Ex-Child Soldier Keeps Food Aid Moving In South Sudan

Not too long ago, Mark Diang was a child soldier in southern Sudan. Thankfully, he managed to leave that life behind and he now works for WFP as a security assistant. He recently received a special award from WFP for his critical role in negotiating safe passage for urgent food aid along a dangerous river route.

By Jordan Cox

ROME -- In June of 2009, a WFP food convoy set out on the Sobat river in South Sudan. As the 27 boats reached a stretch of the river close to the Ethiopian border, a local militia stopped them. The militia was mostly made up of young men and boys. They were called the White Army and they were brandishing rifles they often used in livestock raids.

The White Army was suspicious. There were dozens of soldiers from the Sudan People’s Liberation Army — or SPLA — escorting the shipment, and no one from WFP. Things got worse when the militia discovered who the convoy was destined for: the Luo Nuer, the very tribe that had raided them only weeks before.  

Special WFP Award

former executive director josette sheeran presenting an award to mark diang
For his efforts in re-opening the dangerous Sobat river passage and keeping traffic moving ever since, WFP awarded Mark Diang  the organization’s 2010 Award of Merit.

In the photo above (copyright WFP/Rein Skullerud)Mark is shown receiving his award from WFP Executive Director Josette Sheeran during a ceremony at the organization's Rome headquarters.

A few of the barges were opened for inspection — nothing but sorghum and other food. But the convoy was not allowed to pass. For the militia, a shipment of food coming through their territory and bound for their enemies was a big problem. The Sobat river is the effective border between these two warring tribes.

Under attack

Gunfire broke out and the convoy came under attack. When the shooting finished, about 100 people were dead — not just dozens of SPLA soldiers, but civilians too. Some barges sank to the river floor, others turned back, and all commercial and aid traffic on the river was immediately shut down. 

Needing a way to deliver food, WFP had to resort to expensive air drops. Even so, it was able to transport only part of the food needed.

And if it wasn’t for Mark Diang, a former child soldier now working for WFP as a security assistant in Malakal, those air drops might have gone on far longer. Born in 1981 in Bentiu, South Sudan, Mark was recruited into the SPLA before he was a teenager. After making it out, he worked for Medecins Sans Frontiers and the UNCHR before joining WFP in late 2008.

Three months after the deadly ambush on the Sobat River, and with WFP ready to find out if the river was safe for travel, Mark came forward with a plan. Security services were reluctant, but “we believed it could work,” said Henry Chamberlain, a Security Coordinator in South Sudan. For the first assessment, “we travelled all the way down there — Mark and I, plus some UN security officers — and we brought along the main tribal chief of the Jikany Nuer.”

Tensions high

The river had yet to reopen, and tensions ran high. The groups involved in the conflict are part of the greater Nuer people — the militia that attacked the convoy was made up of various communities of Jikany Nuer, while the food was destined for people of the Luo Nuer tribe. Fortunately, Mark is Nuer himself, which became crucial in the days and weeks ahead.

Mark knew these communities and helped open a lot of doors. “Mark has a good rapport with the chief — they communicate well,” said Henry. “That was enough to gain access to the communities along the river. And it was Mark, going in and talking with them, that convinced these communities it was possible to work with us."

Mark explained his approach: “We would go and say: ‘we’re the World Food Programme, we have no part in whatever conflict you have, whether tribal or political — we’re just here to support needy people.’"

His honesty worked. “I’d sit down on the ground with the young men. I'd call them ‘quor’ — it means boss, or big man, in the Nuer dialect. I’m one of them — I made myself very simple. I suggested I go with the convoys," he said, so the tribe would know that someone from WFP — someone they could trust — was taking the food down.

Mark standing next to a canoe filled with wfp food and suppliesRiver re-opened

“Now, whenever we have any convoys, we make sure someone from WFP is on board, and I give the communities [along the river] a phone number to call, so we can let them know we’re coming,” said Mark.

And almost always, the person travelling with the convoy has been Mark.  “Mark would go on his own with the WFP boats and the tribal chief, and he’d let the communities know there were no issues, no problems in going back and forth with the food,” said Henry.

Once convoys were able to pass through the area safely, the river was opened again. By September, air drops had stopped, and river traffic has been moving ever since.

Mark’s work paid off in other ways, too. He found out “the militia’s communities weren’t getting food,” said Henry. Once Mark worked to “boost the relationship and trust between WFP and [the tribes]”, he could help WFP better track who else needed help in the area. Mark’s still working as a security assistant out of the Malakal sub-office. Although “the atmosphere after [the January referendum] has changed,” he said, tribal conflict continues. As long as it does, Mark’s presence will be invaluable.