Some 300 boys in army fatigues sit under a grove of spindly trees in Pibor, a remote outpost in east South Sudan that —until last year— was the heart of a bloody rebellion that killed thousands. The boys are underage members of the Cobra Faction, a militia of the Murle ethnic group led by local general David Yau Yau.
Some are going through the telling changes of puberty. Others —as young as 11—clutch assault rifles nearly as big as themselves.
They've been fighting as child soldiers on the front lines of a two-year Murle insurgency that ended last May. One by one, in a procession watched by government, military, and United Nations officials, the boys stand up, march past a Cobra commander, and toss their weapons to the ground.
"I'm still young," says 14-year-old Michael, wearing an olive-green uniform too big for his small frame. "I need to go to school."
This reverse coming-of-age ceremony, the second to take place in the past month, is part of one of the largest child-soldier demobilization efforts in the short history of South Sudan, one of the world's most-active recruiters of children into armed groups.
The national Army had 12,000 child soldiers in 2005, when the South gained autonomous rule. Fewer than 500 remained by 2013, two years after full independence. But after the outbreak of a new civil war in December 2013 – a conflict that did not include Cobra — more than 11,000 children came back into uniform on both sides, according to UN figures.
Today, as Cobra fighters slowly integrate into the national Army, any soldiers under 18 are screened out to begin the process of transition into civilian life. Cobra commanders estimate up to 2,500 underage fighters will be sent from their ranks, but the government and the United Nations child welfare agency, UNICEF, expect as many as 3,000.
It is a hopeful sign in a country where the use of child soldiers is not necessarily abhorred, and whose national heroes have been notorious for sending young boys to the front lines. But dropping the guns is only the first step. A multi-group effort is working to create a long-term program – finding the boys’ families, sending them to school, and providing psychological support— in an attempt to diffuse any possibility of future repeat recruitment.
The biggest uncertainty is that, if fighting picks up again, Mr. Yau Yau, enjoying amnesty since last May despite commanding youngsters in battle, might recruit them again.
"Release is not the problem," says Oluku Andrew Holt, national coordinator of South Sudan's child disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration (DDR) program. "If anything goes wrong, and people go back to war, the children will be at risk."
A call to fight
At the demobilization ceremony, the boys sang Cobra war songs, praising Yau Yau and chanting Murle power slogans, for what many hope was the last time.
Yau Yau himself didn’t hear them. He has sent a deputy to the event.
"Yes, there were children who fought or were killed. Most of them were not able to run as fast," says Apee Ojulu Ochudho, the deputy. "We think it’s worth it."
The Murle, a minority tribe centered in South Sudan’s vast and restive Jonglei state, have long felt marginalized by leaders in the capital, Juba, both before and after independence in 2011. There are no paved roads, public hospitals, or permanent school buildings in Pibor, the largest Murle town.
In 2012, Yau Yau rebelled in hopes of achieving self-rule. Civilians were killed on all sides, including both of Michael's parents. He fled to the Cobras, perversely finding protection among militants. Soon he joined them.
"I wanted revenge," says Michael, whose name is changed for his protection.
Michael’s reasons for fighting seem simple. More complicated is why local communities allow young boys to join the ranks of a militia at all. Cattle herders —like the Murle— traditionally consider adulthood to start at puberty, and see armed boys as honorable community protectors, especially after decades of war broke down normal social hierarchies.
At the ceremony, one high-level Cobra commander even commented that his own son was among the children to be released, showing that the use of child soldiers is not only driven by generals who forcibly recruit, but also by parents, who during times of extreme poverty or violence have no other option for their children.
After two years of fighting, the government sued for peace with Yau Yau. He received amnesty for any crimes committed and was appointed ruler of an autonomous Murle quasi-state called Greater Pibor. His Cobra soldiers were granted positions in the national Army. As the ex-rebels officially register for duty, Mr. Holt's DDR program identifies underage fighters for release.
But that's just the start for the boys' return to childhood.
Going back to normal
"Reintegration will be a continuous thing for the next two, three years," says Holt. "The future may be bleak if they are not supported."
The boys are now in an "interim care center" where they'll live for the next three months. They will receive medical checkups, take classes, and participate in discussion groups to ease transition to civilian life while their living relatives are traced.
"We want to get these boys back with their families as quickly as possible," says Shaun Collins, a UNICEF psychosocial counselor in Pibor.
He estimates that 10-15 percent of the boys have major psychological problems. Some instinctively march each morning, unable to shake their military routines; others show high levels of aggression.
Michael says he's still bothered by the memory of older soldiers looting the dead body of a friend killed in combat.
After the care center, children will return home and enroll in schools soon to be built by Yau Yau's new administration and aid groups. An equal number of noncombatant children will benefit from the program, so families in this neglected area do not view joining armed groups as a ticket to education.
A threat of recruitment
The success of all the planning and support, however, depends on sustainable peace. South Sudan has a troubled history of releasing child soldiers in peacetime, only to recruit them again.
In 2010, Holt oversaw the release of 57 child soldiers in Pibor after a smaller Cobra rebellion. Two years later, Yau Yau went back to the bush, mobilizing the thousands now being released.
Holt, who has worked to free child soldiers for the past 13 years, suspects some of the 57 rejoined, giving each ceremony a bittersweet sense of déjà vu.
"I become so emotional doing one thing over and over again," he says. "In 2015 ... we are not supposed to be talking of release of children."
For now, the Pibor cease-fire holds and the 300 ex-Cobra members are safe. But potential for conflict remains.
Greater Pibor lies between rebel and government forces in the wider civil war, and the Murle can easily be pulled back into the conflict.
Mr. Apee, Yau Yau’s deputy, insists they don't want war again, but complains Juba still hasn't sent the Greater Pibor administration its budget since the peace deal was signed nine months ago.
Back at the grove of trees, a group of older Cobra soldiers collect the children's discarded rifles. They will be stored in a barracks, in case they are needed again.