Long way back to freedom: Child soldiers in South Sudan
By Claire McKeever
After being forced to join an armed group in South Sudan, a boy escapes his life as a combatant, but finds that the freedom of his life before is still far off.
BENTIU, South Sudan, 27 January 2015 – “The bullets were heavy. It was impossible to run. It was hard to use a gun…”
When the words won’t come, David*, a slim 16-year-old boy, gently drums his fingers on his older brother’s knee three times – enough to give him the courage to keep going. His soft voice and bowed head at first disguise the horror he has experienced as one of more than 12,000 children estimated to have been recruited by armed groups in South Sudan since violence erupted over a year ago.
David was quickly separated from his classmates and put in a military camp with a group of boys aged 13 to 18 he had never met. He endured three months of brutal military training, where the group was taught how to use weapons and fight.
“The worst thing was being woken up at 3 a.m. to train until noon, and only getting food three times a week,” explains David. “If you didn’t know how to use a gun, they beat you. There was no alternative.”
Forced to fight
Although separated from his loved ones, David made friends with some of the other boys who had been taken, and they supported each other through the daily horrors, eventually hatching a plan to escape.
But before things could get better, the situation got worse, when the boys were brought to the front line and made to fight. It was more than they could endure. Together, they made the decision to risk their lives and flee at the next chance:
“We were unhappy and decided to go. We left our guns and uniforms behind,” David says.
Under the guise of collecting firewood as normal, a hundred boys fled the barracks into the bush. Most went north, in the direction of Khartoum, but David and four other boys made their way to the gates of the Protection of Civilians (POC) site at the United Nations base in Bentiu, where tens of thousands of people who have been displaced by the fighting have taken shelter.
“We need peace”
Today, David lives with two of the other teenage boys in a tented shelter owned by a family who have been generous enough to take them in. In the three months since the boys came to the site, they have struggled to access food and basic household provisions like blankets, mosquito nets and soap.
“It is better now. There are no more beatings. But life is not good here, and we have no freedom.”
David worries that his escape from the armed group will lead to retaliation against his parents, who still live outside the POC site. He has not seen them since the day he was taken, but he has heard rumors that their cattle were stolen.
Despite all he has been through, David can still smile. When asked about happier times, his face lights up, and he looks like a child again. “Before the fighting, we played football, went to school and watched movies,” he says.
Still, the reality of the situation for David and thousands of other vulnerable children is stark.
“Here there is nothing. We are suffering and we have no school,” he says.
“We need peace in the country.”
UNICEF South Sudan is advocating with the Government and armed groups to end and prevent the recruitment and use of children in conflict as part of the Children Not Soldiers campaign. UNICEF assists children who have been used by armed forces with the protection, education and essential services they need to recover and reintegrate into society. Children like David who are separated from their parents are also registered in a programme for family reunification.