Pibor, South Sudan—“I’ve never been a soldier,” I say to the wide-eyed, lanky-limbed veteran sitting across from me. “Tell me about military life. What’s it like?” He looks up as if the answer can be found in the blazing blue sky above, shoots me a sheepish grin, and then fixes his gaze on his feet. I let the silence wash over us and wait. He looks embarrassed. Perhaps it’s for me.
Interviews sometimes devolve into such awkward, hushed moments. I’ve talked to hundreds of veterans over the years. Many have been reluctant to discuss their tours of duty for one reason or another. It’s typical. But this wasn’t the typical veteran—at least not for me.
Osman put in three years of military service, some of it during wartime. He saw battle and knows the dull drudgery of a soldier’s life. He had left the army just a month before I met him.
Osman is 15 years old.
Young people the world over join militaries for all sorts of reasons—for a steady paycheck, to be a part of something greater than themselves, to measure up, to escape their homes, because they crave structure or excitement or adventure, because they have no better options, because they’re forced to. Osman joined a militia called the Cobra faction, he told me, after soldiers from the Sudan People’s Liberation Army, or SPLA—the national armed forces of South Sudan—shot and killed his father. It seemed to be the only option open to him. It afforded him protection, care, a home.
Osman was released from his military service in February and he wasn’t alone. In recent months, more than 1,700 children have been demobilized by the Cobra faction. But they’re the exceptions in South Sudan. Today, about 13,000 other children are serving with the SPLA or the Sudan People’s Liberation Army-In Opposition, a rebel force at war with the government, or with other militias and armed groups jockeying for power in that civil-war-wracked country.
Despite a law prohibiting it, the United States looked the other way while this went on, providing aid and assistance to the SPLA even as it employed child soldiers. Year after year, President Obama provided waivers to sidestep the 2008 Child Soldiers Prevention Act, by which Congress prohibited the United States from providing military assistance to governments filling out their ranks with children. It was just one facet of years of support, dating back to the 1980s, that saw the United States “midwife”—as then-chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee John Kerry put it—South Sudan into existence.
For nearly a decade leading up to the 2011 declaration of independence, the cause of the nation and its citizens was one that was near and dear to the heart of two successive U.S. administrations and some of its most seasoned and effective thinkers and policymakers,” Patricia Taft, a senior associate with the Fund for Peace, wrote in an analysis of South Sudan last year. “In order to secure this nation-building ‘win,’ both the George W. Bush and Obama administrations poured tons of aid into South Sudan, in every form imaginable. From military aid to food aid to the provision of technical expertise, America was South Sudan’s biggest ally and backer, ardently midwifing the country into nationhood by whatever means necessary.
In the case of child soldiers, waivers were seen as a necessity when it came to helping build “an accountable and professional armed force,” in the words of Andy Burnett of the Office of the Special Envoy to Sudan and South Sudan; that is, an ethical, modern military that would ultimately eschew the use of children. The results were just the opposite. The SPLA fractured in December 2013 and was soon implicated in the commission of mass atrocities and increased recruitment of child soldiers. The war that has wracked the country since has been especially ruinous for South Sudan’s youth. According to the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), around 600,000 children have been affected by psychological distress, 400,000 have been forced out of school, 235,000 are at risk of severe acute malnutrition, and more than 700 have been killed during a year and a half of civil war.
I meet Osman and a dozen other former child soldiers in an out-of-the-way town about 170 miles from South Sudan’s capital, Juba. The temperature seems harsher in Pibor, the air drier and dustier. The days leave you feeling sapped and shriveled. The sun forces your eyes into a perpetual squint and the wind blows hot—unnaturally hot, blast-furnace hot.
The ground in Pibor is parched to the point of cracking. The gray moonscape has shattered into a spider’s web of crevices, fissures, and clefts tailor-made for wrenching knees and toppling chairs when you shift your weight. Then there are the flies. Swarms of flies. Everywhere. I’ve experienced flies before, flies you can’t keep off your food, so many that you cease swatting and call a truce; so many that you agree to share your plate and your fork with them, so much sharing that they might become part of your meal if they fail to flit away fast enough. But the flies in Pibor are another matter: relentless, maddening, merciless, eternally landing on your sweaty hands and arms and cheeks and nose, on the goat meat being butchered nearby, on your water bottle. Swat one and four more seem to arrive in response—until about 7:30 pm when, as if by magic, they simply disappear.
Osman, a local kid, doesn’t seem bothered by the flies or the heat. Maybe that’s because this life beats the one he was living when he carried an assault rifle and served as a bodyguard for a high-ranking officer. It was a typical job for a child soldier in the Cobra faction, a rebel militia that was—until last year—at war with the government here. Korok, a baby-faced 16-year-old from Pibor, tells me he did the same thing during his two years of service. “They gave me a gun,” he says as his large, lively eyes dart about. “I followed big men around.”
After his father was shot and killed and his mother died of malaria, Korok found himself alone. His brother was off serving in the SPLA when soldiers from that force rampaged through the area around Pibor, punishing the local population—men, women, and children of the Murle tribe—for an uprising by native son and recurrent rebel David Yau Yau.
A former theology student, Yau Yau once served as the Pibor county secretary of the South Sudan Relief and Rehabilitation Commission, a federal agency devoted to the reintegration and resettlement of refugees and internally displaced persons. He has, however, spent the last five years forging a career out of anti-government uprisings. A young upstart from the Murle minority, Yau Yau bucked local elders and ran as an independent for parliament in April 2010. After losing—he was reportedly trounced—Yau Yau pursued another path to power, this time through an armed rebellion with 200 fighters under his command. Just over a year later, after some skirmishes with government forces and minor acts of banditry, he accepted an offer of amnesty and was reportedly made a general in the SPLA.
In March 2012, the SPLA launched a “disarmament campaign” in Murle areas around Pibor marked, locals say, by rampant atrocities, including rapes and assaults. Soon, Yau Yau was again in revolt, attracting boys like Korok and Osman to his South Sudan Democratic Movement/Army also known as the SSDM/A-Cobra faction. With thousands flocking to his cause and armed with heavier weapons, Yau Yau launched his first major attack, an ambush that reportedly killed more than 100 SPLA soldiers in August 2012, according to the Small Arms Survey, a Geneva-based independent research group. Battles between the Cobra faction and the SPLA raged through 2013 and civilians around Pibor continued to suffer.
SPLA court martial documents obtained by TomDispatch attest to the violence in the area. On July 31, 2013, for example, Sergeant Ngor Mayik Magol and Private Bona Atem Akot shot and killed two Murle women and injured a child in Pibor County. (Tried and convicted, they were ordered to pay “blood compensation” of 45 cows for each woman, sentenced to five years in prison, and fined 2,000 South Sudanese pounds each.) In fact, according to Human Rights Watch, 74 Murle civilians, 17 of them women and children, were killed between December 2012 and July 2013.
In May 2014, several months after a full-fledged civil war erupted with rebel forces under the leadership of former Vice President Riek Machar, South Sudan’s president Salva Kiir and Yau Yau agreed to a peace pact. Later, the former rebel leader pledged to demobilize children from his forces.
In January, the Cobra faction began releasing youths, ages 9 to 17, some of whom had been fighting for up to four years. In that first demobilization ceremony, overseen by the South Sudan National Disarmament, Demobilization, and Reintegration Commission with support from UNICEF, 280 youngsters turned in their weapons and uniforms. Since then, almost 1,500 others have been released. “These children have been forced to do and see things no child should ever experience,” said UNICEF South Sudan Representative Jonathan Veitch. “The release of thousands of children requires a massive response to provide the support and protection these children need to begin rebuilding their lives.”
Zuagin tells me he’s 15, but he looks a couple years younger. His legs seem to be hiding somewhere inside his pants and his shirt is a size too big. Hailing from the nearby town of Gumuruk, he had served with the Cobra faction for about two years before being demobilized in February. Like the other boys, he now spends his days at “the ICC” or Interim Care Center in Pibor, a compound dominated by a mud-walled church with a crude likeness of Christ drawn on an exterior wall.
“UNICEF builds and runs the centers with our partners—they are providing temporary care and shelter to the children released while we trace their families,” UNICEF’s Claire McKeever explained to me. “We have also trained local teams of social workers, cooks, and guards who work at the centers. The children are provided with food, shelter, items like mosquito nets, mats, and soap, psychosocial support and recreation activities. This is a two-year program in Pibor, but the hope is that these centers can become youth centers once the last children return home.”
The child veterans at the ICC are like kids anywhere. Some are curious but apprehensive, others wary and insecure; a few of the older ones act tougher and cooler than they are. They find themselves on either side of that ethereal adolescent dividing line—some with the softer, rounder faces of little boys, others beginning to sport the more angular features of young men; some with tiny, falsetto voices, others speaking in tenor tones. As a group, they are, however, united by body type: uniformly skinny, swimming in their button-down shirts or soccer jerseys. Quite a few sport generic t-shirts emblazoned with the name “Obama.” Many have energy to burn and a hunger for something more. More than a few seem to delight in tormenting one of their caretakers, a man who wields a long thin branch that he brandishes in an attempt to keep the boys in line. He threatens them with it, swinging it at them, though without much chance of actually hitting the speedy, young veterans. They, in turn, mock him and when he sets his switch down, they steal it from him. He tells me that he likes the boys, that they are good kids. He also asks if I could help him get any other kind of job, anything at all.
Zuagin was yet another Cobra faction bodyguard who spent his tour of duty toting a gun to protect an older man with a high rank. “He treated me well, with respect,” he says, but assures me that life is now much better than it was with the militia. He has big plans for the future. “I want to go to school,” he explains. “I want to be a doctor. We need sanitation. If I’m a doctor, I can help the community.”
Zuagin has a ready solution to South Sudan’s bloodshed and the seemingly interminable civil war that goes with it. “To stop the violence, we need disarmament. All the guns need to be collected. After that, all the youths should go to school.” I listen and nod, thinking about how a disarmament campaign led directly to violence here in Pibor, the violence that Osman tells me cost his father his life, the violence that forced so many of Zuagin’s fellow child soldiers into the arms of the Cobra faction in the first place. I decide not to mention it.
Osman has his own simple solution: full employment. “To have peace, they should give a job to everybody,” he says in a soft, raspy voice. “If they gave work to everybody, everybody would be busy and there would be no time for fighting.”
Like the rest of the boys, Peter looks younger than the age he gives, which is 16. And like many of the others, it was abuse by the SPLA that, two years earlier, led him to flee his home and join the Cobra faction. “They were beating people. They even stole my clothes,” he tells me as we sit in the minimal shade of a tree near the church in the ICC compound. Life with the militia was tough: cooking, chores, bodyguard duties, combat. Now, the bright-eyed youth says that he has free time and his life is so much better. He was looking forward to school, too, but didn’t have the requisite 20 South Sudanese pounds needed for tuition. It’s the same story for Osman who longs for school, but says he lacks the funds to attend.
“Getting all children in Pibor back to school is a priority and services are slowly being reestablished after many years of under investment,” UNICEF’s McKeever told me by email. “There are currently close to 3,000 children enrolled in Pibor [and nearby] Gumuruk and Lekuangule and one in three of the demobilized children from Pibor are in accelerated learning programs.”
The Interim Care Center is a spartan facility by Western standards and creature comforts are few, but these young Cobra faction veterans have it better than many of their peers who find themselves hungry, malnourished,displaced, homeless, and hopeless. “Life is very good here,” Osman told me. The freedom to come and go as he pleases and wear civilian clothes looms large for him. “Plus, I’m eating for free,” he adds. When I ask if he ever wants to be a soldier again, he shoots me a disgusted look, before cracking a big smile and laughing aloud. “No. I don’t like it at all. The worst part was fighting.”
Zujian, who speaks some English, agrees. In a tiny voice that has yet to crack, let alone deepen, he swears that life now is so much better than when he carried a weapon and that he’s absolutely done with soldiering forever. All the boys I talk to tell me the same—though it’s no guarantee that some of them won’t end up back under arms in the years to come. Above all, however, every one of them wants something more. All are looking for some way out.
Peter bluntly requests that I take a couple of the boys back to the United States so they can tell their stories in person. He strongly hints that he would like to be one of them. In the meantime, he says, he will “pray for peace.” Korok, it turns out, is praying too—for peace and better leadership for the country. “Is there a possibility,” he asks, “for the American people to set up schools, so the children could go to class instead of becoming soldiers?”
“South Sudan needs development. It needs hospitals, not fighting,” Zujian tells me with a thoughtful smile. True enough, but I wonder if there is any chance of it. Recent, full-scale military offensives are wreaking havoc, killing and injuring civilians, and accountability is nearly nil. The government derives more than 90% of its revenue not from citizens to whom it must provide services and transparency, but from foreign oil firms. It is now also indebted to the Qatar National Bank, to whom the future of the nation has been mortgaged. Its military has been consistently implicated in mass atrocities, as has the rebel force opposing it. Both continue to employ child soldiers. The country sits atop the Fund for Peace’s 178-nation list of the world’s most fragile nations, ranks exceptionally high in terms of poverty and corruption, and low when it comes to education, infrastructure, press freedom, and human rights. It’s one of the worst places on earth to be amother or a child. Its economy is in shambles and nearly five million people are expected to face severe food shortages in the months ahead. And given the fact that southern Sudan has, for the better part of 60 years, been embroiled in war—a series of conflicts that have upended, wrecked, or taken the lives of millions, sown bad blood, and stoked the fires of vengeance—the future looks grim.
At the end of our interview, Zujian stares into my eyes, squinting as if looking for something, and then begins interviewing me. What am I up to, he wants to know. Why have I traveled all this way to the ICC to talk to the other boys and him?
I try to explain how my country helped facilitate the recruitment of child soldiers in his, despite international condemnation of the practice and the fact one of our laws forbids it, as does South Sudanese law. I say that people in America know little or nothing about the global scourge of child soldiers. It’s important, I add, that they hear what boys like him have to say.
I had come, I explain, to hear his story and I will do my best to tell it. I can feel Zujian’s disappointment. Like a number of the children, he clearly hoped for more from me—maybe even tangible assistance of some sort. He manages to look skeptical and remain silent until we reach the outer edge of awkward. Then, suddenly, he breaks into a wide grin and gracefully lets me off the hook.
Clearly, US assistance and nation-building efforts in South Sudan have had anything but the desired effects either for Washington or South Sudan. No less clearly, President Obama’s gamble that looking the other way when it came to child soldiers would, in the long run, facilitate the end of their use imploded in 2013 with devastating results. Despite this, Zujian refuses to sour on the United States or at least its citizens. Somehow, in spite of all the disappointments, including me, he continues to have faith.
“I’m happy to have talked with you,” he says with a nod, still smiling as we sit in the fading afternoon sun at this parched, uncertain way station, a literal no man’s land located somewhere between war and peace, youth and adulthood. “If the American people read about us, maybe it will lead to something good.”
[Note: In this piece, names have been changed to protect the privacy of the children at the request of UNICEF.]