Washington Post - Published on November 10, 2017
PIBOR, South Sudan
Outside, the young men with guns were playing dominoes and drinking tea. Babacho Mama could hear them through the sheet-metal walls of his room.
They had once been members of the same militia, a brigade of children with AK-47s. Now, Mama stood alone, sweating through his white T-shirt, a boy plucked from one of the world’s most brutal wars but not so sure he’d been saved.
“Maybe I need to go back,” he said. “It’s better to die in combat than in hunger.”
Babacho Mama, a former child soldier, heads to English class at the primary school in Pibor, South Sudan.
He was 16 now. Or 17 or 18 or 19. He had spent much of his childhood lugging a rifle, and his age had become an approximation, less relevant than his ability to fight.
In 2015, during a lull in South Sudan’s civil war, Mama and 1,774 other boys promised the United Nations that their lives as combatants had ended. They handed over their baggy military fatigues in choreographed ceremonies that amounted to one of the largest releases of child soldiers in recent history.
“I’m done with fighting,” Mama told a social worker after the release.
“Back to learning,” aid groups painted on a new primary school in Pibor.
Two years later, the boys are returning to the battlefield. Development programs to help them have failed. The school barely functions.