A rights group says government and opposition forces in South Sudan continue to recruit child soldiers, despite promises they would stop. Human Rights Watch says some of the boys are as young as 13.
Estimates of child soldiers in South Sudan range from the hundreds to the thousands. Human Rights Watch says recruiting child solders is a war crime when those children are younger than 15. It calls on both sides to “issue clear orders barring recruitment of all children under 18.”
HRW researcher Skye Wheeler, who works in South Sudan, said, “We know for sure that both sides have recruited and used many, many children in this conflict. And we’re very worried to see that this practice is continuing now in the town of Malakal.”
Government forces are in control in Malakal in Upper Nile State.
“What our research has shown is that over the Christmas period and in early January especially, there was a spike in recruitment in Malakal. And that included people who were underage children, including kids as young as 13. We spoke to many mothers whose kids had willingly gone off to join these forces. Other kids who had been taken by force from Malakal town, but in several cases from right outside of the U.N. base,” she said.
Wheeler said about 20,000 civilians are still seeking refuge at that base.
“We spoke to one mom who went over across the river to the barracks on the other side there and met with her kid and tried to persuade him to come home and he said he wouldn’t come home. And another mother, who went over to try and get her kid back, saw him actually being taken away on a boat together with lots of other children in an army boat.”
The Human Rights Watch researcher said that she spoke to a number of former child soldiers who were recruited to fight last year.
“I spoke to one young guy recently. Last year, he was 16 when he went to school one morning and was picked up together with dozens of other children. Thrown in the back of a truck – driven for a day – and then forced to fight the next day for the first time in his life. I mean these are quite extraordinary stories. I spoke to a couple of kids who have said they were persuaded to join the opposition forces from the POC, the Protection of Civilians site in Bentiu, for example. Members of the opposition would enter the base – start talking with the kids – and persuade them to go and fight with them.”
Wheeler said child soldier recruitment is widespread in the country.
South Sudan’s 2008 Child Act forbids the use of child soldiers. It sets a minimum age of 18 for either conscription or for voluntarily joining armed groups.
“This conflict has really taken us back -- many, many steps backwards in that process. The SPLA established a whole mechanism with offices whose job was to make sure that there were no children in any of the barracks. And actually South Sudan, although it did still have child soldiers, had made quite considerable steps towards having a child-free army,” she said.
Another problem is that many schools have been taken over by armed groups. Wheeler says that’s despite both sides agreeing last year that they would not do so, as well as recommitting themselves to not using child soldiers.
The South Sudanese government called the Human Rights report nonsense, saying it does not recruit child soldiers. It said HRW is using old reports and that its army has many recruits and does not need children.
The opposition said since it signed an agreement last May not to recruit child soldiers it has abided by that agreement.