The 89 schoolboys abducted more than a week ago by South Sudanese soldiers are being held in a military training camp territory near active front lines, aid workers report, as the national Army remains silent about the recruitment of children in a government-controlled area.
The boys, along with six teachers and an unknown number of other adults, were taken last Sunday and Monday after soldiers surrounded Wau Shilluk —a government-controlled village along the White Nile, near the strategic Upper Nile state capital of Malakal— and went home to home, and even to a school where students were preparing for exams, abducting males.
The Wau Shilluk abductions comprise one of the largest reported episodes of forced recruitment of child soldiers since the civil war began in December 2013. The United Nations estimates more than 11,000 youths are fighting on both sides between forces loyal to President Salva Kiir and his former Deputy Riek Machar.
“This is just an appalling incident,” says John Budd, spokesperson for the UN child welfare agency UNICEF, which first reported the incident on Saturday. “This is a violation of international law, of human rights, and of the kids' future.”
Witnesses told UNICEF the boys are being held in a military training camp about 45 minutes outside the village. On Saturday, they were marched north from Wau Shilluk, in the direction of where heavy clashes took place between government and rebels last week.
Mr. Budd says UNICEF verified names of 89 boys, but says that “many, many more” were also taken. At one point, the boys were loaded into five large boats on the White Nile, he told The Christian Science Monitor. A typical boat on the Nile can hold dozens of people, indicating that the total number of abductees could be in the hundreds.
Government officials and UNICEF have yet to publicly identify the perpetrators, but the UN has sent a human rights investigation team to Wau Shilluk.
Presidential spokesman Ateny Wek Ateny on Monday condemned the incident “in the strongest terms possible.”
“The investigation is going on to find the culprit,” he says in an interview. “If the culprit is found, then the severest punishment will be passed on that person.”
Mr. Ateny pointed out that Wau Shilluk is controlled by Johnson Olony, a key general in President Kiir's Army defending Malakal and surrounding areas from Machar's rebels.
Government forces under Olony's command were accused of abducting more than two dozen children from Malakal town in a report released last week by Human Rights Watch.
Both those abductions and the Wau Shilluk recruitment fit a pattern of targeting children who had not before been associated with armed groups, UNICEF says.
Olony previously waged a rebellion against Kiir's government before South Sudan's 2011 independence, but accepted a peace deal in mid-2013 that places him under the president's command and pay.
Top Army officials have yet to release any information on the abductions. Several senior officials contacted in Juba told the Monitor they had no details about ongoing investigations and had only heard of the incident through media reports.
The Upper Nile state government, for its part, denied that any children were abducted in Wau Shilluk, but confirmed a recruitment exercise took place in Wau Shilluk. Spokesperson Gatluak Dhieu tells the Monitor by phone from Malakal they were instead rounding up Army deserters to return to barracks.
“There was no abduction by any person,” he says. “It is a lie.”
South Sudan has a long history of recruiting child soldiers. The national Army has repeatedly committed itself on paper to end the use of child soldiers, but commanders still recruit youths in times of crisis and to bolster their ranks.
The Wau Shilluk recruitment comes as the government attempts to release up to 3,000 children from another ethnic militia in South Sudan's eastern province. More than 500 boys have been released so far from the Cobra Faction of Gen. David Yau Yau, who, like Olony, once fought against Kiir, but is now in the process of joining the president's Army.