Majok Peter Awan was eight years old when a rebel military chief put a Kalashnikov assault rifle in his young hands and taught him to shoot at Sudanese government soldiers, during a civil war that ultimately won independence for the southerners.
“If your height is of an AK-47, then you can carry it and shoot,” said Awan, describing a rule-of-thumb for the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), which recruited thousands of child soldiers in its bitter, decades-long war for liberation against Khartoum.
Three decades on, a similar attitude prevails across much of the world. The Houthi rebels in Yemen, Boko Haram Islamists in Nigeria and Somalia’s extremist al–Shabaab group all enlist hundreds or thousands of youngsters and train them to kill.
A new United Nations report says more than 12,000 children were killed or injured by conflict in 2018, the worst year on record. Campaigners blame warmongering leaders and a weak UN system for failing to effectively name-and-shame violators.
Awan, now a calmly-spoken, bespectacled 40-year-old, described being pulled from his family aged six to cook and clean on a military base in his native Jonglei State, with occasional missions for looting and spying on the enemy.
He did not see his mother, or the father who gave him up to the rebels, until a wedding back in Pakeer village 22 years later. As a young recruit, he never saw inside a classroom and missed out on the family and play time that many children take for granted.
“Until now, my socialization is not perfect,” said Awan, who speaks in carefully chosen words.
South Sudan secured a peace deal with the north in 2005 and gained full independence in 2011, ending a war fueled by ethnicity, oil and ideology. The world’s youngest country has since been blighted by power struggles and inter-ethnic bloodshed.
Awan, now a child protection officer with the post-conflict aid group War Child, travels the country, talking generals out of using children in a civil war between ethnic militias for the Dinka, Nuer and other groups that has claimed some 383,000 lives these past eight years.
“The military generals are civilized and are trying to understand the right of a child,” Awan told Inside Over.
“But deep in some areas people are subjected because the presence of the government is not there and no humanitarian actors can reach such places. There’s no food in the houses, but there is food in the barracks. The children just come to make a living.”
Awan says progress is slow. Some 17,000 youngsters remain enlisted in South Sudan’s various armed groups, and 365 boys and 88 girls joined their ranks last year, according to a new United Nations report.
The global picture is bleaker. More than 12,000 children were killed or maimed in 2018 — the highest number since the UN started counting in 2005 — with Afghanistan, Israel-Palestine, Syria and Yemen topping the casualty list, the 43-page document said.
Those casualties were among more than 24,000 “grave violations” against children verified by UN researchers, including the enlistment and use of youths as fighters, sexual violence, abductions, and attacks on schools and hospitals, the report said.
Some 7,000 children were recruited into armed forces last year, including as front-line fighters, cooks, cleaners and other roles on military bases. This included 2,300 child recruits in Somalia and 1,947 others in Nigeria.
Still, Virginia Gamba, the UN’s envoy for Children and Armed Conflict, who authored the report in the name of UN secretary-general Antonio Guterres, said some 13,600 children were also released by armed groups during 2018.
These included 2,253 children leaving armed groups in the Democratic Republic of Congo, 833 in Nigeria and 785 in the Central African Republic, often via UN-backed demobilization schemes.
“The number of children released has consistently increased in the past years, as a result of direct engagement of the UN with parties to conflict bringing hope to thousands of children,” said Gamba.
Adrianne Lapar, a program director for Watchlist on Children and Armed Conflict, a monitoring group, warned that UN numbers were likely an under-count, as child recruitment may be on the rise.
“When the rubber hits the road, warring parties are still using children as soldiers, porters, cooks, and other roles, endangering their lives and taking away their childhood, and we need to continue to strengthen our efforts to stop child recruitment,” said Lapar.
Beyond the issue of child soldiers, she noted the other worrying increase in numbers of youngsters dying — often from being caught in the crossfire between rival forces or perishing in urban bombing campaigns.
“The increasingly urban nature of warfare, as well as the use of explosive and indiscriminate weapons in populated areas, have contributed to the staggering increase in grave violations of children’s rights in war,” said Lapar.
“In countries such as Afghanistan, Syria, and Yemen, parties to conflict are using illegal tactics, such as attacks on hospitals, schools, food sources, and other civilian infrastructure, as a weapon of war.”
This may be “indicative of a broader trend” towards reckless conflict that would only hurt children and other innocents, said Lapar. The UN Security Council should slap targeted sanctions on anyone who breaks the rules of war.
But, she lamented a “politicization” of the issue that has seen well-connected leaders flex diplomatic muscle to stay off the “blacklist” in the annexes of the annual UN document, which names and shames abusers.
Israel, for example, was not listed, despite having killed and maimed some 2,800 Palestinian youngsters in 2018. The Saudi Arabia-led coalition fighting in Yemen was kept of the document’s most severe watch-list despite killing and maiming 729 Yemeni children last year.
“The UN secretary-general simply refuses to hold to account all warring parties that have inflicted tremendous suffering on children,” said Jo Becker, an expert on child rights for the campaign group Human Rights Watch.
“By listing selected violators but not others, secretary-general Guterres is ignoring the UN’s own evidence and undermining efforts to protect children in conflict.”
Back in Juba, the capital of South Sudan, Awan continues to play his part — helping children regain their peace of mind, often after years of military service, and ensuring other youths do not end up in military fatigues or coffins.
Still, he struggles to untangle a key contradiction: why it was okay for southerners to enlist children in their battle for independence, but why South Sudan’s modern-day armed groups are forbidden from doing the same.
“Then, they were very right, everyone had a responsibility to get freedom, whether a child or adult,” Awan told Inside Over.
“During my time, the world was not a global village. The humanitarian actors were not there to calm my sorrow or to cover my story. The social media have changed the world drastically. My experience should not be the experience of any child any more.”