By James East
Conflict damages children in so many ways but one of the most injurious is when the very conditions created by war then lead to their recruitment into armed groups and the perpetuation of harm.
In South Sudan today, it is estimated by the U.N. that nine thousand children are serving in some form of armed force or group. Amidst all the warnings of a humanitarian food crisis brought about by conflict, these kinds of violations facing children should not be forgotten.
Akom, 14, a South Sudanese teenager is one of these recruits. He joined a militia only in the last few weeks. Revenge fueled his desire to sign up and fight after what he witnessed following the invasion of his hometown of Malakal, in Upper Nile state.
Malakal is now a ghost town of looted, trashed and burned buildings. In the face of mass killings, rapes and terrible brutality its entire population evacuated en masse and fled in various directions, with thousands of citizens fleeing to the protection of a U.N. base just outside town.
As Akom tells the story, he and a neighbor had returned to the town only to recover goods from their homes. "My neighbor was carrying food and flour. We were stopped by men who thought we were looting. They made us sit on the ground while two of them argued about whether they should kill the boy I was with. Then a third man came over and just shot him. I was crying. They told me, 'Get out of here.' They killed him because he was bigger than me. I want to get my revenge."
Even though Akom's mother and older brother are still living on the U.N. base, he left them to sign up with the militia. He has since received basic military training, including how to use a gun.
Fellow trainee, Awer, 15, says he joined the militia because his school has not functioned since January when it was occupied by families displaced from the various towns and villages invaded by the opposition forces. He'd much rather be in school now, but says he had hoped to join the army after getting an education to become an officer. This is a common career path for children whose own parents have often fought and where there are few other career opportunities. This is especially true in South Sudan where the role of the armed groups was central to the creation of an independent state in 2011.
As Awer and his relatives fled the invading forces he says they became separated. He believes his family went north to Khartoum in Sudan, leaving him behind with his uncle. Awer has only been in the militia a few weeks but says he has already fired a gun in combat. "I wasn't scared," he says.
A militia insider agrees children should be getting an education but defends the use of children.
"They are not in frontline roles. They don't have their own guns. They help with things like giving water to the wounded or washing utensils. They volunteer to join us and as you have heard they are not afraid to be soldiers."
But he acknowledges that in the melee of war and as opposition forces advance sometimes the children at the rear of operations find themselves in the combat zone and using guns, even if they don't own them.
International law is clear: children cannot be recruited as soldiers.
World Vision's experience of working with children in conflict zones has found that youth and adolescents are especially vulnerable to conscription by armed groups. This is also the case in South Sudan where World Vision is responding to the needs of tens of thousands of children who have been displaced.
Mass displacements of people away from the fighting destroy family incomes making the armed groups, an attractive place to turn to when the money runs out, even if the wages are basic or come in the form of food and shelter.
Displacement camps themselves are often breeding grounds for despair and boredom. There is nothing to do and little hope. To adolescents, armed groups can appear an attractive alternative.
Armed groups also offer a sense of protection. They provide a feeling of collective security to communities that feel very threatened, as well as, access to personal weaponry. There is often community pressure on adolescents to help protect the clan or tribe, especially when manhood is perceived to start earlier than 18 years of age.
In order to reduce the risks of recruitment World Vision is organizing adolescent activities within the displacement camp just outside Malakal in an attempt to keep young men occupied. It is a small effort in a sea of vulnerability.
"We are providing sports, including football, volleyball and netball. These are outlets for adolescent energies and frustrations that have been building up. We also offer study groups in math and English as a way to engage youth in something constructive that keeps them learning when there is no sign of schools reopening", said Makiba Yamano, Word Vision's Child Protection in Emergencies Specialist.
South Sudan is already on a U.N. watch list for the recruitment of children and has to provide regular reporting to the U.N. Security Council on how it is tackling the problem. But the current conflict is setting back efforts and a comprehensive and lasting peace is required to ensure children are back, being schooled in class and not in war.
James East is Emergency Communications Director at World Vision reporting from South Sudan.