TORIT, South Sudan and BIDI BIDI REFUGEE CAMP, Uganda – As he stood waiting for a meal at the Church of SS. Peter and Paul in Torit, a South Sudanese town near the Ugandan border, 12-year-old Teddy Kuol lamented how the civil war in his country has forced him and others to drop out of school.
“I’m not in school right now because of the war,” he said. “There is no bright future for us. There are no lessons going on because soldiers live and operate in classrooms. They have abducted many students and trained them as soldiers.”
Kuol said he was abducted by rebel soldiers two years ago while in class in Longute Primary School in Torit, the center of a region where the fighting between government and opposition forces has been most intense. “I managed to escape after four months of military training,” he said.
Kuol is one among one million children displaced in South Sudan’s four-year civil war, according to the United Nations and refugee agencies. Another one million children have fled to Uganda.
“The future of a generation is truly on the brink,” said Leila Pakkala, UNICEF’s regional director for Eastern and Southern Africa. “The horrifying fact that nearly one in five children in South Sudan has been forced to flee their home illustrates how devastating this conflict has been for the country’s most vulnerable.”
South Sudan’s government recruited 1,300 children to fight last year, according to the latest numbers from UNICEF. That brought the total number of children fighting in the conflict to more than 17,000 since 2013.
“Children are once again being targeted for child recruitment as the fighting intensifies,” said Pakkala. “Since the first day of this conflict, children have been the ones most devastatingly affected by the violations.”
Parents of the child soldiers said their sons have been unable to attend schools because both government and rebel soldiers seek them out.
“It’s a curse giving birth to a baby boy in South Sudan because he will become a soldier,” said Selina Achor, a mother of seven whose three sons are child soldiers fighting for government troops. “They cannot go to school, and when they happen to go they are abducted and forced to become soldiers. That’s what happened to my sons.”
Achor, who lives as a refugee in the Catholic church in Torit, said government and rebel soldiers have regularly stormed refugee camps, schools, homes and community gatherings, abducting children and training them as soldiers.
“When they [soldiers] come, you have to let your son go or they kill all of you,” she said.
Most children have abandoned school, said Teddy Kuol. Many idle their time away in camps. Some work odd jobs, including helping nongovernmental organizations offload aid supply trucks.
“It’s not our wish not to go to school and become soldiers,” he said.
This East Africa nation gained independence from Sudan in July 2011 after decades of war. The birth of the new country brought hope for residents. But in December 2013, that hope dimmed as the country descended into a political and ethnic conflict.
President Salva Kiir, a member of the majority Dinka ethnic group, accused his then-vice president, Riek Machar, an ethnic Nuer, of attempting to stage a coup. Kiir sacked Machar, throwing the country into a civil war that has led to the deaths of tens of thousands of people.
The continuing conflict and drought have left South Sudan one of the poorest countries in the world with more than three million displaced people and possible famine threatening millions more. The figures make South Sudan’s the world’s third biggest refugee crisis after those in Syria and Afghanistan.
Several peace deals aimed at bringing normalcy to the country have failed, including an agreement signed in 2015 allowing the formation of a unity government with Machar as President Kiir’s first deputy.
The African Union is trying to broker another peace deal that many hope will finally bring peace to the country.
The African Union has urged the South Sudanese government to include Machar in the peace negotiations, saying the talks need to be as inclusive as possible. Machar is currently in South Africa in exile.
“The national dialogue needs to take place as quickly as possible,” said Ebba Kalondo, a spokeswoman for the African Union. “It needs to be as inclusive as possible, because this is a South Sudanese problem which will be solved and has been solved before by South Sudanese.”
But Kiir’s government has demanded that the rebel forces give up before Machar returns.
“If he denounces violence and decides to come to South Sudan and settle as a citizen, it’s his right,” the information minister, Michael Makuei Lueth, said in a written statement. “If he comes as a politician, he must renounce violence and come at a time when elections are about to happen and he accepts whatever we agreed upon.”
But the emergence in the past year of a new armed group in South Sudan’s southern Equatoria region has jeopardized the search for peace in the world’s youngest nation, a United Nations official said.
“We cannot have peace when armed groups are fighting, and what we are seeing in Equatoria is the breakup into smaller groups,” said David Shearer, head of the U.N. mission in South Sudan.
As the two sides squabble, children continue to flee the country, especially to Uganda, a relatively stable country whose citizens speak English, as the South Sudanese do.
In the Bidi Bidi refugee camp in Uganda, where more than 270,000 South Sudanese refugees live, some children still arrive in the school uniforms they fled in, with harrowing stories of the brutal fighting they witnessed.
“The soldiers attacked our school claiming that people associated with Machar were hiding in our dormitories,” said 15-year-old old Cliff Deng, who was still wearing his school uniform of a white shirt and blue shorts. “They began to shoot at us and we had to run. I slept in the bush that night but I was able to get a bus which brought me here. Soldiers are attacking schools. Many are closing.”