Despite accusations of war crimes and pledges by the various sides of South Sudan's year-long civil war to stop using child soldiers and to release those they have recruited, forced recruitment continues unabated. Hundreds of boys were abducted by government troops in the village of Wau Shilluk two weeks ago in one of the worst cases yet reported.
On February 15 and 16, troops from the national Sudan People's Liberation Army under the command of Maj. Gen. Johnson Olony surrounded Wau Shilluk, located along the White Nile River about a half-hour north of Malakal, the capital of the war-torn and oil-rich Upper Nile state, and forced scores of children to join their ranks, according to the UN children's rights organization UNICEF.
UNICEF said it believes the children are to be deployed as child soldiers to defend South Sudan's last functioning oil fields.
A conflict between government forces loyal to President Salva Kiir and rebel contingents supporting Riek Machar, Kiir's former vice president, has riven the country for the past 14 months. Over 12,000 boys and girls are estimated to have joined both sides, either voluntarily or by force.
'We fear they are going from the classroom to the front line.'
Though child soldiers are not uncommon in South Sudan, the Wau Shilluk incident is one of the few large forced recruitment operations to be made public. Yet unlike large kidnappings elsewhere in Africa, such as Boko Haram's kidnapping of more than 200 Nigerian girls, events in South Sudan have prompted little international outcry.
UNMISS — the United Nations peacekeeping mission tasked with protecting civilians and monitoring human rights violations in South Sudan — has been slow to respond or report the kidnappings. More than two weeks after the children were taken, it might be too late to bring back the boys before they are sent to fight.
The first public report of the abductions was February 21, six days after the kidnappings began. UNICEF, which operates independently from UNMISS, described troops searching house by house through the village, collecting boys over the age of 12 as well as men.
Soldiers pushed away mothers who tried to rescue their sons, witnesses said.
"They did it by force," said a 19-year-old Wau Shilluk resident who described the abduction of her 16-year-old friend in an interview that UNICEF shared with VICE News. "Boys here are scared. I am scared too…. I don't know what happens to him now."
The boys and men stayed for a few days in Wau Shilluk. Their captors sometimes allowed them to go home to eat before finally marching them out of the village at the end of the first week. The boys have since been separated into groups and sent to training camps, given weapons, or deployed near oilfields in the town of Melut, according to UNICEF.
"We fear they are going from the classroom to the front line," Jonathan Veitch, UNICEF's representative in South Sudan, said in a statement.
From the start, UNMISS — which has a large military base in Malakal, just thirty minutes from Wau Shilluk — did not raise public alarm. A statement to the UN Security Council shows UNMISS knew of the abductions the day they began on February 15. But UNMISS said nothing and took no action, even as kidnappings continued the next day.
The mission's first move wasn't until February 20, a UNMISS spokesperson wrote in an email to VICE. That day, the mission sent an investigation team of a human rights officer and two representatives from a refugee agency to Wau Shilluk.
The spokesperson said that the mission's response was slow because it couldn't find a boat. But aid agencies told VICE News that they continued to travel by river to the village as usual after the abductions. Commercial boats also ply the river north of Malakal. Either way, it took yet another week before UNICEF was "confident" to publicly accuse Olony and his men of the atrocity, though his group was the only armed force in Wau Shilluk for nearly a year.
The nearly two-week delay between incident and blame has likely diminished the chance of recovering the young conscripts.
UNMISS has long struggled to report atrocities quickly. Human Rights Watch collected accounts in late January documenting 25 cases of forced recruitment of children outside the mission's Malakal base. UNMISS didn't publicly mention the recruitments despite word of such abductions reaching mission chief Ellen Loej before the HRW report's release, which Loej confirmed to VICE News.
HRW researcher Skye Wheeler told VICE News that though UNMISS has a large human rights division with roughly 100 staff members based across South Sudan, its slow reaction to such developments contributes to the country's "culture of impunity."
"We would like to see more timely reporting," she said.
The response from South Sudan's government, which is primarily responsible for freeing the boys, has also been tepid. At the state level, Upper Nile authorities deny that any abductions took place, claiming that Olony's recruitment effort rounded up deserters.
At the national level, army representatives have declined to make any public comment besides confirming that Olony, who led a militia against the government shortly before the current civil war, is now a fully integrated SPLA commander rather than a militia leader aligned with the government.
President Kiir has condemned the atrocity and ordered Olony to the capital Juba over the matter, his spokesperson confirmed to VICE News. But that was more than a week ago, and Olony reportedly hasn't arrived.
Perhaps he has more pressing concerns. Olony defends one of the most crucial territories in South Sudan, a stretch of river from Malakal to the oil fields near Melut, and the rebels have been on the offensive. The Wau Shilluk abductions occurred as Machar's forces inflicted casualties on government troops north of Melut.
The Wau Shilluk incident could be part of an even larger campaign to bolster government forces in Upper Nile. Since December, there have been reports of large gatherings along the river of men in uniform with boys. According to one aid official in Juba, forced recruitment of children "has been happening throughout all the counties from Malakal to Melut" in recent weeks.
But that allegation, like so much here, is just another made behind a cautious veil of anonymity in a country where the fear of speaking out has apparently gripped nearly everyone — from teens who see their friends abducted to the United Nations peacekeepers meant to protect them.
Follow Jason Patinkin on Twitter: @JasonPatinkin