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Former Sudanese Child Slaves Return Home - 2002-05-04

The United Nations Children's Fund, or UNICEF, has flown home five children abducted by slave traders in Sudan. UNICEF said this is the first-ever transfer of kidnapped children from government to rebel-held areas. Lisa Schlein in Geneva reports.

The five children are boys, now between the ages of 11 and 17. But UNICEF said they could have been as young as five or six when they were kidnapped.

It said as many as 6,000 children and women from the rebel-held mainly Christian and animist south may have been abducted by slave raiders and taken to the Muslim-dominated government-held north. The abductions have taken place during nearly two decades of civil war.

In what the U.N. calls Operation Lifeline Sudan, the five freed children were flown from the Sudanese capital Khartoum to Malual Kon in northern Bahr el Ghazal. Accompanying the children was a staff member from the British Group, Save the Children.

UNICEF Spokesman Marc Vergara calls the flight a breakthrough in the efforts to return abducted children to their families.

"This is the first time there is a flight from government areas to rebel areas - the first time that an agreement between the two sides that children, Sudanese children, should be transported from one side to another. That is new," he said. "And it is the first time we do it by plane, and it is the first time we do it full stop. I know you said it is a drop in the bucket. That is just what I said. It is only five, and we are talking about 6,000. But, it is a first time and we just hope that there will be more."

Mr. Vergara said more than 3,000 other abducted children are staying in a camp run by Save the Children. He said they will stay there until the aid agencies are sure it is safe for them to be returned home.

"It is one thing to return the children to their homes. The other thing is to make sure the community itself is strong enough to guarantee that the children will not be tempted to go, or that the community will be strong enough to guarantee living conditions to make sure that the families are not split, and the children do not walk around. That is why things happen like this. These raiders come usually by train, by car, or whatever, and kidnap children who just happen to be looking for water," he said.

Mr. Vergara said a United States-sponsored commission is currently in Sudan investigating allegations of slavery and abductions. He said the commission is expected to issue its findings later this month.