It was the middle of class when armed men burst into a school one morning in December 2013 in the town of Rubkona, in South Sudan’s Unity State. Pointing their weapons at bewildered pupils, the men forced scores of teenage boys to climb into military trucks that had pulled up outside. Across town, in another Rubkona school, similar scenes were unfolding. There was no time for the boys to object, or to say goodbye to their families.
Then, as suddenly as they’d arrived, the trucks tore away, carrying inside them hundreds of boys ages 14 to 17. The abduction, by former government soldiers who defected to become opposition fighters, had taken just minutes. Squeezed inside the trucks, the boys most likely knew they were heading to war.
Both government and rebel forces in South Sudan forcibly recruit children into their ranks. Both sides deny it, but a new report by Human Rights Watch, “We Can Die Too,” shows the practice is widespread. Noone knows how many child soldiers have fought or been associated with armed groups in South Sudan, though UNICEF believes it may be as many as 16,000. The problem is pervasive, and thousands of young boys there lose their education, their childhoods, and sometimes their lives.
One of the kids abducted from schools in Unity State that day was Abraham Puok (not his real name). He was 16, a bookish, soft-spoken boy, who seemed wise for his years.
When Puok met Human Rights Watch at a UN base in Bentiu earlier this year, he quietly told his story. He said Rubkona had been tense on the day of the mass abduction of schoolboys, because just a couple of days earlier fighting had erupted in the capital, Juba, between soldiers loyal to President Salva Kiir and those supporting the former vice president, Riek Machar, now the rebel leader. The fighting spread like wildfire, and in many places soldiers split along ethnic lines, attacking people because of their ethnicity or perceived allegiances. It was the onset of South Sudan’s civil war.
Puok said that after he and his classmates were abducted, they were given guns. Among families who herd cattle for a living, conflict over cattle is common. Unlike other boys in Unity State, who have experience of using guns to protect their livestock, take part in cattle raiding or fight as part of their communities, Puok hadn’t held a weapon before. He and the other boys were given a crash course in how to load guns and fire them.
At dawn the next day, they were taken to the nearby town of Mayom and ordered to attack government soldiers. Puok, who just 24 hours ago had been sitting in class, was terrified. He says it was an awful battle that lasted all day. “Shoot and move forward, shoot and move forward,” the commanders ordered the boys. Eventually the town fell to their rag-tag force, but not before seven of Puok’s classmates were killed and another 10 injured.
This is how Puok’s life as a child soldier began. It was a tough existence. Towns under his group’s control would be captured by government forces, forcing them to flee time and time again. Sometimes they’d engage in fierce firefights, but mostly it was a life on the run. He spent about nine months with the rebels, called the Sudan People’s Liberation Army-in Opposition, before he was able to escape.
In all, Human Rights Watch interviewed more than 100 child soldiers for the report. All the children said conditions were hard, food was scarce, and that they were often hungry. There was little or no medical care. Beatings and detention were common. The boys slept out in the bush. Sometimes they slept in trees because they were afraid of animals.
Many teenagers said that at first they were incredibly afraid, but as fighting began they were able to control their emotions. “Once you feel the bullets leaving your gun, you lose your fear,” said one young fighter.
Many atrocities have been committed during South Sudan’s conflict. Human Rights Watch has documented how forces on both sides have carried out widespread looting and murder. The killing, raping, and pillaging of people’s homes and food stores in rebel-held areas during a 2015 government offensive pushed tens of thousands of people into humanitarian crisis.
Puok remembers taking part in one of the conflict’s bloodiest days to date - the April 2014 rebel attack on Bentiu, the capital of Unity State.
“We had to approach through the river,” he recalls. “They were shooting at us and shelling us.” Eventually they won the battle, but not before rebel forces massacred over 280 people hiding inside a mosque. Puok says he was not part of the contingent on that side of town, but does recall a horrific and frightening battle.
Despite the terrible things child soldiers like Puok were forced to witness and take part in, many boys Human Rights Watch spoke to didn’t feel victimized by their experiences. For many children in South Sudan, especially those from families where conflict over cattle is common, fighting is a part of life. Carrying a gun or being a “warrior” is, if not normal exactly, certainly not unusual. Only one-third of the boys we interviewed were forcibly recruited; the rest joined to protect themselves or their communities, or to exact revenge on their enemies. Recruiting child soldiers is against South Sudan’s and international law. But even before this conflict, it was never properly investigated or prosecuted.
Yet schooling and education is also considered sacred in South Sudan. Families make enormous sacrifices to educate their children, and there is a strong sense, held by children and adults alike, that teenage boys should be in school, not in combat.
Despite this strong education ethic, thousands of boys like Puok are pushed into war. Sometimes commanders abduct children to boost their fighting force. They believe boys are braver and less likely to run when told not to, some boys told us.
Although Puok was eventually able to escape his ordeal, he was not able to escape injury. One of Puok’s tasks during his time as a fighter was to deliver bullets from one base to another, from a town close to Sudan to the rebel-held area of Nhialdiu. He would travel in a small group, sometimes walking for up to two days at a time. The terrain was unforgiving: flat and swampy during the rains, parched during the dry season. They took nothing with them, only drinking small amounts of water and eating wild fruit when they found it. They walked constantly, carrying bullets on their heads.
One day the group was ambushed by a militia group from neighboring Sudan. Puok ran into the bush when the firing began, but took a bullet to his knee. He was lucky: it didn’t hit the bone, and he was able to make it back to camp. But the event was a turning point for him and, a short while later, Puok snuck out of the rebel camp one night and escaped to safety at the UN base at Bentiu.
This is where we found him, many months later, living alongside tens of thousands of other civilians who fled the conflict. Puok was living in a small, two-room shack with two other former child soldiers. There is no school, and he spends his days hanging around and helping out at a tiny shop selling chewing gum and cigarettes.
The losses of the last two years for Puok and other boys who have fought are extreme: they face the trauma of war and miss out on school, and their families are missing or far away.
But at least Puok escaped. It’s unclear how many boys are still with fighting forces after both sides signed a peace deal in August. But international donors should ensure that funds are available to provide education, rehabilitation and other services for former child soldiers.
Accountability—including formal investigations, disciplinary action, and criminal prosecutions— will also be needed to end the practice. For South Sudan’s children to be protected, child soldiering should not be a tactic readily available to strengthen numbers, with no price for those who chose to use it.