Support the East Africa food crisis appeal Fifteen-year-old Kavula* is one of the 17,000 children estimated to have been recruited by armed groups in South Sudan.
He was released almost a year ago, alongside more than 100 other children, thanks to pressure on armed groups from humanitarian organisations. But the suffering he endured continues to haunt him.
It all started when soldiers descended on his village in South Sudan’s Boma state (formerly Jonglei) in mid-2016.
“They began beating everyone,” Kavula recalls. “They killed many men and raped the young girls. They beat up me and my friends, accusing us of hiding guns.”
Recruited by armed groups
One morning, Kavula and his friends ran to the forest to hide. “We suffered a lot since there was no food,” he says. “Many children died of hunger. Others died from gunshot wounds.”
Many children died of hunger. Others died from gunshot wounds.
After several weeks, the children decided to join one of the armed groups who had shown them some kindness during their time in hiding.
Initially, they were used as porters and cooks. Soon, though, the children were handed guns. They were expected to use them whenever a group they were fighting was close to defeat.
“They would send us young ones to the frontline,” says Kavula. “They thought we did not fear bullets or death. Many of my friends died but we also won many battles.”
“The whole time I missed my family and friends who’d been scattered across different parts of the state.”
Childhood stolen by violence
Millions of children like Kavula are robbed of their right to a childhood free from violence in South Sudan. Thousands have been killed in the country’s conflict, while many others have succumbed to a malnutrition epidemic that has reached emergency levels.
These days, I am happy. I come to school every day and I feel so glad and relieved to be among people I love.
Figures from Plan International’s partner organisation Unicef indicate that more than 17,000 children are in the ranks of armed forces and armed groups in South Sudan, with recruitment ongoing.
Kavula says: “On a good day, when there was no fighting, we would go and play near the river but most of the time, this was not for long.
“The saddest thing to me was the sight of dead bodies and blood. That continues to bring fear to my mind. Some soldiers would cook food and give it to us to eat amidst the stench of rotting corpses.
“The only choice was between eating food near the decomposing body of a friend or an enemy or not eating and then starving to death.”
Kavula says his back often aches to this day due to the heavy loads of bullets he used to have to carry.
Supporting former child soldiers
Since he was released last year, Kavula has been receiving support from Plan International alongside hundreds of other former child soldiers. The organisation has been funding teachers and providing learning materials so that children who have missed out on schooling can take part in accelerated learning programmes to help them catch up with their peers.
In addition to being back in education, Kavula is also taking part in one of several child rights clubs Plan International is running across Boma state to teach children to know their rights, how to protect themselves and where to go for help if they need it.
Along with thousands of children and young people across South Sudan, Kavula has also received food from Plan International to help him and his family survive the hunger crisis. “Recently they gave us beans, sorghum and oil which is now making life much happier,” says Kavula.
He has no regrets about leaving the army behind.
“These days, I am happy. I come to school every day and I feel so glad and relieved to be among people I love and to be able to go to bed in a quiet and comfortable home.
“We are better as poor but peaceful people than rich and fighting all the time.”
Show your support
Support our work with children and families affected by the food crisis in South Sudan and beyond by donating to the East Africa Food Crisis Appeal
* Name has been changed to protect identity