The president of Sudan met for the first time on Saturday with the rebel leader of the Sudan People's Liberation Army to endorse a framework for peace that would end Africa's longest running civil war. Analysts say the historic meeting is a sign of hope that the two sides are serious about ending a war that has cost an estimated two million lives. Like other conflicts in Africa, child soldiers have been used in the fighting, particularly by the southern based rebel forces.
It is hard to believe that Yur Maloot is a war veteran; he is only 14 years old. He is one of about 9,700 children who have been demobilized in recent years under an agreement reached between the main rebel group, the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) and the U.N. children's agency, UNICEF.
Yur is studying at Dengthial Primary School in Rumbeck, in southwestern Sudan. Denghtial is an unusual school because most of its pupils are battle-hardened former child soldiers.
Yur says he joined the SPLA after Arabs from northern Sudan killed his father and abducted his mother and brothers. Joining the rebels, he said, meant that someone would look after him and feed him. Yur spoke to VOA in Dinka, the native language of this area in southern Sudan, and an interpreter explained what kept him fighting with the rebels.
"He was staying there cooking and fighting, if necessary. He was staying with the company anyway, doing all the military activities," he said. "He doesn't fear but feels that he wants to avenge his father and if he is killed, then he will not be sorry."
Yur says a lot of the child soldiers were like him, they yearned for security from an adult and needed food. Some of them fought, but many served as messengers and performed other menial tasks.
The U.N. estimates that more than 300,000 children under the age of 18 and some as young as 10 are engaged in fighting worldwide, but it says most are found in Africa. Both the U.N. and the SPLA say there are thousands of children involved in combat in Sudan, although no specific figures are known.
The conflict pits the forces of the Islamic government in the Arabic-speaking north against the largely Christian or animist African rebels in the south. The government of Sudan denies that it uses people under the age of 18 in its military.
But the SPLA does not deny that it has recruited children, boys and sometimes girls. However, in late 2000, it committed itself to supporting a UNICEF initiative to demobilize child soldiers fighting in the south.
Martin Dawes is a UNICEF official who was in Bahr al Ghazal in southern Sudan recently to assess how the demobilization campaign was going. Mr. Dawes told VOA he believes the SPLA has come to realize that child soldiers are more of a hindrance than a benefit.
"You will hear many stories about child soldiers, particularly in West Africa, about how they are drugged up, and they're fighting and they're mad and this makes them effective fighters," he explained. "It's not like that in southern Sudan. It's a much more disciplined environment. The kids don't drink. But they are part of the unit. It was actually said to me that the adults don't like fighting with the kids. They feel that they have to protect them and cut them more slack. This doesn't make for efficient fighting machines. And they get disproportionately upset when the kids are killed."
Atem Kuir is responsible for the rebel movement's demobilization program. He acknowledged that not all the SPLA commanders are cooperating with the program. He says some refuse to hand over the child soldiers, despite orders from their superiors, because they say they do not have enough troops. But Mr. Kuir says, all in all, progress is being made.
He also says the international community has an important role in the demobilization campaign. He says the young people have to be given an alternative to fighting, that is, some place where they could get food and security.
"To demobilize is one thing, but to offer something instead of serving in the army is another," Mr. Kuir said. "So this needs some money and with money we will organize some schools for them."
Mr. Kuir says that without funds for schools and appropriate follow-up measures like counseling, some children will probably return to the army.
Counselors working with former child soldiers, say their adjustment to a more normal lifestyle takes time, patience and support from the community. They say activities like drawing and sports help a child to re-integrate into the community. But without support, it is difficult for a child to fit in.
David Jol, 17, is a former child soldier who is attending Dengthial Primary in Rumbeck. He says he would like to continue at the school, but he does not know how long he can because he does not know where his family is. He says they were abducted by Arabs raiders from the northern Sudan five years ago. Rejoining the rebels, he says, may be the only way he can survive because he is alone.
"No one care for me, I want to return to army. If I have someone to take my responsibility, I'm sent to school."
The World Food Program says it has programs in some parts of southern Sudan that provide a meal a day for the children. But to be part of these programs, schools must have appropriate health and sanitation facilities, like latrines and a kitchen. Denghtial Primary school has neither a kitchen nor latrines, which makes it ineligible for assistance from the food agency.