Recruitment of child soldiers still rising in South Sudan

No end to forced mobilisation as civil war enters fifth year, having killed thousands and displaced millions in African country.

Yambio, South Sudan – John was taken when he was 15 years old. He is one of 700 children who were forcibly recruited by South Sudan‘s National Liberation Movement.

“They arrested me when we were going to the garden,” he told Al Jazeera.

“Life in the bush was hard and if you leave, they will look for you until they find you again and they will take you back.”

The civil war in South Sudan is now in its fifth year. It has killed thousands and displaced millions.

Monday marked International Day against the use of Child Soldiers. According to the UN, the number of children recruited in South Sudan is still rising.

Sarah, who is 13, was also taken by the National Liberation Movement.

“I was in the garden working and I saw these people coming and I started to run,” she said.

“They told me to come – why am I running? I stopped and they said to me if I run they will shoot me with the gun, and I stopped running.”

Against their will

Rights groups say nearly all armed groups in the world’s youngest country recruited children to fight.

On Thursday the National Liberation movement released more than 300 children in Yambio. 

Brigadier Abel Matthew of the armed group denies the children were taken against their will in the first place.

WATCH: South Sudan war deprives children of education

“They were not really forced but the conditions back then forced them and all of us together,” he told Al Jazeera.

Nearly 2,000 children have been demobilised in the past five years, but they are being replaced.

According to UNICEF, the number of child soldiers in South Sudan has been increasing since the war began in 2013.

That is despite all the warring sides repeatedly stating that they will stop recruiting children and release those already enlisted.

A way of life

Many children who have been released have no idea where their families are.

For others, fighting has become a way of life.

“The biggest challenge is reintegration,” Unicef’s Mahombo Mdoe told Al Jazeera.

“It’s a process that takes time, two to three years for that child to go back home and resettle. We still have more kids to be released.

“Our real concern is the reintegration of these children so that they don’t get re-recruited again.”

John and Sarah say they do not want to return to the battlefield.

But they also fear what lies ahead after their past experiences and wonder if they may be forced to fight again.

WATCH: Inside Story – What is behind the rising number of child soldiers?