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South Sudan: Warring Parties Break Promises on Child Soldiers

UN, AU Need to Impose Sanctions, Get Court Running

(Nairobi) – South Sudanese armed forces and armed opposition groups continue to recruit child soldiers and force them into the conflict, despite numerous commitments to stop, Human Rights Watch said today. 

The United Nations, the African Union (AU), the regional Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) and their member states should immediately impose and enforce an arms embargo on South Sudan and targeted sanctions against individuals responsible, including President Salva Kiir, rebel leader Riek Machar and all other commanding officers responsible for serious violations of the laws of war. The African Union Commission should speed up the establishment of the proposed Hybrid Court for South Sudan to try the most serious crimes committed during the conflict, Human Rights Watch said.

“The continued recruitment and use of children by the military and opposing armed groups point to the utter impunity that reigns in South Sudan, and the terrible cost of this war on children,” said Mausi Segun, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “There’s a chance to reverse the tide if the region follows through on its promise to impose sanctions on individual violators of human rights. A failure to do so would discredit the region’s commitment to stop the abuses in South Sudan.”

On January 27, the IGAD Council of Ministers said it would “take all necessary measures, including targeted sanctions against individual violators and spoilers, such as travel ban, asset freeze and recommend to the African Union Peace and Security Council (AUPSC) to carry out further targeted sanctions and other punitive measures on parties and individuals as appropriate.” Following up on this commitment, individuals responsible for the continued use and recruitment of child soldiers should be sanctioned by the IGAD, AU, and UN.

Human Rights Watch interviewed more than two dozen current and former child soldiers from the former Western Equatoria and Unity states in South Sudan in November and December 2017. Human Rights Watch found that commanders from both government forces and rebel groups have been abducting, detaining, and forcing children, some as young as 13, into their ranks since the warring parties signed the Agreement on the Resolution of the Conflict in South Sudan (ARCSS) in August 2015. The parties to the conflict once again promised to demobilize any child recruited or enlisted by their group to UNICEF by the end of January 2018. However, they have not followed through on this commitment.

Many boys said soldiers abducted them from their homes or off the street, detaining them for days or weeks at times in overcrowded containers, sometimes tying them up. Several described harsh training conditions and physical punishments such as lashing and confinement.

“The food was not enough – we had to run, jump, use wooden guns,” said Makuach, a 17-year-old boy recruited by government forces in Unity in 2016. “If you refuse, they punish you by forcing you to stand under the sun, I was tired once and then I was beaten. They poured water over me and beat me with a stick on the buttocks 40 times, until I was bleeding.” As with others interviewed, he is not identified by his real name, for his protection.

Others were forced to commit or witness horrible crimes. “The order was to kill anything we found,” said John, who was recruited by government forces in Unity at 17, about an attack on rebel forces. “Some of us went to loot. Others gang-raped a woman. There were also those who took the children – some of them infants – by their ankles to crush their heads against the trees or any hard thing. And then civilians were taken into a house and the soldiers set it on fire. I saw it.”

Many appeared traumatized from the violence and from being separated from their families; almost all said they missed being at school.

Since the conflict began in December 2013, forces on both sides have reneged on numerous commitments, including in two UN action plans signed by government and rebel forces, to end recruitment and use of child soldiers and other human rights abuses. Despite the August 2015 ARCSS, fighting continued.

The latest ceasefire, signed on December 22, 2017, as part of a process to resuscitate the 2015 peace agreement, has not stopped the fighting nor ended abuses, according to the independent Ceasefire and Transitional Security Arrangements Monitoring Mechanism (CTSAMM). The monitors have also found that government and rebel forces recruit and use child soldiers.

Women from more than forty South Sudanese womens organizations carry placards during a march through the city to express the frustration and suffering that women and children face in Juba, South Sudan on December 9, 2017.   © STEFANIE GLINSKI/AFP/Getty Images

The civil war has forced nearly four million people from their homes, and has had an acute impact on children. More than 2,300 children have been reported killed or injured, a million are malnourished, two million are out of school and one in ten dies by age 5. In December, UNICEF estimated that more than 19,000 children had been recruited and associated with armed groups since the war started, up from an estimated 16,000 in late 2015.

The new Human Rights Watch findings update a December 2015 report documenting nation-wide recruitment and use of child soldiers since the conflict started. Several of the commanders implicated in that report – including Lt. Gen. Matthew Puljang, a government commander in Unity state – appear to be using child soldiers. Researchers also received credible allegations that commanders loyal to Taban Deng Gai, who became first vice president in July 2016, recruited children in his home region of Unity in recent months. However, South Sudan’s National Security Service (NSS) prevented researchers from traveling to Bentiu to investigate these reports.

The UN documented the use and recruitment of children by all sides in 2016 and 2017. On January 16, 2018, CTSAMM reported evidence of use and recruitment of child soldiers by forces loyal to the government, to Gai, and to Machar, and called on all parties to eradicate the practice and take steps toward demobilization.

International human rights law prohibits the use of children under 18 in hostilities; and enlisting or using children under 15 amounts to a war crime. Yet South Sudan’s leaders have failed to investigate or prosecute any commanders for recruiting child soldiers. Instead, Kiir rewarded some of the commanders suspected of abuses with new positions.

Human Rights Watch documented accounts that on at least three occasions since the parties signed the peace agreement in August 2015, government forces transported large groups of recruits, including children thought by those traveling with them to be as young as 10 or 12, by army cargo plane from Mankien and Kotong, in Unity state, to Luri, an army training camp located outside of Juba near president Kiir’s personal farm. Dozens escaped from there to other locations in Juba. This indicates that the highest command of Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA, South Sudan’s military) must have had knowledge of the recent recruitment in Unity state.

In the Western Equatoria region, Human Rights Watch found that rebel groups forcibly recruited hundreds of children to fight government forces that waged brutal counterinsurgency campaigns in the region. Human Rights Watch interviewed current and former child soldiers recruited by forces overseen by commanders, including Alfred Futuyo, aligned with Machar, and commanders with the South Sudan National Liberation Movement (SSNLM), a rebel group that signed a local peace agreement with the government in April 2016 and whose forces are awaiting reintegration into the SPLA.

More than 400 child soldiers from SSNLM have been identified by UNICEF for their demobilization from the forces. Like all child soldiers, they face social stigma, fear of arrest by government authorities, and significant delays in their education. Some of the boys Human Rights Watch interviewed had missed up to four years of school. International actors should ramp up efforts to release child soldiers, reintegrate them into local communities and provide them access to schooling, in line with the Principles and Guidelines on Children Associated with Armed Forces or Armed Groups that provide detailed guidance for implementing programs to help child soldiers.

However, to be effective, such efforts need to be accompanied by steps to provide accountability and to end the abuses, Human Rights Watch said. These steps should include an arms embargo to formally ban the flow of weapons into the country.

The AU Commission should also speed up implementation of the Hybrid Court for South Sudan, which is to include South Sudanese and other African judges and prosecutors. Following international pressure and a four-month delay, South Sudan’s information minister told journalists in December that the council of ministers would approve the key documents to establish the court, including a draft statute and a memorandum of understanding with the AU. But it is not clear any documents were signed or if draft legislation was submitted to parliament.

Under the original August 2015 agreement, the AU Commission has the authority to establish the court with or without the engagement of the South Sudanese government, and should proceed as necessary for the court to become operational and hold perpetrators to account.

If a credible, fair, and independent hybrid court is not promptly established, the option of the International Criminal Court (ICC) remains and should be pursued, Human Rights Watch said. As South Sudan is not a party to the ICC, the UN Security Council would need to refer the situation to the court in the absence of a request from the government of South Sudan.

“By repeatedly failing to stop these abuses against children, South Sudan’s leaders have irrevocably damaged yet another generation and need to be held accountable,” Segun said. “Intergovernmental bodies and other countries should press on with individual sanctions, an arms embargo and ramp up pressure to get the hybrid court working.”

Forced Recruitment in Unity, Western Equatoria
South Sudan’s conflict began December 2013 with fighting between forces loyal to President Kiir, an ethnic Dinka, and those loyal to Machar, his then-deputy, a Nuer. Despite the August 2015 peace agreement, fighting spread to previously stable areas in the Equatorias and Western Bahr el Ghazal, as government forces waged abusive counterinsurgency campaigns to root out rebel groups.

Despite the many pledges by government and rebel forces to end use and recruitment of child soldiers, including in the 2015 peace agreement, South Sudan’s war has continued along with abuses against civilians, including the recruitment and use of child soldiers.

In Juba and Yambio, from November 28 to December 12, 2017, Human Rights Watch interviewed 26 current and former child soldiers from the former Unity and Western Equatoria states – divided and renamed in 2017, when the current government created 32 new states. Most were forcibly recruited into government or rebel armies and forced to fight or do manual jobs for the soldiers.

The boys were subjected to a range of abusive training methods and punishments, including beatings, forced confinement, prolonged standing in the sun, and jumping like a frog. Most of the boys appeared traumatized from the violence and being separated from their families. Most said they wanted to return to school and civilian life. Several attempted escapes multiple times, only to be re-captured.

Some of us were very young. The youngest looked like he was 10…They were crying and saying that they had been taken away from their parents. But if you cry too much, the soldiers beat you.

Unity State
The former Unity state, Machar’s homeland, is the scene of some of the worst fighting. Human Rights Watch previously documented how commanders and county commissioners aligned with government and rebel groups recruited children – often by force – and used child soldiers with impunity. Among them were Lt. Gen. Puljang, a militia leader aligned to the national armed forces, SPLA, and Joseph Monytuel, the current governor of Northern Liech state.

Former child soldiers interviewed in late 2017 confirmed that recruitment continued over the past two years. Several said forces under Puljang recruited them in the spring and fall of 2016. Some also named several commanders under Maj. Gen. Stephen Buay of Division 4 and others under Lt. Gen. Puljang. The commissioner of Koch was also alleged to have recruited children.

Other former child soldiers said they were recruited by rebel commanders, including Peter Gadet and Gabriel Gatwich Chan, or “Tanginya,” a veteran commander who allied with Machar’s opposition but later defected to a group of government supporters and was killed in January 2017. At least one of those interviewed was sent to Juba in April 2016 to defend Machar when he returned to Juba as the vice-president in the transitional government under the August 2015 peace agreement.

Researchers also received credible allegations that Gai – a former governor of Unity whom Kiir appointed to replace Machar as vice president after government and rebel forces fought in Juba in July 2016 – oversaw the recruitment of children in his home county of Guit in mid-2017. Human Rights Watch researchers could not travel to the region because national security officials blocked them and were unable to seek further corroboration of the allegations.

All names of children interviewed have been changed for their protection.

John Guangwak Thiep 

The following account is based on an interview with a 17-year-old boy initially recruited by government forces in 2016.

John Guangwak lived in the village of Wangkei, in Mayom county with his parents and siblings when rebel forces attacked in early 2014. John fled with his family to the UN site for protection of civilians (PoC) in Bentiu, where he spent two years before going back to Wangkei in May 2016, after Machar returned to Juba under the August 2015 peace agreement.

In July 2016, government soldiers surrounded John’s village a few days after clashes broke out between the warring parties in Juba. “In the morning, that’s when they started to take young boys from the village, going house to house,” he said.

Soldiers entered John’s house, ordered him out, and took him to Mankien, a military training center, alongside about 30 other youths: “No one spoke to us at that point. I was not very happy and I was afraid because I was forced. Maybe we would end up dead, I thought. We didn’t know anything.”

Upon arrival, the commanders locked the children and young men up in a container for two days, with little water or food, and no one to explain why they were there: “Some of us were very young. The youngest looked like he was 10…They were crying and saying that they had been taken away from their parents. But if you cry too much, the soldiers beat you.”  

After two days, the army transferred the large group of new recruits to Juba by cargo plane and took them to Luri, a military camp outside of the capital. During the trip, some soldiers were trying to reassure John: “They said, ‘Don’t fear, men cannot fear!’ I did not reply to them because I did not like them, they captured me by force.”

John spent four days at the Luri camp until he found a way to escape. “Someone among us knew where Juba was so four of us took permission to go collect water from the well after the morning training. After we reached it, we just started to move slowly toward another direction. No one stopped us. We came directly to Juba.”

Ruach Tebuon
The following account is based on an interview with a 19-year-old who was a child when he was forcibly recruited by government forces in 2014 and 2015. He escaped both times.

In May 2014, government forces began to forcibly recruit youths in Kuer Yiek, Mayom county, including Ruach Tebuon. “I was sleeping when they came,” he said. “I never tried to run because there were too many of them.”  Ruach’s elbows were tied behind him, which he said was very painful. His parents were beaten when they tried to intervene.

Ruach was taken to Ruath Nyibol, another village nearby, alongside about 50 other children and young men from his village, and soldiers put them in a container for the night. “Those who shouted and cried in the container were taken out and beaten,” Ruach said. The following day, he was taken to Mankien, where Puljang came out of his office to look at the latest recruits. The forces then took the recruits to Kotong, another training center in Unity state. The training was harsh. Twice, Ruach said, he was lashed on his buttocks fifty times with electric cables as punishment. After four months, he escaped and returned to Kuer Yiek.

A year later, in October 2015, Ruach went to the town of Mankien to visit his uncle and was captured in the market by Puljang’s forces. The forces took him to the barracks, where he was beaten on arrival and detained in a container for two weeks. “We were many in there, maybe 200, and very young,” he said. “We could only sleep if we lay in a fetal position.”

The forces then flew the recruits on board a cargo plane to Juba, where they were taken to the military base at Luri. There, a man who introduced himself as the then-governor of Unity state, Dr. Joseph Monytuel, welcomed them with a discourse focused on the need to defend the land. “Then we were registered, but never asked for our age,” Ruach said. He was there a month and a half, then escaped. Ruach is now in school and wants to become a teacher.

Bonifacio Kwong
This account is based on an interview with a 17-year-old who was captured alongside nine fellow-students by Puljang’s forces in the summer of 2016, when Bonifacio was 16.

He was drinking tea with his schoolmates in the market on a school day during the rainy season when soldiers asked the youth to help push their truck out of a mud hole. “They got us to jump into the truck by promising us that they would thank us. But they drove us to the barracks and told us we had to replace the dead soldiers and wouldn’t go back to school,” Bonifacio said. 

At the barracks, a commander whom he later learned reported to Puljang, ordered them detained and tied up. “Five of us were tied together and the other five were tied together with another rope. Then they drove us to Kotong [a military training camp],” he said.

The day after they arrived, their heads were shaved and they were forced to go through training: “We found many boys in the yard. Many hundreds of recruits. Some criminals joined voluntarily, but most were there by force.” He said they were trained to march and use a wooden rifle for practice, and said one of the trainers, whom he named as Nyang Juba, was abusive.

“He would step on our stomach and head for being lazy,” Bonifacio said. “I got 100 lashes for not waking up early enough one time.” Others were forced to stand under the sun or hold stones up in each hand for long periods.

Three months into his ordeal, Bonifacio managed to escape with a friend. “When the guards realized it, they fired at us. My friend was caught but I escaped to my uncle’s house. I was able to go to school for a month. But soldiers eventually recognized me and re-captured me.” Bonifacio was punished with a day in jail and taken back for training.

Three months later, he escaped and was re-captured again. He was later ordered to recruit other civilians: “We were told if they refuse, to force them. We wore uniforms and pointed a gun at those who refused. We went to five villages and recruited more than 100 people, including children.”

Later in the year, the army flew Bonifacio and other recruits to Juba in a cargo plane. “After landing, we were taken to Luri camp but there was no food there and no information about what would happen. About 20 of us decided to escape.”

Bonifacio now hopes that those who took him away from school and his family will face consequences: “As long as someone can pick up a gun, they can be recruited. It is not good. Maybe those who ordered the recruitment will be told not to do it. Puljang should be punished.”

Simon Kuek Puoch
The following account is based on an interview with a 17-year-old boy who was forcefully recruited by Machar’s opposition forces in 2013, when he was 14 years old. In 2016, he was sent to Juba to be part of Machar’s protection detail.

Simon was in Fangak, northern Jonglei state, when the war started in 2013. Fearing violence, Simon and his family fled to Thiang, a remote area a two-day walk away. In April 2014, he was forcefully recruited by opposition forces operating there under Tanginya.

The training last for five months, after which Simon was sent to the front line in northern Upper Nile state and worked as a bodyguard for Tanginya with more than 10 other boys.

Simon was good at his job and selected to travel to Juba to become one of Machar’s bodyguards upon his return to the capital in April 2016. He fought government forces during the clashes in July 2016, and escaped but was injured in the hip. 

He took shelter in a safe place in Juba, where he still lives. Simon is now in primary school. “I like it. If I learn, I will be independent and able to do things on my own. Maybe I can become a leader,” he said.

Western Equatoria
South Sudan’s war spread into Western Equatoria in late 2015, as government forces conducted abusive counterinsurgency operations targeting newly formed rebel groups. These groups drew from local self-defense forces, known as the Arrow Boys, that were originally formed to combat violence by the Ugandan rebel group, the Lord’s Resistance Army.

Some joined the rebel forces led by Machar, while others, like South Sudan’s National Liberation Movement (SSNLM), operated under their own chain of command. Children interviewed in Western Equatoria described voluntarily joining or being abducted by groups such as one under the leadership of Alfred Futuyo, a commander under Machar, or the SSNLM, led by John Faustino Barakat and Abel Banga.

The SSNLM signed a separate peace agreement with the government in April 2016 that includes the demobilization and reintegration of its forces. More than 20 months later, the government has yet to fulfill its part of the deal by integrating the troops.

As of December, more than 400 children recruited by SSNLM have not been demobilized. Some commanders said the children were safer remaining in the barracks and would not be released until the government integrated all the forces into the army.

Meanwhile, many of the children are forced to farm for their commanders and have not returned to their families or school.

Jean Stéphane Morumbo
The account below is based on an interview with a 17-year-old from the Central African Republic, who was forcefully recruited by the SSNLM in South Sudan in 2014, when he was 13.

Jean Stéphane was born in the Central African Republic and came to South Sudan in 2013, at age 13, in search of work after the Lord’s Resistance Army killed his parents. He settled near Birisi to work as a farmhand.

In early 2014, a rebel group captured him. “They were five youths, all with weapons, younger than me. I didn’t resist because they pointed a gun at me and tied my hands and pushed me,” he said. The armed group forced him and two other boys to walk several kilometers to Yubu, near Yambio. “I thought we were going to be killed. I was asking them to release me. They told me they wouldn’t harm me or kill me, but I was afraid.” 

In Yubu, the SSNLM commanders trained the new recruits, including how to shoot someone. “They said that you should shoot for the head or the stomach. They said not to shoot anybody unless it is war and if there is war, not to shoot the civilians,” he said.

They also trained the recruits to forcefully recruit civilians: “You go into their house. If the person wants to run, you shoot them in the leg. If the person refuses, you beat them with a stick. If still they don’t respond, then you kill them.”

Following his training, Jean Stéphane had to forcefully recruit other children and young men on behalf of his SSNLM commanders. “I never had to kill anyone myself…I had to beat someone however. I felt that if I refused, my boss would think that I was an enemy so I did it.”

Jean Stéphane said that breaking the rules or disobeying orders could bring about consequences. “If you refuse, then they beat you 51 times with a stick on the buttocks and put you in the prison for the night,” he said, “It never happened to me.”

Jean Stéphane is waiting to be officially demobilized, with more than 400 other child soldiers recruited by the SSNLM and plans to go home to Mboki, in the Central African Republic.

James Konyanga
This account is based on an interview with an 18-year-old boy who was forcefully recruited by the SSNLM in 2015, at age 16.

James was born and raised in Yambio but left school to work to help care for his family. In late 2015, while returning from the market on a motorcycle, he was captured by a group of around 20 armed men: “They stopped me and took my phone and destroyed it and left the motorcycle and cargo on the road.”

He said the men tied him along with two other travelers and took them to a prison at their base in Birisi. “I didn’t know who they were. I was afraid,” he said.

James was held for two days in an enclosure formed by a thorn brush fence, with more than 20 other recruits, including other children. They received one meal per day. The recruits were then allowed to leave the enclosure and placed in training on the base to learn to march and shoot.

On the base, commanders punished those who tried to escape or accused of being spies: “I saw a man killed. He was accused of being a spy and killed. I don’t know his name but I buried him.”   

In early 2016, James was selected to participate in an attack on the town of Yambio and to participate in the violence: “Many people were injured and about seven died, including our leader, Victor Ouango.”

Afterward, James tried to escape several times and was repeatedly punished with detention and beatings on the arms and buttocks: “I was always unhappy; they treated me badly.”

James now awaits demobilization. He continues to report to his SSNLM commanders, but said he wishes he could be with his parents and go to school.  

Robert Faustino
This account is based on an interview with a 16-year-old boy who was abducted and forcefully recruited by the SSNLM in late 2015, at age 14.

In late 2015, rebels belonging to the SSNLM went to the family house of Robert’s uncle in a village south of Yambio at around 6 p.m. “I was not at home when they came. They found my uncle’s wife, but she managed to escape. When I got home, these men ordered me to sit down and they took my books away. Then we walked to Birisi [several miles away].”

At the Birisi base, the soldiers tied him up and detained him with other new recruits for three days: “There were others in the prison too, about 30 to 40. I was crying continuously so I couldn’t count how many other detainees there were.”

Robert was not forced to fight but had to fetch water and wash clothes and do other errands for the commanders. He yearns to leave the base. “I want to be taken away. I don’t want to be here. I want to go to school. Last time I was in school was the day they took me. And now, I’m an orphan. My mom died while I was detained.”

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