How do you reintegrate 90,000 ex-combatants in Sudan?

William Deng Deng’s life has come full circle – and not by design. The sole survivor of a 1967 primary-school massacre in southern Sudan, the Dinka man and York alumnus was only eight when he fled to Kenya with other little boys fearing for their lives in a civil war that had festered for decades. He never wanted to return to Sudan and later, after being kidnapped in Nairobi and flung in a Khartoum jail for agitating against the Sudanese government, he wanted out of Africa – for good. But that wasn’t in the stars. 

Deng Deng (left) is 46 now, a towering man who looks imposing in a tailored navy blue suit and tie, as befits the chair of disarmament, demobilization and reintegration reporting to the president of the new South Sudan government. He is based in Juba, the capital of South Sudan, not far from his birthplace, a place he never expected to see again. His job? To disarm, demobilize and, most importantly, to reintegrate 90,000 ex-combatants in the region. If he doesn’t, and soon, these decommissioned forces – many uneducated, unskilled and all of them unemployed – could turn into armed gangs and destabilize this region.  

Oil-rich South Sudan became a quasi-independent state in 2005 after a peace pact between the warring regions. It has its own government but shares oil revenues with Khartoum. (Canadians may associate Sudan with Darfur, which is north and west, not part of South Sudan.) If the fledgling state of South Sudan is to succeed, says Deng Deng, the suddenly idle ex-combatants must find other occupations, which means they will need education and training, housing and resources to launch new lives. “It’s a huge job,” says Deng Deng, who’s drafting a plan he expects the United Nations and European Union will support. But, if anyone’s qualified to do it, he is.  

On Tuesday, you can hear him talk about this mammoth challenge – possibly the biggest reintegration project ever tackled – at 12:30pm in 305 York Lanes. York’s Centre for Refugee Studies is also hosting a reception for friends afterwards at 2pm.  

Here is what he might tell you.  

First, a little background (see YorkU magazine February 2005): After escaping the Khartoum jail, Deng Deng got a one-year scholarship to a college in New York, then sought refugee status in Canada. He was 29. By 36, he had two degrees from York – a BA in political science (’95) and a master’s of environmental studies (’98). For several years, he travelled to troubled spots and wrote reports for the United Nations. Then in 2002 he accepted a job with UN Peacekeeping Operations to disarm, demobilize and reintegrate rogue militias in the eastern Congo. It was dangerous work, but Deng Deng had considerable success through negotiation with elders and local authorities – and, when necessary, back-up from UN peacekeeping forces. 

Right: South Sudanese troops march in Juba Tuesday on second anniversary of north-south peace deal.  Photo: BBC News 

He will bring to bear the same skills – and much more – to his new job, which sometimes seems overwhelming to him. The 90,000 ex-combatants are waiting in military camps until he can draft a plan for their reintegration into civilian life. They not only include soldiers, but child soldiers, veteran and disabled soldiers, and women associated with the Sudan Peoples Liberation Army, the military arm of the Sudan Peoples Liberation Movement, which fought for 21 years. “My commission has to come up with projects and programs for reintegration of each particular group. It’s very complex.” He will be recruiting staff locally, coordinating with government ministries and international development agencies, and hiring international consultants to set up programs in agriculture, fisheries and forestry. He aims to see some progress in six months. “I am hopeful,” he says. “I want it to happen.”  

On the surface, he seems to have veered from his environmental studies background. But not really. “How do you integrate a human being sustainably into a community? If you do it properly, you protect the environment.” 

Why has the man who vowed never to return to South Sudan gone back? “I have a lot of bad memories, yes, but I want to help. Since I was asked to help then I will help. I want to be part of a change into a good memory.”  

But he remains steadfastly Canadian. He flies home to Toronto to vote in every federal and provincial election, which is why he’s in town now. “Voting is very important.” And when he’s back in South Sudan, he hopes “to bring the Canadian way of looking at things into this society.” By that, he means approaching things “in a humanly way. That’s Canada’s contribution to the world. Look, we don’t have enemies. We don’t try to bomb anyone. We try to help in a humanly way.” 

By Martha Tancock, YFile contributing writer