YIDA, South Sudan — Thousands of unaccompanied children are streaming out of an isolated, rebellious region of Sudan, fleeing an aerial assault and the prospect of famine.
Sent by their parents on harrowing odysseys across battlefields and malaria-infested swamps, the children are repeating one of the most sordid chapters of Sudanese history: the perilous flight of the so-called Lost Boys in the civil war in the 1990s, who wandered hundreds of miles dodging militias, bombers, and lions.
Now, a new generation of Lost Boys, and some Lost Girls, too, is emerging from a war that, despite a peace deal, has never completely ended.
Haidar Musa, 14, recently trudged into the muddy, mushrooming refugee camp here in Yida, which is growing by 1,000 people a day, turning a lush green jungle into a sea of white UN tarps. With him were eight other boys in shredded clothes and bellies full of grass, their only sustenance for days.
They stood barefoot in the dirt, eagerly watching an enormous vat of beans come to a boil, ready for a real meal and a new home: a crushed cardboard box to sleep on, in a rat-infested hut.
‘‘We don’t talk about our parents anymore,’’ Haidar said. ‘‘Even if we go back, we won’t find anybody.’’
John Prendergast, co-founder of the Enough Project, which fights genocide and crimes against humanity, worked closely with the Lost Boys 20 years ago. ‘‘Those survivors seemed to have a one-time story, never to be repeated,’’ he said. ‘‘But here we are again.’’
Sudan, perhaps more than any other country in this region, seems to have a destructive capacity to sink back to the worst days of its past.
Many other African nations have plunged into civil war but eventually pulled themselves out. Even bullet-riddled Somalia is shaking off chaos. But the Sudanese have essentially been at war with themselves for 56 years, with few respites. Today, this war grinds on in many of the same old places, in many of the same old ways.
A hallmark of the Sudanese government’s counterinsurgency strategy is an unsparing assault on civilians, unleashed in the south in the 1980s, the Nuba Mountains in the 1990s, and Darfur in the early 2000s. Now, it is the Nuba Mountains again, where bombing by Sudan’s air force has forced villages to retreat to mountaintop caves.
The bloodshed in Nuba is directed by some of the same officials responsible for previous massacres, such as President Omar al-Bashir, in power since 1989, and Ahmed Haroun, governor of the state that encompasses the Nuba Mountains. Both are wanted by the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity for bloodshed in Darfur, and al-Bashir faces genocide charges.
The current offensive seems to be putting Nuban children in the cross-hairs, and often there is nowhere to run.
A caretaker in the Yida camp said 14 boys trying to get here were gunned down at a Sudanese army checkpoint. Bomb shrapnel has sliced apart countless others. Disease is sweeping the countryside.
Since even before independence in 1956, Sudan has been dogged by center-periphery tensions often expressed in exploding shells. Just as the central government has a tradition of brutality, minority groups have a tradition of heavily armed insurrection.
Today, Nuban soldiers, equipped with artillery, rockets, and tanks, are refusing to disarm until the government falls in Khartoum, Sudan’s capital, saying they have been oppressed, partly because many Nubans are non-Arab and Christian, while the government is led by Arab Muslims.