Albert Schoneveld delivers a lesson to South Sudanese soldiers DATE UNKNOWN CREDIT ICRC FlorianSeriex

Why I Talk To Fighters In South Sudan

Albert Schoneveld delivers a lesson to South Sudanese soldiers DATE UNKNOWN CREDIT ICRC FlorianSeriex

South Sudan’s warring sides have formed a coalition government – the next stage in a lengthy peace process.

Conflict and atrocities have blighted the country for years so what is it like trying to get fighters to respect the rules of war?

Former soldier Albert Schoneveld shares his experiences after working in the country with the Red Cross.

The sun is slowly rising over the Nile. On the riverbank, my colleagues are loading two boats with chairs, cooking pots, water and food. We are about to travel upriver to a small town where I will speak to soldiers about the laws that govern war.

I once was a soldier, long before I joined the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) 11 years ago. I know what it's like to stand behind the barrel of a loaded gun.

My work as a humanitarian has taken me to places far from my home in the Netherlands.

My latest assignment was in South Sudan, a country devoured by a war that has bled into the fabric of society. Here, wars have not only been fought between soldiers on battlefields but also in villages where abduction, rape and torture are used as weapons.

In a country where atrocities have been committed by all sides, is it possible to change the behaviour of those who would use weapons against others and to teach them how to treat civilians, fighters and prisoners with humanity? I believe we can.

Mr Schoneveld uses small wooden models as part of his talk with the soldiers (Picture: ICRC/Florian Seriex).
Mr Schoneveld uses small wooden models as part of his talk with the soldiers (Picture: ICRC/FlorianSeriex).

Guns and goats

The town is about an hour's boat ride from the war-battered northern city of Malakal.

Two barges dock at the same time and dozens of people work together to unload the goods. More people then clamber aboard the barges and they head off.

It's the rainy season and for people living in villages like these on the river, boats are the only way to travel to other parts of the country as roads become completely impassable.

Along with some residents, we cut a path to a small, windowless brick house, where we are greeted by the local authorities. We then settle under a huge mango tree where we can run our session with a bit of shelter from the rain and sun.

In a country where hunger is chronic, I’ve learned that you must feed the participants if you want them to pay attention. We need to find a goat to cook.

After some negotiation, our team finds an animal and I hear a knife being sharpened. Now that the group knows lunch is on the way, we can begin.

"It’s not my job to tell them not to fight," says Mr Schoneveld (Picture: ICRC/FlorianSeriex).
"It’s not my job to tell them not to fight," says Mr Schoneveld (Picture: ICRC/FlorianSeriex).

About 30 soldiers are gathered under the tree.

As I start my session, I always take time to greet everyone and mention at some point that I used to be in the army myself. It somehow gives my words more credibility - I was once a soldier, too.

"What is the military’s key objective?," I ask.

"To kill the enemy," one says.

"To protect civilians," utters another.

"All of them?" I reply.

"Yes, all of them," some say in unison. "Without distinction."

A common misunderstanding of my job is that I am in these communities to talk about not waging war. But it’s not my job to tell them not to fight.

The point is to advise them on how they can fight within the rules of war, known more formally as international humanitarian law.

I need them to think through questions, like: 'How can you defend a village if your forces are positioned close to civilians?', or 'What measures can you take to avoid civilian deaths in the attack?'.

The exercise usually gets the soldiers involved, regardless of rank.

A life spared

I don’t know how many of these sessions I have conducted during my time here.

Looking around, you realise how extraordinary the circumstances are - some soldiers have no shoes, others have a uniform twice their size. Many of them never went to school. They couldn’t read or write and so, grabbing a gun and fighting was their best chance of survival.

To make sessions livelier, and get my point across without books or leaflets, I use small models made of wood. The set includes figures of civilians, soldiers, an ambulance, a church, a mosque - everything that would be commonly found in a South Sudanese village.

Some weeks ago, while an ICRC team was meeting with a community close to the city of Rumbek in central South Sudan, a man stood up and announced that if it were not for the ICRC, he would not be alive.

The man, a soldier, had been wounded and could not fight anymore.

A South Sudanese soldier looks through a first aid text book (Picture: ICRC/FlorianSeriex).
A South Sudanese soldier looks through a text book (Picture: ICRC/FlorianSeriex).

When they were overrun by opposing forces who would usually have killed him, he decided to surrender. He had been trained by the ICRC on the rules of war, and so had the other side.

"I knew they would not harm me if I surrendered," he said. "They spared me. I was brought to a health centre."

He is alive today because both sides knew the rules of war, that you can't kill your opponent once he has surrendered and is no longer fighting.

It is impossible to know what will remain of these teachings once we’re gone and the goat is long digested.

Will the fighters remember that war has rules if the conflict breaks out again? And if they remember, will they apply these rules?

I believe at least some of them will, there is good evidence of that. And this motivates me to continue teaching them that even wars have limits.

Cover image: ICRC/FlorianSeriex.