Jumping for joy, the tall, skinny 15-year-old rushed to scoop up his new school bag. He had just been transformed from a rebel soldier into a schoolkid.
"I am happy today, and if my parents were alive, they would be happy to see me getting an education," said Paulina Kwol, who has fought with the Sudan People's Liberation Army since he was 10.
In a ceremony Feb. 25, Paulina and 244 other child soldiers marched and sang at an SPLA camp here in southern Sudan before being turned over to the United Nations Children's Fund, or UNICEF.
Laying down their weapons, they slipped out of military uniforms into tattered civilian clothes and lunged at the school bags filled with ballpoint pens and paper, needles and thread, and a T-shirt and shorts.
"If you look here, you will see children in uniform, children who know how to drill, children who are not afraid of handling guns. This is an army, this is no place for a child," said Martin Dawes, a UNICEF spokesman.
The SPLA, which has fought since 1983 to try to win autonomy for the largely Christian southern Sudan from the Muslim Arab north, agreed to a request in October by UNICEF head Carol Bellamy to muster the youngsters out of the rebel camps and put them in school.
"We are happy because we are sending these children to areas out of danger," SPLA commander Majak D'Agot told the departing child soldiers. "But we are sad because the lives of some young children like you have been destroyed by war. We pray that you will prosper and that you will not die young."
On Feb. 27, UNICEF announced it had completed the evacuation of 2,500 demobilized child soldiers like Paulina from combat zones to safe areas to attend school and begin the search for lost families.
"There's a growing recognition worldwide that children should not be in combat zones," Ms. Bellamy said last week in Geneva. "But 300,000 [worldwide] are still being used as soldiers, porters, and sex slaves. Only a global movement can make this stop."
SPLA officials said thousands of youngsters were housed in their camps after losing their parents in the war or after being kidnapped into slavery, but only about 5 percent took part in fighting.
"I hated marching to the front line," said Paulina, who hopes to become a Roman Catholic priest. "I love God. He created us, heaven and earth.... I don't understand politics. Had my parents not been killed, I would not have known what it means to be a soldier."
But Bak Turjong, 12, wants to return to the rebel army.
"I want to go to school and then go back to the army because my parents were killed," said Bak, who fought with the SPLA for two years.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society