There is a timeless familiarity to the scene in Malual Kon, Sudan. Soldiers are returning from war, walking home to their villages.
As they pass through the countryside, old women in festive beads cry and clap, men in long cotton robes and knitted winter hats come out to slap them on the back, and the half-naked village children trot alongside and beg to hear stories.
The ex-soldiers smile shyly and march on - lugging packs filled with soap, pots, plastic cups, blankets, and mosquito nets, proudly sporting UNICEF T-shirts, which hang down to their knees.
But these are no ordinary veterans of combat. They are children.
"The first thing I will do when I get home," says 10-year-old James Dut Kwal, a former fighter with mischievous eyes and a timid smile, "is give my blanket to my mother and kiss her." Then, he says, wiping his sweat-drenched face and reaching out to
hold hands with a friend from the Army, he will get ready for school.
An estimated 300,000 children under age 18 fight in armed conflicts around the world, despite the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child - ratified by 191 nations - prohibiting states from recruiting children under age 15.
Here in Sudan, some 10,000 children under 18 augment the ranks of the Southern People's Liberation Army (SPLA), which has been fighting a war of independence from the Islamist government for 18 years. But now, in a country where boys are initiated into manhood at age 11 - and are called to war as early as 8 - some 3,500 child soldiers are getting a second chance at being youths.
Last October, the army committed to supporting UNICEF demobilization efforts after close to a decade of faltering efforts. The actual process here began last February, when UNICEF rounded up 3,500 SPLA child soldiers based in the insecure region of Northern Bahr el Ghazal, and flew them to transition camps elsewhere in the district. The children took off their ragtag uniforms, laid down their AK47s, and started learning to read and write. They played sports, received three meals a day and a few immunizations, and waited as UNICEF workers traced their families.
Reunification began in early August, and last week the final group of these children were put back on the transport planes and taken back to the district near their villages. Thousands more will follow in the coming year.
"This is the first time such a large scale demobilization has ever been carried out under war conditions," says Martin Dawes, UNICEF spokesman for South Sudan.
"Changing someone's perception of childhood and making children's rights universal is a challenge," says Siddharth Chatterjee, a UNICEF regional program officer in South Sudan. "But it is a challenge which UNICEF over time thinks it has succeeded in here. We have managed to change the way people think: The SPLA community now wants to protect their children themselves."
Because the SPLA is a rebel group and not a government, it is not technically obligated to abide by the UN convention. But the group's decision is seen as a sign that it is beginning to plan for a future, after a war that has killed 2 million and displaced 4 million.
"We are not outside of this world," states Paul Maloyng, SPLA commander of the Bahr el Ghazal district. With his AK-47 propped beside him, Mr. Maloyng sits in the shade of a eucalyptus tree, waving a fistful of peanuts in the air, as a group of commanders sits in a semicircle around him listening.
"We know that an educated person is a better person on this earth," he says, "whether he then becomes a soldier in the future or whatever."
In South Sudan, unlike other African countries, such as Sierra Leone or Uganda, it is highly unusual for children to be kidnapped into the military or forced into war, rare for them to be sexually abused, and unheard of for them to be drugged or forced to commit atrocities. Nonetheless, adds UNICEF spokesman Dawes, "just having them in the army means abusing them."
Some of the children in Malyong's barracks were orphans with nowhere else to go. Some joined out of a desire to fight "the enemy," and others were "donated" by their villages so as to fill quotas imposed upon them by district commanders. Some worked as dishwashers, cooks, guards and shoe shiners at the barracks. Some carried AK-47s, marched into battles, and shot to kill.
Some admit to having enjoyed their time in the barracks. Almost all admit they would rather have been doing something else. "At first, I was carrying bags and collecting wood. After four years, I got a gun and was fighting against the ... enemy," says 16-year old Gabriel Majok, a tall boy with a soft voice. "I'm a good shot. The best. But I am not sure if I killed someone. You just shoot, and you never know who you hit."
Now, Gabriel says he would like to change his life - but he's not sure it is possible. "I don't really like the military," he says, his eyes darting around. "I want to go to school so I can become ... anything. But I am just in primary one [first grade], and I don't know what I can do except be a soldier."
Raising the level of education, making learning relevant, and finding the resources to keep it all going is the real challenge now for south Sudan. If this does not succeed, officials at the UN estimate, the boys - bored and discouraged - will try to return to the world they know, the army.
UNICEF and a number of NGOs are helping. Some books are being donated. Teacher training programs are in the conception phase, and a printing press has been built in nearby Rumbek, where relevant textbooks are being printed. The heavy lifting, however, is up to the community itself.
With a cash-strapped SPLA, whose top priority is fighting a war, resources are next to nil. Maloyng says that a new "education tax" is being levied by the group's civil administration, whereby each family gives nine kilos of grain each year as an incentive to those who volunteer to teach.
Two days after Gabriel arrives home, he joins the other boys in their small village near Malual Kon for the first day of school. The school consists of three blackboards hung on trees outside the local church hut. Tree branches serve as benches. Each class of roughly 40 students shares two pens. "Notebooks" are pieces of scrap paper carefully sewn together by caring mothers. Lunch bags - made from ripped UN food sacks - are filled with peanuts or nothing at all.
It's 9 a.m., and the volunteer teachers are nowhere to be seen, although just before 10, the headmaster arrives. Often, the teachers never show up. They live over a half-hour's walk away, and have other jobs. Moreover, their own level of education is low, and there is currently no teacher training. In this northern Bahr el Ghazal district - which has 750,000 people, according to SPLA - there are only 51 primary schools and no secondary schools. There has never been a college graduate from here.
"I have faith - and I think they [SPLA leaders] do too - that with enough support these children can one day make a difference in their communities," says Martha Bragin, a clinical social worker and psychoanalyst working as an adviser to UNICEF on the demobilization project.
"You need a spark to get things going - and that spark was the dramatic demobilization," she says. "Now comes the hard work."