JUBA, South Sudan (AP) — She had no body to bury at the funeral, so the grieving mother kneeled in the dirt outside her small hut, recited psalms and simply traced her finger over the uneven earth.
It was December 2015, a year after Nyayan Koang’s boy was abducted by government soldiers at the age of just 14 to fight in South Sudan’s army. Now Koang was told that her James was dead, from a gunshot to his leg.
“We were all crying,” Koang said. “I didn’t believe he was gone.”
It would take almost two years for Koang to discover that she was right — her son was alive.
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James was one of an estimated 18,000 children fighting in an ethnic war in South Sudan, which has more child soldiers than any other country, according to the United Nations. Child soldiers can be seen standing stone-faced outside the buildings they guard, often with two or three Kalashnikovs slung around their small frames.
James is a shy boy with a piercing gaze and a tendency to retreat into himself, who can hardly walk except with a cane. He tells his story with one arm tightly hugging his stomach, as if to protect himself from the memories. The AP is only using his first name, for fear he could be recruited again by government soldiers.
James’ father died when he was young, leaving him to care for his disabled mother and five younger siblings. Government soldiers would come to James’ village to round up children, and he would hide in the bush.
One day in February 2014, as James set out for the river to fish as usual, his mother warned him to be careful of the bad men. He told her not to worry, and that he’d be home later.
That was the last time she saw him.
James and 10 other boys were fishing in a pond when they saw dozens of men with rifles. The soldiers bound the boys’ small arms behind their backs with their shirts, and then stripped them to their underwear. They crammed them into the cargo bed of a pickup truck.
At army headquarters, the boys were brought before the commander. As he thrashed each boy in turn with a rubber wire, the others could hear the screams.
James was given a choice: Join the army or die.
Publicly, South Sudan’s army condemns the practice of using child soldiers.
“The best place for a child is in school, not the military,” said Colonel Santo Domic Chol, the army’s acting spokesman.
But children in military uniforms, like James, have been spotted throughout the country, according to the U.N.
The soldiers didn’t trust James. They scrutinized his every move, including trips to the bathroom, and he slept locked up among the prisoners.
For eight months, the boy who had never held a gun before fought alongside other children, many younger than him. He saw plenty of them die. He says he never killed anyone intentionally, but admits that it’s hard to know “who you’re hitting when you pull the trigger.”
Almost six months after James was captured, on Aug. 15, he was shot on the battlefield in his lower right leg and left for dead.
While a frenzy of gunfire flew overhead, he wriggled on his stomach toward a grassy knoll, and used his arms to slither over a dying soldier. Terrified, in agony and unable to move, the child concealed himself on a dry patch of grass surrounded by swamp.
For almost two days, Koang’s son subsisted on okra leaves and what little water he could sip from the shallow marsh. He thought he would die.
As dawn broke on the second day, James spotted two men from his battalion approaching. It took both soldiers to carry him to the car. He was flown by the Red Cross to South Sudan’s capital of Juba — hundreds of miles away from his family.
As the fighting intensified in Koch, Koang asked every soldier passing through if they’d heard of her son. Finally, a soldier told her that he’d died due to a leg infection from the bullet. She was shattered.
After the funeral, Koang moved her family into a sprawling, filthy camp crammed with about 120,000 displaced people in Bentiu. James was never coming home, and she no longer felt safe in her village.
In the meantime, James also relocated to another camp in Juba.
Slumped in a chair, he said he couldn’t stop thinking about “bad things” from his time as a child soldier. The dying man he climbed over haunts him in his sleep.
“He calls to me,” said James, his hands tightly clenched between his legs. “He reaches out his arm and says, “Come here.”
In March, a neighbor from back home recognized James in the camp. He rushed to Bentiu and told Koang that her son was alive. He lent Koang his phone.
The voice that crackled through was one she had not heard since her son left to go fishing more than two years earlier. James was sobbing.
“I was so happy,” says Koang. “But I still couldn’t believe that he was alive. I needed to see him.”
A few months later, with the help of UNICEF and local community members, James boarded a plane for Bentiu. He didn’t know where he was going. All he knew was that he was headed home to his mother.
As James rounded the corner of his mother’s compound, a local aid worker swept him off his feet. James burst into tears – uncontrollable, overpowering sobs.
Amid the frenzy of handshakes, singing and yelps, Koang shuffled out of her hut and lightly touched her son’s leg by his wound. Crouching to meet her gaze, James buried his head in his hands. They didn’t speak.
Koang broke into gleeful cries. James shifted between hysterical fits of sobs and moments of silence, when he just stopped still and stared straight ahead, lost in thought.
“I never thought I’d be here,” he said. “I thought I’d die. Now I’m just grateful to be with my family and to be alive.”