By ISMA’IL KUSHKUSH
BENTIU, South Sudan — Stretched out on a tarp on the floor of a makeshift hospital on a dirt road outside this town, a soldier in a leg cast was laughing and joking with other wounded fighters. His smile was broad and innocent, his voice not yet changed by puberty.
“I am 17,” said the soldier, Lat Magai.
Perhaps he is, but that is unlikely. And that held true for four others in the room, as well as in a convoy outside where soldiers in oversized uniforms, and not yet grown-up height, ducked cameras and questions from strangers. They know they are not supposed to be here: they are too young to be soldiers.
More than six months of fighting in South Sudan has produced a replay of its recent bloody history. Thousands have died, and more than one million people have been displaced. Famine is threatening, and cholera has broken out in some places. Sexual violence is on the rise. And the United Nations and other observers said another ghost of wars past is again rearing its head: the recruitment of child soldiers.
A young soldier, left, stands guard for the opposition’s Maj. Gen. James Koang Chol at the Fourth Division Headquarters in Bentiu, South Sudan. Credit Lynsey Addario for The New York Times
The United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef) [ http://www.unicef.org/infobycountry/southsudan_73403.html ]estimated last month that 9,000 children had been recruited into armed forces or other groups to fight in the South Sudan conflict. Though that number is unconfirmed, the State Department earlier this year [ http://www.state.gov/j/drl/rls/hrrpt/2013/af/220162.htm ]cited “reports of forced conscription by government forces and recruitment and use of child soldiers by both government and antigovernment forces.” Child advocates say the practice is widespread, and young soldiers have been spotted in skirmishes, including the storming of a United Nations base in the town of Bor in April and the participation of youth in a militia allied with the rebels.
The conflict erupted in December, when clashes broke out between soldiers loyal to President Salva Kiir and those loyal to his former vice president, Riek Machar. It soon took on [ http://www.nytimes.com/2014/01/18/world/africa/south-sudan.html ]an ethnic dimension, pitting South Sudan’s two largest groups, the Dinka and the Nuer, against each other. Mr. Kiir is a Dinka, while Mr. Machar is a Nuer.
Both sides, under international and regional pressure, agreed to allow humanitarian corridors to be opened, and a shaky peace deal was signed on May 9 in the Ethiopian capital, with the next step formation of a transitional government. But, as with a [ http://www.nytimes.com/2014/01/25/world/africa/south-sudanese-rebels-accuse-government-of-ignoring-day-old-cease-fire.html ]cease-fire signed in January, [ http://www.nytimes.com/2014/05/15/world/africa/south-sudan-cease-fire-proves-to-be-short-lived.html ]fighting resumed within days.
A growing concern now is the impact of the conflict on the children of South Sudan.
The recruitment or use of children as soldiers is just one violation of six that international child protection advocates have established to indicate that children are in harm’s way during an armed conflict. According to human rights groups, most of these [ http://childrenandarmedconflict.un.org/effects-of-conflict/six-grave-violations/ ]violations — maiming and killing, sexual violence and abduction, among others — have occurred in South Sudan.
The child recruitment, experts said, mostly has taken place in the three areas most affected by the fighting: Upper Nile, Jonglei and Unity States. Given the ethnic dimension that the conflict has taken, recruitment is sometimes done by local community leaders invoking tribal identity and revenge.
Observers said the storming of the United Nations base in April involved Dinka youth, and that Nuer youth participate in the White Army militia, which is involved with the rebels.
The government and rebels met last month with a top United Nations official in Addis Ababa, where both [ http://childrenandarmedconflict.un.org/press-release/parties-to-conflict-south-sudan-renew-commitment/ ]said that they were committed to ending violations against children. “Both parties recognized the devastating impact of the conflict on children,” said the official, Leila Zerrougui, Secretary General Ban Ki-moon’s special representative for children and armed conflict, in a news release on May 11. “I am encouraged by this development and call on both parties to fully respect these engagements.”
Fatuma Ibrahim of Unicef, who has been involved in child protection work for years in Sierra Leone, Liberia, El Salvador and now South Sudan, said, “The involvement of children in armed forces and armed groups has always been a problem in South Sudan.”
Even before South Sudan’s independence from the north in 2011, she said, she worked with the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army, then a rebel group and now South Sudan’s national army, to release underage soldiers.
The United Nations maintains a “list of shame” of governments and armed groups that have violated the six child protection measures. The S.P.L.A. was included in this list in 2005, but since then it has made serious efforts to release underage soldiers.
“We were sure by the end of 2013, the S.P.L.A. would be delisted,” Ms. Ibrahim said.
But since the fighting began last year, child protection workers say the progress has unraveled, with both the government and rebels accused of using child soldiers.
“And it seems now a worse situation,” Ms. Ibrahim said.
The South Sudanese government has denied recruiting underage soldiers.
“I cannot say yes or no,” said Brig. Gen. Chaplain Khamis Edwards, chairman of the child protection unit in the South Sudan Army, about whether there are now child soldiers in the S.P.L.A. “We have to visit the conflict zones to verify. But the S.P.L.A. is not recruiting.”
The rebels also say they do not recruit children.
“We are not using child soldiers,” said Lul Ruai Koany, a military representative for the rebels. “If there are cases, the necessary steps will be taken.”
Some child soldiers from the earlier Sudanese conflict who fled to the United States and elsewhere have widely publicized their experiences. They include the rapper [ https://www.ted.com/talks/emmanuel_jal_the_music_of_a_war_child ]Emmanuel Jal and the activist Valentino Achak Deng, whose story was told by the author Dave Eggers in the book, “[ http://www.nytimes.com/2006/12/24/books/review/Prose.t.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0 ]What Is the What?”
Another former child soldier, Abraham Kur Achiek, is now a child protection officer with Unicef, and knows firsthand the impact of the experience.
“At the end of the day, if they are not killed, their souls and hearts will be shattered,” he said.
Born in Bor, Mr. Achiek was almost 10 years old when the S.P.L.A., then rebels, took up arms against the north in the 1980s. “The chiefs were ordered to collect all the boys 9 years old and above,” he said. That was the last time he saw his parents. From Bor, along with thousands of young boys from all over South Sudan, he walked for weeks eastward to the Ethiopian border.
“Many died on the way,” he said.
In Ethiopian refugee camps, they were forcibly recruited, educated about the conflict and trained to use AK machine guns. He recalled the first time he pulled a trigger in battle. “The first minute is when you are in fear; it is really bad,” he said. “The second minute is about survival.” He eventually escaped and walked with other boys for hundreds of miles to a refugee camp in Kenya. There, they became known as the “lost boys.”
Today, almost 40 and a father of four girls and two boys, he tries to shelter them from what he experienced. “I don’t buy them toy guns,” he said.
He said he is hopeful that peace would eventually prevail in South Sudan, but grew teary over what he is seeing today. “I thought the episode of children suffering in the hands of armies ended with us,” he said.