Simon was 11 years old when soldiers from the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) forced him into the military.
“When the SPLA came to us, the older people ran away,” Simon, whose name has been changed to protect his identity, explained. “I didn’t run because I was a child. So they captured me. When I refused, they kept beating me. I didn’t want to go but they forced me to join the SPLA.”
The SPLA, the predominantly Christian Black African south’s military, fought against the mostly Muslim Arab north in a two decade-long civil war that left two million dead.
Both armies enlisted children in their ranks. UNICEF estimates that about 9,000 children were serving in the north’s army while some 3,000 children were in south’s rebel military in 2005, the year a peace agreement was signed to end the war.
Simon spent five years in the south’s military, carrying other soldiers’ bags, washing their clothes, cooking their food and collecting firewood for them. He said refusing to work meant three or four people would beat him.
Eventually, he was trained to use a gun. Simon was given his own AK-47 assault rifle and was sent to the frontlines to battle the Messiria, a tribe of Arab nomads who bring their cattle to graze on land in southern Sudan. Simon said he shot at them but never killed anyone.
“I think it was very bad for me to be in the military when I was 12 or 13 years old, but there was no other option for me,” said Simon, who is now 16. “But if I wanted to go away, these people they would look for me, really. I found it difficult for me to be in the army when I was that young.”
As part of the 2005 peace agreement, a demobilization, disarmament and reintegration process was started to take children like Simon out of the barracks and bring them back home.
But, in a May report, the United Nations said the SPLA continues to be a “persistent violator” of children in armed conflict. The research organization Small Arms Survey issued a report in June saying that progress for the demobilization has been “slow” and that the communities weren’t receiving enough support for returning ex-combatants.
In late April, more than five years after the signing of the peace accord, Simon was demobilized from the military along with 90 other children in the capital of Unity State. While the government tries to reintegrate the demobilized children with their immediate families, Simon ended up with his aunt and uncle in a new city, because Simon is an orphan.
Simon’s aunt said it’s tough to support another child in her family. “For us, we don’t have any money that we can support him. Even now, his father is looking for some money so that he can support him to go to school,” she said.
While it took a little while for Simon to adjust to civilian life, the ex-combatant said he feels comfortable now and is glad to be home. He goes to school at a nearby school and plays soccer every afternoon with his friends in a small grass field near his home.
“I found it very nice for me to be home because I found some friends here,” said Simon, “and also my family told me they missed me a lot. So even now, if they tell me to go back to the army, I will refuse because I missed my family a lot when I was in the army.”
Some demobilized children do return to the military.
According to the UN, 33 former child soldiers who were demobilized last year were re-recruited by the south’s army. Charles Machieng, the head of the South Sudan Demobilization, Disarmament and Reintegration Commission for Unity State, said when he’s preparing the children to leave the military, they ask him questions about their future back at home.
“Children are actually asking us ‘Why are you removing us from the army and taking us to the village where we are not getting clean water, where we are not getting school, we’re not getting medication, and we’re not getting enough food?’” said Machieng.
The demobilization commission doesn’t have the resources to support the former soldiers. It relies on international organizations like the UN’s World Food Program to provide the children with a few months supply of food. The government commission is requesting more aid from the international community to provide more material support to keep the children from returning to the barracks.
In another village elsewhere in southern Sudan, this lack of resources is clear.
“When I was released from the army, I was told that I would be supported by the [non-governmental organizations] and also that they can take me to school,” said John, who was demobilized from the SPLA two years ago and whose name has also been changed. “But up to now, I’m still waiting. I’m just sitting idle at home. I have nothing to do. I’m thinking that I might want to go back to the army.”
Unlike Simon, John wasn’t forced into the military. His father killed someone. To escape a revenge killing, he joined the military.
All children in the military have been compelled to join, according to Bismarck Swangin, a spokesperson for UNICEF in southern Sudan.
“It’s no different from holding them hostage,” he explained. “Because these are children who are taken away from the environment of their family, these are children who are kind of put within the confines of the military and therefore miss the opportunity to grow as a child, in terms of accessing family care, in terms of accessing education, in terms of accessing health services. These children are denied that.”
At a regional conference in Chad in mid-June, Sudan and five other African nations signed a declaration on ending the use of child soldiers. The signatories pledged to stop the use of children in armed conflict, to release children in the armed forces and reintegrate them into their communities.
Several days after the declaration was signed, Human Rights Watch called on the U.S. to withdraw its military assistance to Sudan because the nation has not done enough to get child soldiers out of its ranks. The SPLA signed an action plan last year with the UN to get all children out of its ranks before December 2010.
Now out of the military and enjoying civilian life, Simon has big plans.
“What I dream for, if I finish my studies, I can become like President Salva Kiir Mayardit or I can become president like Omar al Bashir,” said Simon, who also aims to get a doctorate degree.
Zack Baddorf is a freelance journalist.
Photo by Pierre Holtz | UNICEF CAR, from Flickr