Rubkona, South Sudan - These days, soldiers are the only people loitering around the market in this once-bustling oil town. They loaf about in plastic chairs, wander bored or drunk and lean against the skeletons of abandoned beds and buildings. Others ply the goods that now absent shopkeepers used to trade, although these wares are looted from former residents.
Machine-gun-mounted pick-up trucks pull up and spit out more soldiers. The Rubkona market near Bentiu, capital of South Sudan's oil-rich Unity State, is not just a place for grown men. Children wear the uniforms of the national army, the SPLA - and it isn't just dress-up.
A boy with bloodshot eyes - one who looks like he has seen too much - has upgraded from playing soldier to becoming the armed bodyguard of a commander. He asks for a cigarette, but refuses the one proffered, because it won't get him high. "No, not a cigarette," he says with disdain. "I'm a smoker."
The SPLA is waiting for the next fight. Rumours that rebels plan to attack Bentiu make the soldiers edgy. Since war broke out in December in the world's youngest nation, Bentiu has changed hands several times as both sides vie for the black gold that accounts for 98 percent of the South Sudanese government's revenues. There are 46,000 people seeking refuge inside a UN peacekeeping base nearby, representing only a fraction of the 1.5 million people nationwide who have been forced to flee their homes.
According to UNICEF, both sides are using children to fight. They have become pawns in a power struggle between President Salva Kiir and his deputy-turned-rebel-leader, Riek Machar, that has largely broken along ethnic lines. Last month, the government of South Sudan promised for the third time to implement a UN action plan to protect children from recruitment and put an end to the use of children in the army.
SPLA spokesperson Philip Aguer admitted in a phone interview that there might still be child soldiers in the army, but added that "because of the current situation in South Sudan, it's impossible to verify".
Both sides have denied recruiting children. Mabior Garang Mabior, a spokesperson for Machar, stated that the rebels "don't have a policy on recruiting child soldiers. But testimonials from child soldiers and their families paint a different picture".
One of these children, James, is spending time in Rubkona market. At 12 years old, he is barely taller than a rifle. He says only that he is from Rubkona before a military officer comes by and speaks on the child's behalf.
"If he doesn't wear a uniform, they will hurt or even kill him. It's for his own protection," he says. Who "they" are remains unclear. The same officer races through the market to cut off questions put to 13-year-old Simon, who is sitting among other soldiers in a tea shop - again stressing that the uniform was Simon's only protection.
'Why should I go back?'
Just a 10-minute drive from the market, former town dwellers live like refugees inside a UN camp. One of them is 48-year-old Marya. The mother of eight runs a tea shop inside the camp, fretting about the fate of her 13-year-old son. He has been missing for four months, and she found out through her customers that he had joined the army.
The soldiers did nothing. They just left him there. I couldn't go any closer to help my boy. Soldiers could grab, torture and rape me.
"All his life he would rather play outside than go to school," she says. "He's a clever boy, but too young to think about his own future." Six days later, she went to town to convince him to come back, but Marya was only able to watch him from a distance as he underwent military training. She felt helpless watching her son fall to the ground while marching. Instead of rushing to help him, she had to leave her son suffering. "The soldiers did nothing. They just left him there. I couldn't go any closer to help my boy. Soldiers could grab, torture, and rape me."
A month later, Marya's son was shot in his left wrist during fighting in Bentiu and joined his mother in the camp. For a moment, Marya hoped that he was home for good, even though he would socialise with former comrades in the town. "They had food and officers promised him money. He thought life was better in the army than in the camp. Even his father tried to talk to him, but he just doesn't listen."
Thirty-four-year-old Sara, a fellow camp dweller, has a similar story. Her 15-year-old son was recruited by an officer but doesn't want to come back. "There's no food in the camp and people are dying there. 'Why should I go back?' is what he answers." Sara even begged an army commander to free her son, but was rebuffed. "If he doesn't want to leave the army, he can stay. It's his own decision," he said.
The rebels do it, too
Child soldiers are also swelling rebel ranks. In January, when Machar's forces took Bentiu for the first time, 16-year-old Matthew was in a maths class. A group of armed men stormed the school and gathered all the boys. They told 300 pupils that they would now be fighting against the government as revenge for the killing of their clansmen from the Nuer ethnic group in the capital, Juba. Rebel leader Machar is a Nuer, whereas Kiir comes from the country's largest ethnic group, the Dinka.
At first Matthew refused, but relented when rebels threatened to kill his family and take their entire wealth in cows. "They took us up north for military training, close to the border with Sudan. I learned how to march, to find cover and shoot," he says.
One night, the commanders sent some of the boys to collect firewood in the bush. Matthew and three of his friends left their guns and military clothes behind and ran to the UN camp. Now inside, Matthew is trapped by the fear that if he goes out to tell his family he is alive, he might be recognised by soldiers and pay with his life. "If they find me, they will kill me or my family."
Garang, the Machar spokesperson, says he knows nothing about the abducted Bentiu children. But he isn't especially sympathetic towards their plight. "It's in the nature of war that children are caught up in the conflict," he says, "and sometimes have to fight".
"We can't demobilise them now because we're in the middle of a war. When there's a peace agreement, we can think about these things."