties in the fighting occurring in Khartoum in August, and that these children had been recruited by the RSF and were being used in combat roles by the RSF”.

Dr Ikhlas Abbas Mohamed, Director of the Psychological Counselling and Safety Unit in educational institutions at the Ministry of Education, said: “Children are used to drive combat vehicles, with no consideration for their psychological state which deteriorates with this behaviour, and impacts negatively on the personality of the child”.

“There are psychological and social ramifications on child recruits, like fear, feeling unsafe, anxiety, depression, recklessness, impulsive decision-making, hyperactivity, frustration, low self-esteem, and inability to socially adapt,” according to Dr Abbas.

This, he added, is in addition to “heightened tendencies to commit crimes like stealing, smoking, drug-taking and addiction, as well as insomnia, memory problems, anger issues and social isolation, and it could end up reaching the stage of suicide or committing serious violations like murder, mutilation, and sexual violence”. –

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