MALAKAL, South Sudan -- I didn't really think he was going to shoot me. There was no anger in his eyes. His finger may not have been anywhere near the trigger. He didn't draw a bead on me. Still, he was a boy and he was holding an AK-47 and it was pointed in my direction.
It was unnerving.
I don't know how old he was. I'd say 16, though maybe he was 18 or 19. But there were a few soldiers nearby who looked even younger -- no more than 15.
When I was their age, I wasn't trusted to drive, vote, drink, get married, gamble in a casino, serve on a jury, rent a car, or buy a ticket to an R-rated movie. It was mandatory for me to be in school. The law decreed just how many hours I could work and prohibited my employment in jobs deemed too dangerous for kids -- like operating mixing machines in bakeries or repairing elevators. No one, I can say with some certainty, would have thought it a good idea to put an automatic weapon in my hands. But someone thought it was acceptable for them. A lot of someones actually. Their government -- the government of South Sudan -- apparently thought so. And so did mine, the government of the United States.
There was a reason that boy pointed his weapon my way. A lot of them, in fact. In the most immediate sense, I brought it upon myself. I was doing something I knew could get me in trouble, but I just couldn't help myself.
I tried to take a picture. Okay, I took a picture. More than one.
Public photography is frequently frowned upon in South Sudan. Take pictures of the wrong thing and the authorities might force you to delete the images, or confiscate your camera, or maybe worse.
The incident in question took place during last year's rainy season on the outskirts of sodden Malakal, a war-ravaged town 320 miles north of the capital, Juba. The airport, near the banks of the White Nile, had devolved into an airstrip. Nobody seemed to use its vintage blue and white terminal building anymore. Instead, you drove past cold-eyed Rwandan peacekeepers, United Nations troop trucks, and an armored personnel carrier or two, right up to the tarmac.
That's where I was when a fairly big, nondescript white plane arrived. That in itself was hardly remarkable. It's de rigueur for Malakal. If it isn't a World Food Program flight, then it's a big-bellied plane hauling in supplies for some non-governmental organization or a United Nations plane like the one that brought me there and that I was waiting for to whisk me away.
This nondescript white plane, however, was different from the others. When the Canadair CRJ-100, with "Cemair" written across its tail, taxied up and its door opened, it wasn't your typical array of airline passengers who sallied down the gangway. At least not at first. It was a large group of young men in camouflage uniforms carrying assault rifles and machine guns. And they were met on the runway by scores of similarly attired, similarly armed young men who had arrived in a convoy just minutes earlier.
I'd never seen anything like it, so I pulled out my phone and tried to surreptitiously take a few photos. Not surreptitiously enough, though. A commander spotted me, got angry, and headed my way, waving his finger "no." It was then that this boy with the AK-47, who had arrived in the convoy, turned toward me -- following the officer's gaze -- and the rifle in his arms turned with him, and I stepped lively to put the commander between me and him, while quickly shoving my phone in my pocket and apologizing again and again.
Approximately 13,000 children have been recruited into armed groups in South Sudan, according to the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF). In addition, about 400,000 youngsters have been forced out of school due to the civil war that has been flaring and simmering there for almost a year and a half. How so many children came to be affected by the conflict and why so many of them find themselves serving in the national army, the main rebel force, and other militias needs to be explained. It has much to do with civil wars that started in the 1950s and lasted for the better part of five decades, pitting rebels in the south against the government in the north of what was then a single country: Sudan.
Other factors include the 2005 peace deal that led to an independent South Sudan and transformed a guerrilla force into a national military, the Sudan People's Liberation Army or SPLA; a rural culture in which cows are king because they are currency and young boys are armed to defend against cattle raids, as well as to conduct them; and an armed grudge match between political rivals representing different tribal groups in South Sudan that began in December 2013. Add all of this together and any tangible recent progress toward ridding South Sudan of the scourge of child soldiers has been obliterated.
Oh yes, and into that mix you would also have to factor the United States, a country that, as then U.S. Senator, now Secretary of State John Kerry put it, helped "midwife" South Sudan into existence.
America's African Army
In 1996, the United States began funneling military equipment through nearby Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Uganda to rebels in southern Sudan as they battled for independence. A decade later, after the civil war ended in a peace deal, Washington officially began offering military "assistance" to the SPLA, according to State Department documents. At that point, without fanfare and far from the prying eyes of the press, the U.S. launched a concerted campaign to transform the SPLA from a guerrilla force into a professional army.
When I recently asked about the scope of this training, Rodney Ford, the State Department's Bureau of African Affairs spokesperson, told me: "The U.S. government began a comprehensive defense professionalization program which started in [fiscal year] 2006 [and] continued after the referendum and independence of South Sudan until December 2013. This assistance included infrastructure, vehicles, human rights training, logistics, administration, medical, military justice, finance, and English language training among an array of other military subjects. The U.S. government, for example, conducted a comprehensive medical program with the South Sudanese military which entailed procuring mobile field hospitals, building clinics, training nurses and improving the military's medical infrastructure."
Ford also emphasized that no "lethal equipment" was provided and noted that the lessons were designed to "give soldiers the tools and skills that would benefit the civilian population." It sounded almost like they were building a South Sudanese Peace Corps.
In reality, there was more to it. U.S. support was not strictly a kumbaya effort of medical clinics and human rights instruction. It included the training and equipping of the elite presidential guard; the construction of a new SPLA headquarters in Juba; the renovation of a training center at the SPLA Command and Staff College in Malou, a town north of the capital; and the construction of the headquarters of two SPLA divisions in the towns of Mapel and Duar. Included as well were training programs for general officers and senior instructors; the deployment of a "training advisory team" to guide the overhaul of intelligence, communications, and other key functions; the employment of Kenyan and later Ethiopian instructors to teach basic military skills to SPLA recruits; the provision of secure voice and data communications to SPLA general headquarters; the development of riverine forces and up to 16 tactical watercraft; military police instruction; the training of commando forces by Ethiopian troops; and the establishment of a noncommissioned officers academy at Mapel with training from private contractors and later U.S. military personnel. And according to a comprehensive report focusing on the years 2006-2010 by Richard Rands for the Small Arms Survey at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva, this list only encompasses part of Washington's efforts.