JUBA, South Sudan — She had no body to bury, 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. She was so broken, she could hardly move.
She invited just a few close friends, relatives and priests to the funeral. But people from across town poured in to pay their respects to the mother of the fallen soldier, yet another casualty in a bitter civil war that has left more than 50,000 people dead.
“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.
James was one of an estimated 18,000 children fighting in South Sudan, which has more child soldiers than any other country, according to the United Nations. The youth fight for either government or opposition forces in the world’s newest nation, pawns in an ethnic war that the U.N. has warned could spiral into genocide.
About 1,500 children were victims of incidents such as abductions and attacks on schools in 2016 alone, according to UNICEF. 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 the intensity of someone who relives it in his dreams, 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. He looked after the cows, tended the farm and provided the family with daily fish in Koch County, one of the areas most affected by the conflict. 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 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 about 25 minutes from his house when they saw dozens of men with rifles. The soldiers bound the boys’ small arms behind their backs with their shirts, shouting, “We’ll finish the opposition!” James realized he might be forced to kill his own people, because the opposition was his tribe, the Nuer.
The soldiers stripped the boys, aged 12 to 14, to their underwear. Then they crammed them into the cargo bed of a pickup truck.
After several hours in the truck, bound and petrified, the boys arrived at army headquarters. They 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.
It’s a choice thousands of children have faced in South Sudan, which has a history of civil war.
Until the recent conflict, the country had made significant strides in ending child recruitment. In 2008 it established the Child Act, which requires a minimum age of 18 for any conscription or voluntary recruitment into the army. However, when war broke out yet again in 2013, everything changed.
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.
After James was taken, Koang missed him terribly. She was disabled with polio, and worried that her children would have no one to care for them. Her younger daughter dropped out of school to try to fill the void.
James didn’t fare any better. The soldiers didn’t trust him. They scrutinized his every move, including trips to the bathroom. He began working as a cook in the barracks, but was forced to sleep 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.
Every time he fired, he was worried he would kill someone from his village. He says he never killed anyone intentionally, but admits that it’s hard to know “who you’re hitting when you pull the trigger.”
During one battle, James attempted an escape. He slowly inched toward the end of the row of soldiers on the field and tried to fade into the trees. But he was caught and forced to return. He feared they might kill him if he tried again.
After a few months in the army, James became the personal assistant for a high-ranking officer. He’d wash and clean the commander’s clothes, bring him food, carry his weapons and prepare his bed. He never saw his boss kill anyone, but heard him barking orders at soldiers to do so.
James says he felt guilty working for a man he loathed. But he was trapped.
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 in the mud-soaked field 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. The bullet had struck a vein, and although James tried to use his shirt to stem the flow, the bleeding continued.
For almost two days, Koang’s son subsisted on okra leaves and what little water he could sip from the shallow marsh. Anxious, alone and slowly bleeding out, he thought he would die.
As dawn broke on the second day, James spotted two men approaching. He worried that they were from the opposition and had come to finish the job of killing him, but they were from his battalion.
James slowly waved his hand, motioning that he was conscious. One of the men tried to help him up, but James was too weak and slumped back to the ground.
It took both soldiers to carry him to the car, before rushing to a nearby hospital. He was then 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. A few people said he’d been shot and seriously injured. 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, roughly five hours from Koch. James was never coming home, and she no longer felt safe in her village.
In the meantime, James also relocated to another camp in the capital of Juba. He enrolled in school, focused on his studies and even took part in the debate club, where he advocated for girls’ education.
But he wasn’t happy.
He watched enviously as some kids kicked a soccer ball on the sandy court. He used to play. Now he couldn’t even carry water to his hut for bathing and cooking.
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.”
James yearned to go home, but had no way to contact his mother. For months, they were 600 miles apart, yet they were worlds away.
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.
As she brushed the phone against her ear, the voice crackled through on the other end — one she hadn’t heard since her son promised to return home from fishing three years earlier. It was James, sobbing.
“I was so happy,” says Koang. “But I still couldn’t believe that he was alive. I needed to see him.”
Yet she didn’t have the money to bring him home. So even after they spoke, James remained in Juba, alone and depressed.
A few months later, with the help of UNICEF and local community members, James boarded a plane for Bentiu, dressed in his only pair of ripped black pants, a handkerchief in one pocket and a bible bulging out of the other. When the plane landed, he limped off.
He didn’t know where he was going. All he knew was that he was headed home to his mother. He was so nervous — he knew he’d see her, but at the same time he couldn’t believe it.
As James rounded the corner of his mother’s compound, a local aid worker swept him off his feet and held him close. James burst into tears – uncontrollable, overpowering sobs. Relatives gathered around him, reaching out to brush their hands over his wet face, in a Nuer blessing for a long life.
Amid the frenzy of handshakes, singing and yelps, Koang emerged. Dressed for the occasion in a striking turquoise necklace and tailored dress, she 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. They didn’t need to.
Koang broke into gleeful cries, chanting with relatives and proudly dancing at her son’s feet. James shifted between hysterical fits of sobs and moments of silence, when he just stopped still and stared straight ahead, lost in thought.
Even amid the joy, he was concerned. He was disabled now, like Koang, and not sure he could support his family. Gazing at her son lovingly, Koang assured him that the best way to eventually support them was to stay in school.
Rubbing his hand over his baby sister’s head, James cracked a smile.
“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.”