As programmes fail, child soldiers return to battle
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
Babacho Mama at school during English classes at the Pibor Boys Primary School.