NYAL, 1 July (IRIN) - Twelve-year old Riek Torgom, wearing an oversized army uniform and carrying a gun that appeared too heavy for him to lift, was among 50 child soldiers undergoing training at Majak military centre, western Upper Nile State in southern Sudan.
"I was recruited recently," Riek said in May. "I like nothing about the army. I only want to go to school, even if I am retained as a soldier."
Training alongside Riek was 14-year old Matiach Par.
"When our headman chose our family to offer a child to go for recruitment, I knew it was going to be me because I do not have another brother at home," he said. "I thought school and the army were the same. But if I could be allowed to go to school, I would."
He added: "The bad thing about the army is that there is nothing with which I can help my parents."
"We estimate that there are about 4,000 child soldiers remaining in the SPLM/A [Sudan Peoples' Liberation Movement/Army]," Una McCauley, child protection officer with the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) Operation Lifeline Sudan, said.
Some 10,000 other children are thought to be associated with other armed groups in southern Sudan, mainly pro-government militia. Many were selected by local chiefs in their home areas who arrange their recruitment.
"Children are often chosen to go for military training as their fathers are unable or unwilling to go, and their families know that as children, they are likely to be demobilised by UNICEF or some other NGO," McCauley added.
Lt Bol Mayok, of the SPLM/A, formerly the largest rebel movement in the south, was in charge of the recruitment at Majak. He said Riek was under his care.
"Mine is just to recruit and train the soldiers as I was ordered to do," he said. "I have no power to release any body. If the government does not come and release them, that is up to it."
Between April and June 2004, Mayok said, he had recruited 90 new soldiers, who were passed out in February.
Riek and Matiach are just two of thousands of children in the SPLM/A's ranks.
According to the Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers' "Child Soldiers Global Report 2004", there were between 2,500 and 5,000 child soldiers in the SPLM/A in 2004.
"The SPL[M]/A claimed to have demobilised over 16,000 children. However, re-recruitment of children continued to take place in the SPL[M]/A-held areas," the report said.
SPLM/A officials deny the children were not forced into the army. "If we need soldiers where should we go to get them," Joseph Nhial Ruach, SPLM/A county secretary in Payinjiar, said.
"We only find ourselves in a condition [where] the parents of the boys retain the older boys to help them during hunger seasons," he added. "They give us the small boys to grow up in the army. We shall remove the younger ones from the army soon."
"There are conditions which force children to join the army," Tap Kueth, a soldier who joined the SPLM/A in 1993 when he was just 13 years old, said. He rose through the ranks to become bodyguard to the county judge for Payinjiar.
"I have two elder brothers but as a family we decided that I go [to the army] so that my two brothers remain behind to serve our family," Kueth said.
According to Kueth, some children joined the army because of poverty: "If a child's parents died while he was still young and he saw nobody will bring him up, he had no alternative but to hand over himself to the army so that he finds food there."
The disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration officer for UNICEF in the area, Dombek Deng, said he had found some underage boys in the Nuba Mountains who had joined the army because they had been displaced and did not have any relatives.
In January 2004, the SPLM/A began to demobilise a large number of child soldiers in western Upper Nile, a programme supported by UNICEF and targeting some 800 children.
UNICEF said at the time that it hoped to help demobilise all the children in the SPLM/A before the signing of a peace agreement to end the 21-year conflict with the government.
The agreement was signed on 9 January 2005. However, aid workers in southern Sudan said the demobilisation of child soldiers from the fighting forces, which due to start within six months of the signing of the comprehensive peace agreement between Khartoum and the SPLM/A, has yet to begin.
"The CPA [Comprehensive Peace Agreement] said so, but we have reached months now and nothing has been done," Deng said.
McCauley said the SPLM/A demobilisation was now expected to begin in September 2005.
"The news is sometimes good - recently, at Nimnim [western upper Nile] a government controlled militia came over to the SPLM/A side and the 48 kids among them were immediately demobilised," she added.
UNICEF has, since 2000, supported the demobilisation of child soldiers throughout southern Sudan. The agency, which also supported the establishment of a special task force to demobilise children in rebel ranks, said it had helped in the demobilisation of about 12,000 SPLA children since it started operating in late 2001.
McCauley said: "The SPLM/A has made a commitment to demobilise the children within its ranks in accordance with the comprehensive peace agreement. The international community has expressed a willingness to place demobilised children in vocational training, accelerated learning programmes and community-based sports initiatives."
According to Amnesty International, the phenomenon of child soldiers is a global one. More than half a million children under-18 have been recruited into government armed forces, paramilitaries, civil militia and a wide variety of non-state armed groups in more than 85 countries.
At any one time, more than 300,000 of these children are actively fighting as soldiers with government armed forces or armed political groups.
Often recruited or abducted to join armies, many of these children - some younger than 10 years old - have witnessed or taken part in acts of unbelievable violence, often against their own families or communities.
According to Amnesty, such children are exposed to the worst dangers and the most horrible suffering, both psychological and physical. They also are easily manipulated and encouraged to commit grievous acts, which they are often unable to comprehend. Many girl soldiers are expected to provide sexual services as well.
In its report, the Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers said the problem was most critical in Africa, where up to 100,000 children, some as young as nine, were estimated to be involved in armed conflict in mid-2004.
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