Nine months ago Bol Olor Ding and his friend Kamis Ngor Ajack were in school studying math and science. Now, at the ages of 14 and 15, they’re veterans of the civil war in South Sudan that’s created one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises.
After fighting forced their schools to close, the two boys exchanged their classrooms for the battlefield and received a government army uniform and a Kalashnikov assault rifle.
“If you don’t have a gun you will be killed,” Ajack said through an interpreter in the town of Wau Shilluk, whose population of 5,000 has swollen to 40,000 as violence spreads in the oil-rich state of Upper Nile. “I was afraid of fighting in the beginning, but when I got a gun and uniform I became brave.”
Ajack and Ding are two of 9,000 children who the United Nations Children’s Fund estimates have joined the government and rebel armies since the conflict in the world’s newest nation erupted in December after President Salva Kiir accused his former deputy, Riek Machar, of staging an attemped coup.
The UN estimates 1.8 million people have been forced to flee their homes and almost 4 million, a third of the country’s population, are in urgent need of humanitarian aid. Both sides have been accused by rights groups and western and African governments of committing atrocities. Peace talks between the two sides resumed yesterday in neighboring Ethiopia.
New York-based Human Rights Watch said in a report last month that both groups had recruited child soldiers, a practice that South Sudan’s guerrilla armies used during their almost five-decade struggle against Sudan to win independence, which was gained in July 2011.
“South Sudan’s army has returned to a terrible practice, once again throwing children into the battlefields,” Daniel Bekele, Africa director at Human Rights Watch, said in the report.
Shown a picture of Ajack yesterday, South Sudan’s army spokesman, Philip Aguer, shook his head and said the military’s child protection unit would take action if it was aware of the boy’s presence in the armed forces.
President of South Sudan Salva Kiir, center, returns to Juba following a meeting in Ethiopia with rebel leader Riek Machar in Juba, South Sudan on August 26, 2014.
“This is too young, too young and completely illegal,” he said at his office in Juba, the capital. “Anyone using child soldiers should be penalized. We need to alert the commander.”
Joseph Nyajwok, project officer at Forshoda Youth Forum, a non-governmental organization in Wau Shilluk, estimated that as many as 1,000 local kids joined either the army or rebels.
“Before the conflict not many kids were in the army,” he said. “Now it is a big problem.”
Both Ajack and Ding are Shilluks, South Sudan’s third-largest ethnic group after the Dinka, who mainly support the government of their kinsman Kiir, and Machar’s Nuers, who back his rebels.
The Shilluk community has been caught in the middle of the fighting, particularly around the city of Malakal, which has repeatedly changed hands. Wau Shilluk is a 20-minute boat ride northeast along the Nile River from Malakal where tension remains high because of fighting last week 30 kilometers (19 miles) northwest of the town.
About 17,000 people, including Shilluks, Dinkas and Nuers, currently live in cramped and muddy conditions at the base of the UN mission in South Sudan in Malakal. In January, 200 mostly women and children Shilluks who were trying to escape fighting in the town drowned in the Nile when their overloaded boat capsized, according to the UN.
Ajack said he volunteered for the army in April after Nuer rebels attacked his village of Owich.
“It is between Nuer and Dinka, but the Nuer accused Shilluk of supporting Dinka, so we decided to fight back,” he said.
Ding said he lost three family members in the fighting, including his father, a brother and an uncle.
“I lost a friend,” he said. “We used to eat together before, now he is dead.”
Anthony Nolan, a UNICEF child protection expert who specializes in child soldiers, said that before the resumption of fighting in December, the army had made a strong effort to reduce the recruitment of young people.
“That situation has deteriorated,” he said in an interview in Wau Shilluk. “Not only is it a breach of international law but also South Sudan’s laws.”
In the wake of violence against their communities, families and neighbors often put pressure on youngsters to join the fighting, he said.
With local schools lacking staff and resources, it’s difficult to entice children to leave the army, he said.
“Children aren’t equipped both cognitively and socially to be able to participate in a conflict, especially taking into account all the risks that they are going to face,” Nolan said. “They say they joined because of the situation and will leave when it is safe to do so.”
Ajack, still in his military uniform, said he’s made the decision to leave the army and wants Ding to quit too.
“I don’t want to be in the army,” he said. “I want to get an education. It’s better. It’s interesting with other people from different places.”
“I liked English and science,” he said. “When peace comes we’ll go back to school.”