Surviving outside the military

29 Mar 2012

Surviving outside the military

John Okulo has come a long way since he signed up as a child soldier during the height of Sudan's civil war at the age of 14.

Unlike many of his comrades who served in the Sudan People's Liberation Army, the now 21-year-old former combatant has successfully re-entered civilian life.

Harking back to a childhood desire, John's main ambition after laying down his gun was to go back to school, according to Oluku Andrew Holt, South Sudan Demobilization and Reintegration Commission (SSDRC) Child DDR Coordinator.

"In 2009, Okulo joined St Joseph Vocational Training in Narus, Kapoeta, where he studied for two years (and was) later awarded with a certificate in auto mechanics," the DDR Coordinator said.

To make himself more marketable, John then completed a course at Dealers International Driving School in Juba, where he was awarded a driving license by South Sudan traffic police.

In rounding off his education, he is now attending Juba's Cambridge International School to learn English, which became South Sudan's official working language after its independence in July.

"It's difficult to know that Okulo was a child soldier because of his politeness and keenness in learning," Mr. Petico said. "And he has really shown courage in learning ... with others."

Stranded after the death of his uncle, John originally joined the military in Nimule, Eastern Equatoria State because he had no one to pay his school fees.

The boy hails from Bura Village in that state, but left there when he was about 12 years old with his brother Amugo, a member of the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA), to go to school in Nimule.

Explaining that there were no vehicles then, John recalled, "We took three days ... walking with my brother ... from Bura before reaching Nimule."

Mugor left John with his Uncle Ochen Mariko in Nimule, and continued on to his military posting. "Towards the end of January 2003, my uncle took me to school and registered me in class two at Motoyo Primary School," said John.

But his uncle, who was also a soldier, died two years later in a battle with the Ugandan Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) and John was forced to drop out of school.

"I found it difficult after his death," he said. "I thought of going back to the village but wouldn't manage because I didn't know the route we used. So, I had to drop out of school as there was no one else who I could stay with and pay my school fees."

The same year, he began associating with some boys in the military of his age who were able to give him food.

"I could go to the military barracks and have a chat with them and eat there," John said. "Eventually that became part of my daily routine, and in the process I built friendships."

But he did not actually join up until a large military training camp was opened in Magwi County called Papa 91. The site's main purpose was to train soldiers to intercept and prevent the movement of LRA members in and out of the south's border with Uganda.

From May 2005 to January 2006, John was in Papa 91 with his age mates for training before being deployed to Pageri to counteract LRA activities in Magwi County.

"One day, the LRA came to attack civilians at night," he recalled sorrowfully. "We were ordered to go and chase them that same night. In the process, my closest friend ... got killed."

His friend, said John, advised him how to behave in the military. "Whenever I was angered by colleagues, he would advise me to control my annoyance. He really shaped my life in the military and I took him as my brother."

After a fierce battle with the LRA in May 2006, John's group had a break in Owiny-Kibul for about three weeks before being deployed to hotspots across Southern Sudan together with some Misseriya and Nuban child soldiers.

He was finally demobilized by the SDDRC in 2007, after the organization found him in Bouth, Upper Nile State, far from his original home.

He joined about 3,000 child soldiers who have been demobilized since the signing of 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement, which ended the country's 21-year civil war.

Some 1,500 of them have undergone SSDDRC demobilization, while the rest have left through other unrecorded means or disappeared as their salaries were discontinued, according to the SSDDRC.

Reared in the military, many of John's colleagues tried and failed to re-enter civilian life, returning to the barracks soon after shedding their uniforms. One was killed and another injured during a battle with rebels in Unity State.

Reintegration back into civilian life has been a major challenge for many child soldiers. According to Mr. Holt, child DDR in South Sudan has met with little success due to lack of policy and understanding.

"We had to explain and make the child soldiers understand that the military is not the right place for them, and why they are being released from the army to go back home," he said.

Initially, some found it hard to leave because of their salaries, but the SPLA has now discontinued their wages to implement the international convention on children's rights, ensuring that soldiers below 18 years of age are not directly involved in hostilities.

But determining the boys' ages during DDR was challenging, said Mr. Holt, as many had no proper records. "We had to look at their physical appearance (and it was) then was quite difficult to know who was under-age and who was not."

By December 2008, the DDRC had reintegrated 79 child soldiers, he said. "Five, including Okulo, were brought to greater Equatoria, and about 30 were taken to Southern Kordofan and the Nuba Mountains. The rest were reunified with their families across the southern states."

Now, John would like to convince his 17-year-old brother to quit the military. "I spoke to him about leaving the military and joining school, but he asked me who will pay his school? I had no answer because at the moment he is getting a salary and I am jobless," the boy said.

John himself was fortunate enough to be assisted with his school fees by a private patron, who wishes to remain anonymous.

In addition to two brothers in the military, John has four married sisters. His parents continue to live in Bura village, where they support themselves farming.

In his free time, John repairs motorcycles and vehicles to keep up his mechanic skills. He is seen as the only hope for the family, living a civilian life and building a career.

Ojja Bosco