JUBA, South Sudan — Just months ago, the signing of a U.S.-backed peace deal provided a road map to end South Sudan’s brutal civil war. But the conflict has raged on — and aid agencies say even more child soldiers are being drawn into the fighting.
About 16,000 children have been recruited by government and rebel forces since the war here began in 2013, according to the United Nations. They are foot soldiers and cooks and cleaners, boys and girls as young as 9. Many were taken from their homes and schools and forced onto the battlefield.
“We’ve seen huge increases in these violations throughout the entire year,” said Ettie Higgins, the UNICEF deputy representative in South Sudan.
In the rare instances when children have been released, UNICEF officials report treating boys with bullet wounds and deep psychological scars. Scores have lost track of their families.
When leaders of the South Sudanese government and the rebels signed the peace agreement in August, both sides claimed they had stopped using child soldiers. But the cease-fire was immediately and repeatedly violated. Thousands of children were still on the battlefield, Western officials said.
The United States this year named South Sudan as one of eight countries that violated the Child Soldiers Prevention Act of 2008. That would normally cause U.S. military aid to be blocked. But President Obama issued a partial waiver.
“The way the United States government has ignored the intent of the Child Soldier Prevention Act throws into question our commitment as a country to keep children safe,” said Jessica Bousquette, the policy adviser for child protection at World Vision International, a U.S.-based Christian humanitarian organization. “The administration says it does not condone the use of children as soldiers, yet it continues to provide military assistance to countries, like South Sudan, who we know are recruiting or using child soldiers.”
U.S. officials counter that the bulk of the approved funding goes toward monitoring the cease-fire through a regional force that includes South Sudanese military officials. The U.S. government helped shepherd South Sudan through its independence from Sudan in 2011 and has spent billions on the country’s development.
The civil war began primarily over a split between President Salva Kiir, a Dinka, and former vice president Riek Machar, a Nuer, but devolved into a conflict between the ethnic groups.
In much of the country, the war has been unrelenting, with tens of thousands killed and civilian adults and children targeted. U.N. officials reported in June that attackers in northern Unity state had castrated boys and left them to bleed to death, and raped and killed young girls. Last month, a report from the African Union said that security forces, which are dominated by the Dinkas, had forced Nuers to eat the flesh and drink the blood of dead bodies.
The use of child soldiers is made possible, experts say, by the chaos that has enveloped the country. About 1,100 schools have been shuttered, according to UNICEF. Some of the commanders have only loose ties to the central government or rebel leadership. Thousands of people are on the brink of famine.
While many children are abducted and sent to fight, others choose to join armed groups after losing their relatives or shelter.
“The simple fact is that if you don’t have food and you don’t have family, fighting becomes an option,” said Perry Mansfield, World Vision’s South Sudan country director.
The history of child combatants in southern Sudan goes back decades, to the region’s protracted war against Sudan’s central government, during which both sides used children on the front lines.
By 2005, when a peace agreement was signed by the central government and the rebel Sudan People’s Liberation Army, the bulk of southern Sudan’s child soldiers, estimated at more than 10,000, had been disarmed.
Then, in late 2013, two years after independence, the world’s newest country was again riven by war. And again, children were heavily recruited. By last November, there were 12,000 youths fighting on both sides, according to UNICEF. One rebel force, dubbed the White Army, is thought to have sent hundreds or even thousands of children into battle, according to reports from the United Nations and aid groups.
Some commanders say that in South Sudanese culture, boys are considered mature enough to fight. The country’s child protection law, however, says that only those 18 and older can join the military.
It has been “hard for cultural leaders in the communities to transition to constitutional law,” said Pete Walsh, the country director for Save the Children.
Walsh recently returned from a South Sudanese prison where he saw adults detained along with children as young as 4. Young people are often held on nebulous accusations or no charges at all, he said.
“There’s an utter failure by commanders on both sides to put in any pretense of protection of civilians,” said Skye Wheeler, a researcher at Human Rights Watch, which will release a report on child soldiers in South Sudan next month.
Wheeler recently interviewed children who were among a group of about 300 who had been abducted by rebels from a school in Unity state, forced into trucks, handed weapons and driven to the front line.
“It’s absolutely brutal forced recruitment,” Wheeler said.
In Malakal, in Upper Nile state, children were taken by force from outside a U.N. compound by recruiters working for South Sudanese government forces, Human Rights Watch reported in February.
Early this year, about 1,800 children were released from one armed faction in the eastern county of Pibor, in a series of ceremonies held by UNICEF. Many had never been to school.
The government of South Sudan has a program devoted to the disarmament of children that was involved in the release in Pibor. But officials see dim prospects for more such ceremonies, as commanders appear unmoved by their pleas to free the child fighters. Many aid workers and researchers say they worry that children who are released will be abducted by another armed faction.
“Their villages are destroyed. There is no school. Many children think it’s better just to be in the army,” said Oluku Andrew Holt, the head of the child disarmament program.
Although the warring parties say they want peace, the deal that many foreign observers hoped would end the war seems to be failing. The United Nations reported this month that both sides are stockpiling weapons, in violation of the cease-fire and with an eye, it would seem, to extending the conflict.