As pro­grammes fail, child sol­diers re­turn to bat­tle

The East African - - MAGAZINE -

OUT­SIDE, THE young men with guns were play­ing domi­noes and drink­ing tea. Baba­cho Mama could hear them through the sheet-metal walls of his room.

They had once been mem­bers of the same mili­tia, a bri­gade of chil­dren with AK-47S. Now, Mama stood alone, sweat­ing through his white T-shirt, a boy plucked from one of the world’s most bru­tal wars but not so sure he’d been saved.

“Maybe I need to go back,” he said. “It’s bet­ter to die in com­bat than in hunger.”

He was 16 now. Or 17 or 18 or 19. He had spent much of his child­hood lug­ging a ri­fle, and his age had be­come an ap­prox­i­ma­tion, less rel­e­vant than his abil­ity to fight.

In 2015, dur­ing a lull in South Su­dan’s civil war, Mama and 1,774 other boys had handed over their baggy mil­i­tary fa­tigues in chore­ographed cer­e­monies that amounted to one of the largest re­leases of child sol­diers in re­cent his­tory.

“I’m done with fight­ing,” Mama told a UN so­cial worker after the re­lease.

“Back to learn­ing,” aid groups painted on a new pri­mary school in Pi­bor.

Two years later, the boys are re­turn­ing to the bat­tle­field. De­vel­op­ment pro­grammes to help them have failed. The school barely func­tions.

This was sup­posed to be the decade when the world ended the use of child sol­diers. In 2014, the UN launched a global cam­paign to re­move chil­dren from the bat­tle­field within two years.

There have been some suc­cesses. The UN says 115,000 child com­bat­ants have been re­leased glob­ally since 2000. But in war-torn coun­tries such as Iraq and Ye­men, the num­bers are climb­ing. They are ris­ing, too, in South Su­dan, where the chal­lenge is not just dis­arm­ing chil­dren but keep­ing them dis­armed.

In Pi­bor, the for­mer boy fight­ers have joined a con­stel­la­tion of groups — the mil­i­tary, rebel groups, eth­nic mili­tias. On a spread­sheet, aid work­ers in Pi­bor write next to their names: “Re-re­cruited.”

Now it was Mama’s turn to de­cide. He had be­come a se­ri­ous stu­dent, car­ry­ing a worn English text­book with him al­most ev­ery­where. After years of wear­ing a stained, mis­matched mil­i­tary uniform, he ironed his one pair of khaki pants and striped oxford shirt ev­ery day. School of­fered the slen­der hope of a dif­fer­ent fu­ture.

But Mama was now eat­ing only one full meal of dried goat meat and pep­pers ev­ery two days. Other boys were so hun­gry, aid work­ers said, that they had col­lapsed in their class­rooms. The war had de­stroyed farm­land and blocked com­merce; even the UN had stopped dis­tribut­ing food aid.

“In the bar­racks, at least we can eat,” one of Mama’s sol­dier friends taunted him.

Back in his sheet-metal shack, he weighed his op­tions.

“What else am I sup­posed to do?” Mama asked.

Mama said he was 11 or 12 when he fired his AK-47 for the first time. Like hun­dreds of other boys, he had joined a Pi­bor mili­tia, called the Co­bra Fac­tion, by sim­ply show­ing up and ask­ing for a gun. His par­ents had been killed by a ri­val eth­nic group, in a mas­sacre that left dozens dead. His father was shot in the chest. His mother’s throat was slit. He spent about four years in guer­rilla war­fare.

On a Mon­day af­ter­noon, Mama put on his shirt and pants and walked along the dirt road that led to Pi­bor Boys Pri­mary School, now in the fourth grade.

All around him, there were sol­diers car­ry­ing AK-47S. Some of them, Mama no­ticed, had been fel­low mem­bers of the Co­bra Fac­tion.

He shook his head and con­tin­ued walk­ing, a Unicef folder un­der his arm.

Once he reached the class­room, he sat on a bench. His teacher, Adam, ar­rived 45 min­utes late.

“Go bring chalk,” Adam said to Mama. The whole school day lasted half an hour. The teacher hadn’t been paid in months, be­cause the govern­ment was bank­rupt, so lessons were short.

When Mama left the class­room, the sun was high in the sky. Nearby, the men were still scream­ing and march­ing with their wooden rods.

“Even our great-grand­par­ents fought like this,” Mama said an­grily, and he started walk­ing back to­ward his metal shack.

In­side, there was noth­ing to eat. But on the shelf there were two shoul­der patches he had earned on the front­lines, bear­ing the acro­nym of the coun­try’s armed forces, the Su­danese Peo­ple’s Lib­er­a­tion Army, which had briefly ab­sorbed the mili­tia.

Each had one gold star in the cen­tre. He had been a lieu­tenant. He had never been sure why he kept them. Now he was glad they were there.

- Kevin Si­eff, The Wash­ing­ton Post

Pic­ture: Peter Bauza/ Wash­ing­ton Post

Baba­cho Mama at school dur­ing English classes at the Pi­bor Boys Pri­mary School.

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