Hundreds of abducted South Sudanese boys used as child soldiers

A young displaced child flies a kite made from plastic bags. (AP Photo/Mackenzie Knowles-Coursin)

Armed militiamen aligned with the government of South Sudan are using boys they abducted in late February as child soldiers, said the U.N.’s Children’s Fund.  The number of children taken may be in the hundreds, said UNICEF communication officer for South Sudan John Budd.

“Most of these children are not being held in one place. When you put together the evidence that we’ve received from various witnesses and also officials, UNICEF became very concerned that not only were they more than 89, but also we believe that many of them might be going off to fight,” Budd said to Voice of America.

Initial reports from UNICEF said 89 boys were taken northern part of South Sudan. The gunmen entered homes in Wau Shilluk town, taking boys 12 years old and older. The news broke last month when UNICEF issued a release with a strong condemnation of the incident.

“The recruitment and use of children by armed forces destroys families and communities,” said Jonathan Veitch, UNICEF’s representative in South Sudan, in the statement on Saturday. “Children are exposed to incomprehensible levels of violence, they lose their families and their chance to go to school.”

UNICEF reported the next day that the boys were taken and are undergoing training as soldiers.

“Witnesses have said they are in a training camp, and witnesses have told UNICEF that, on at least three occasions, they have been marched around the town of Wau Shilluk,” said Budd.

The incident further highlights the increasing use of child soldiers in the year-old conflict troubling the young country. A political fallout between President Salva Kiir and former Vice President Riek Machar devolved into fighting in December 2013. The fighting has left more than 10,000 people dead. Some 1.5 million people are displaced from their homes in South Sudan, more than 100,000 have fled to neighboring Sudan and an estimated 2.5 million people face “emergency levels of food insecurity.” All factors that add up to an increasingly concerning situation.

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Unfortunately, there is little indication that things will change soon in South Sudan. Talks between the government and rival groups have garnered little progress in the past few months. Temporary cease-fires have not lasted long before fresh attacks break out once again. The absence of justice mechanisms in South Sudan allows groups to commit crimes without consequence, warned Human Rights Watch in a December report.

“The unaddressed abuses and bloody cycle of ethnic revenge killings in the South Sudan conflict create an urgent need to hold those responsible for atrocities to account,” said Elise Keppler, associate international justice director at Human Rights Watch, in a release. “But domestic will and capacity to prosecute the cases in South Sudan is not there.”

The re-emergence of deploying child soldiers is an example of how such impunity allows crimes to be committed. Among those fighting, UNICEF estimates there are 12,000 child soldiers. Both the government and opposition groups are guilty of recruiting and using child soldiers, said Human Rights Watch in a report published last August. Boys interviewed by the group described fighting on the front lines of the civil war. It is a reversal of progress made toward eliminating the use of child soldiers in South Sudan.

In late January, the United Nations announced that it had secured the release of around 3,000 child soldiers. Jeffrey Gettleman of The New York Times reported that many of the initial 280 children released had been a part of militias for years and never went to school. UNICEF brokered the deal and is helping to return the children to their families. Though the release does not mean groups are stopping the practice of using child soldiers entirely.

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Yet another Human Rights Watch report – this one publish on Feb. 11 – detailed cases of children recruited to join the fight. Boys as young as 13 were recruited or forced into joining armed groups, by soldiers in Upper Nile state.

“In Malakal, government forces are even taking children from right outside the United Nations compound,” said Daniel Bekele, Africa director at Human Rights Watch.

An estimated 20,000 people are living on a nearby U.N. base due to the constant fighting in Malakal. The city is located only 12 miles away from Wau Shilluk, where the 89 boys were abducted over the weekend. Children who escaped recruitment in Malakal indicated that forces led by former militia leader Johnson Olony recruited at least 15 new child soldiers in recent weeks. They described seeing other boys taken by soldiers near the camp gate and a nearby pond. One boy, who was “picked up and throw into a truck” alongside six other boys said they were immediately put out to fight.

“When we got to Koka [the battle area]we were told to go to fight, given weapons, and attack together with other soldiers,” he said. “We were given uniforms, almost immediately told to fight … all of us.”

Updated from Feb 23.

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Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.