Violent conflict continues in South Sudan; with nothing to do and little hope, boys and girls are being recruited to fight with militia and government forces.
Across South Sudan, the struggle to survive is sending girls and boys into the arms of militia and government forces in what the United Nations now estimates has grown to 9,000 recruits.
About 1.3 million people have fled from their homes since violence erupted in December between South Sudanese government troops and fighters supporting the former vice president. More than 300,000 of them have fled to neighboring countries.
Children left inside the besieged nation have tried to settle in makeshift camps, breeding grounds for despair and boredom. With nothing to do and little hope, armed groups offer a sense of protection and camaraderie — and a weapon.
For teens, the pressure is on.
Teens feel pressured to help protect their group, especially when manhood is perceived to start earlier than 18 years of age. Job opportunities in South Sudan are few, too, and the role of armed forces is highly regarded because of its importance in the creation of South Sudan as an independent state in 2011.
Then there’s the militia.
Just a few weeks ago, Akom, 14, was living with his mother and older brother in a squalid camp on the U.N. base at Malakal.
They had run from their home in Malakal town because of attacks. He saw terrible brutality; there were mass killings and rapes. The entire population fled, and many sought shelter in the relative safety of the U.N. compound.
Malakal is now a ghost town of looted, trashed, and burned buildings.
As Akom tells the story, he and a neighbor returned to the town from the U.N. base hoping to recover goods from their homes.
“My neighbor was carrying food and flour,” Akom says. “We were stopped by men who thought we were looting. They made us sit on the ground while two of them argued about whether they should kill the boy I was with. Then a third man came over and just shot him.
“I was crying. They told me, ‘Get out of here.’
“They killed him because he was bigger than me. I want to get my revenge,” Akom says
Since joining the militia, Akom received basic military training, including how to use a gun.
A militia insider, who didn’t give his name, defends the use of children in the present conflict, though he agrees children should be in school — not a battlefield.
“They are not in frontline roles. They don’t have their own guns,” the insider says. “They help with things like giving water to the wounded or washing utensils. They volunteer to join us…they are not afraid to be soldiers.”
But he acknowledges that in the melee of war, sometimes children at the rear of operations find themselves in the combat zone and using guns, even if they don’t own them.
Despite his justifications, there’s no question about children recruited into armed groups, whether as fighters or support staff: It’s against international law.
Fellow trainee, Awer, 15, says he joined the militia because his school has not functioned since January when it was occupied by families displaced by the conflict.
He had hoped to join the army and become an officer after getting an education. He wishes he was in school still.
Like Akom, Awer and his relatives fled invading forces. They became separated, he says. He believes his family went north to Khartoum, in Sudan. He was left behind with his uncle.
So Awer joined the militia. After only a few weeks as a recruit, Awer says he has already fired a gun in combat.
“I wasn’t scared,” he says.
In the displacement camp near Malakal, World Vision organizes activities to give young men something to do. It is a small bright spot in a sea of vulnerability.
“We are providing sports, including football, volleyball, and netball. These are outlets for adolescent energies and frustrations that have been building up,” says Makiba Yamano, a World Vision child protection specialist.
“We also offer study groups in maths and English as a way to engage youth in something constructive that keeps them learning when there is no sign of schools reopening.”
South Sudan has been on a U.N. watch list for the recruitment of children and has to provide regular reporting to the U.N. Security Council on how it is tackling the problem. The current conflict is setting back those efforts. Only a comprehensive and lasting peace can ensure that children go back to being schooled in class and not in war.
*Names have been changed to protect the children. Photos were not taken, because of militia restrictions.