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S. Sudanese army, rebels accused of forceful recruitment of child soldiers

February 15, 2015 (NAIROBI/JUBA) – South Sudan’s army (SPLA) and rebel forces are forcefully recruiting into military service boys as young as 13, a US-based rights body has revealed.

A South Sudanese army (SPLA) soldier holds his rifle near an oil field in Unity state on 22 April 2012 (AP)

In a new report issued on Monday, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said both parties in the South Sudanese conflict have recruited and used child soldiers, “which is a war crime when children are under 15”.

“Despite renewed promises by both government and opposition forces that they will stop using child soldiers, both sides continue to recruit and use children in combat,” said HRW’s Africa director, Daniel Bekele.

“In Malakal, government forces are even taking children from right outside the United Nations compound,” he added.

But South Sudan’s information minister, Michael Makuei described the report as “nonsense”.

“If you follow their reports, every now and then they are turned this way. Next time they are turned this way. That time they are turned this way. That is the type of reports they are writing,” said Makuei.

The minister said only one incident was registered in Unity state last year, but blamed the armed opposition group for recruiting children.

“And these children were rebel soldiers,” Makuei told reporters in the capital, Juba.

“We have sufficient people above age who want to get recruited because it is no longer a voluntary [but] a paid army,” he added.

REBEL FORCES ACCUSED

The report also accuses the armed opposition forces of having recruited and used many child soldiers in the ongoing conflict.

HRW says it has over the past months spoken to about a dozen children or young men who were under 18 or less when they fought in 2014, who were used by opposition forces in battles and for other purposes such as cooking and carrying water and ammunition.

“One 16-year-old in Bentiu described his terror when, only a day after being recruited with dozens of others in December 2013, he was given a gun for the first time by a rebel commander and forced to fight,” partly reads the report.

On a visit to Malakal in late January 2015, HRW said it collected about 25 accounts of child recruitment in the area from parents and other relatives, from children who had escaped recruitment or whose friends had been recruited, and from young adults who had also been forcibly recruited together with children.

Sudan Tribune was unable to get reactions from the rebels regarding the report.

In Malakal, it reportedly found that government forces, apparently especially those led by the former militia leader Johnson Olony, had recruited at least 15 children, some forcibly, within recent weeks, as part of recruitment efforts that appear mainly to be targeting adults.

“In some cases in Malakal, children voluntarily left the UN “protection of civilian (POC)” site to join forces led by Olony, a former militia leader from Upper Nile state who is currently fighting with South Sudan’s government,” said the US-based rights body.

A mother claimed her two sons, one 13 and one 14 voluntarily joined Olony in late December 2014 while another followed her 13-year-old son to a military barracks after he left the UN base.

“He refused to come home,” she reportedly told HRW researchers.

According to HRW, there are approximately 20,000 people are currently taking shelter at UN peacekeeping mission base in Malakal.

“You run to the gate into the POC when you see them,” a 14-year-old boy is quoted by HRW as saying.

Another woman also described how in January 2015 government recruiters allegedly captured her 13-year-old son at the riverside, where he was carrying goods for traders.

“South Sudanese children’s lives are being devastated by conflict, with children once again going to war instead of to school,” said Bekele.

“Both sides should stop recruiting children, and hold those responsible to account,” he stressed.

Makuei, however, dismissed all accounts provided in the newly-released report.

“How can you recruit a child so that you come pay him? We have no child soldiers but because these [HRW] people want to make sure that the two parties are tight together this is why all the times they write such nonsense,” said the minister.

"These are people who sit here [Juba] and write their report here. And they must write something so that their money continues to follow,” he added.

South Sudan government should ratify the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the involvement of children and armed conflict, HRW recommended.

The protocol sets 18 as the minimum age for any participation in armed conflict.

South Sudan’s Child Act 2008 forbids the use of child soldiers, setting a minimum age of 18 for any conscription or voluntary recruitment into armed forces or groups.

Under the laws of war, the recruitment or use of children under 15 by parties to a conflict is a war crime, for which commanders can be held criminally responsible.

(ST)