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"I have seen children as young as 12 carrying guns," says Jacob, 20, (pictured above), a soldier.
"Many people have guns now. I have this to protect myself,” he says, gesturing to the AK47 hanging from his shoulder.
As millions flee the conflict in South Sudan, the UN this week confirmed that it fears children are being recruited to fight. UN Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights Ivan Simonovic told reporters in South Sudan last week that the UN had reports of mass killings, extrajudicial killings, widespread destruction and looting and child soldier recruitment.
Even if they aren’t forced into fighting, many young men feel obliged to protect their families and property.
"We young men will go back to protect our resources, like goats and cows, and we'll bring the women and children here,” says Abior, 18. "I'm not afraid - we'll take our cows and run if we can, and we'll fight if we have to."
The new reports have prompted widespread condemnation amongst the aid community. International children’s rights INGO Plan International said the practice of recruiting children into the armed forces is against international human rights laws and unacceptable.
Plan Sudan country director, Gyan Adhikari, said: “We condemn in the strongest terms the reported use of children as soldiers in South Sudan conflict and urge the actors in this conflict to desist from this practice.
“Children are particularly vulnerable in many ways during conflict and must be protected from any activity that will have long term negative physical and psychological impact on them.”
Nearly half a million people are on the move in South Sudan as families flee fighting in the world’s newest nation. An estimated 10,000 people have been killed to date in the conflict, as rebel forces led by Riek Machar are pitted against government forces headed by President Salva Kiir.
A further 86,100 have fled the country altogether for neighbouring Uganda as the crisis spills over the border. The UN now estimates that 80% of displaced people in the UN bases in Juba are women and children. Although unable to confirm precise numbers of children involved in the fighting, the UN has urged all parties not to use or allow children to be used in the fighting.
In 2010, the army in Southern Sudan pledged to demobilise all child soldiers by the end of the year. But several years later there are thought to be some 2000 children still remaining in the forces.
The UN has called for all children currently being used in the armed forces to be released. Under both international and South Sudanese national law, no person under the age of 18 should be allowed to participate in armed conflict.
Adhikari added: “Children recruited into an armed conflict suffer threefold. Firstly, they lose their rights to a normal childhood, including the right to education. Secondly, their risk of being killed or maimed is very high. Thirdly, even after the war they may suffer from psychological trauma and limited access to decent work and livelihood opportunities.”
In Awerial state, where many families have fled fighting in Bor, Jonglei State, Plan is helping thousands of survivors with life-saving food, water and protection.
“Our immediate concern is over urgent humanitarian needs,” says Roland Angerer, Plan’s regional director in Eastern and Southern Africa. “Displaced people are living in dire conditions in some areas. They need food, water, shelter, medical assistance and child protection.”
“They didn’t take anything with them, they haven’t had food, they haven’t had access to clean water, and they don’t have shelter,” adds Angerer. “In some cases the people are wounded and don’t have medical care,” he adds.
Plan has deployed an international team to help aid workers already on the ground with their emergency response. The charity, in partnership with the World Food Programme, is also providing nutrition supplements to 4,700 malnourished under-fives in Awerial.