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.