Recruitment of child soldiers rising in South Sudan

A leaked UN internal document has highlighted the plight of children in the renewed armed conflict in South Sudan, who are often forced to join warring factions as fighters.

Photo by: AP
Photo by: AP

Child soldiers are seen in the South Sudanese army in a file photo.

South Sudan's government and opposition forces recruited child soldiers last week to take part in renewed armed conflict, according to a UN document.

The document indicates that the recruitment of children took place shortly after the UN Security Council approved sending an additional 4,000 peacekeepers to the East African country a week ago to protect civilians after renewed fighting in the capital, Juba, last month.

Rival armed groups have reportedly warned families to send their children, some as young as 12, to fight for them or face the consequences.

A senior politician appointed by President Salva Kiir was apparently responsible for the recruitment of children of an entire village. 

There was no mention of the number of recently recruited such child soldiers in South Sudan in the UN document, according to the Associated Press.       

Separately, UNICEF on Friday announced that at least 650 children have joined armed groups in South Sudan this year alone. Around 16,000 child soldiers have been recruited since the civil war in the country began in December 2013.

According to the document, armed groups in South Sudan often coerce children to join their ranks by threatening to confiscate their family's cattle, a key source of wealth and status in this pastoral society.

Army spokesperson Lul Ruai Koang said youth who join the military are not coerced. He said he was not aware of the recent recruitment of children.

A government soldier mans a vehicle-mounted machine gun in the oil-rich town of Malakal, South Sudan.

South Sudan's military and opposition forces have made repeated promises to address allegations of child recruitment, but both sides have continued recruiting since July's outbreak of violence, according to Justin Forsyth, UNICEF's deputy executive director.

"They believe they can easily control and manipulate young minds," Forsyth said. The children then "can commit atrocities, and they will do what they are told."

Child soldiers are defined as anyone recruited to join armed groups under the age of 18, and the International Criminal Court considers the recruitment of those under 15 to be a war crime.

In an interview this month in Unity state, one former child soldier said he had expected to do cooking and cleaning in the army when he joined at age 16 but instead was sent to fight on the front lines.

"If you go to the front line, two things would happen: either you will kill someone or you will be killed," he said.

He was released from the army a few months ago, one of more than 1,000 child soldiers who have been demobilised from different armed groups as part of a UNICEF program.

"I was not happy because I was given a gun when I was so young," the teen said. "If you are afraid, the commander will beat you."

In this photo taken in 2014, John Kawai Lam, 8, right, plays with a non-functioning automatic rifle that he found buried in the soil when he and his mother Tabitha Nyanyun Ruach, 38, centre, were cultivating the land in Nyal county.

Since the outbreak of civil war, children have been recruited at an expedited rate to protect their communities, according to Joseph Manytuel, the governor of Northern Leich State.

"When you are in a crisis, whoever is ready to join will not be left alone," Manytuel told AP from Bentiu earlier this month.

Last year, President Barack Obama issued a partial waiver to South Sudan from the Child Soldiers Prevention Act of 2008, allowing the US to continue military assistance to support South Sudan's peace process.

TRTWorld and agencies