BENTIU, UNITY STATE, (IRIN) – Michael David* has not had a normal childhood. In his 11 years he has been a child soldier and a street child, as well as one of the one million primary school children in Southern Sudan out of school. But his life may be taking a turn for the better:
“My mother was one of the many wives of my father. We lived in a home with many `tukhuls’ [huts] near Bentiu with my elder brother and the rest of the family. One day my mother left my father, who was very old, and took us to the home of another man who was her friend. I don’t know how old I was then but I had not started school.
“The man did not like my brother and me very much. We stayed there for some time. When I turned seven and my brother turned nine, he took us to the barracks and left us there. We had to do hard work there in order to get food and a place to sleep.
“As one of the youngest ones, my duty was cleaning guns and shining boots. After cleaning a gun, I would take it to a range to test it. That is how I learnt to be a soldier. I would even do spying duties, going ahead of the older soldiers and coming back to report what I had seen. Many people did not suspect I was a soldier.
“By then I was drinking alcohol and smoking.
“After about two years at the barracks, my brother and I could not stand the suffering; we often went without food and the older soldiers mistreated us. My brother convinced me and another boy that we should try to escape and we eventually did.
“We ended up in Bentiu. Together with my brother, we went to a home we knew belonged to a relative of my father. He agreed to house us and to take us to school. However, two months later, my relative left for Khartoum abruptly, leaving us in the house. Soon we were chased out of the house by the landlord. We stayed out in the streets, scavenging for food during the day and returning to sleep outside our neighbour’s house.
“Last year, a social worker found me in the street and spoke to me about rehabilitation. She tried to take me back home but they sent me away because my mother was no longer there. I was taken to a drop-off [rehabilitation] centre where I stayed for three months. The social worker said they would look for a foster family to take me in. One was identified and I was supposed to stay with the family but they were mean to me. They sold my school uniform and books. So I left and returned to the street.
“Early this year, my social worker took me in and ensured I enrolled in school. Now I am in Primary Two. I like school very much. I was told another family would be identified, probably a relative, who would be supported to keep me in school.
“For the time being, I am happy to live with my social worker; I eat well and sleep well and I go to school every day. One day I hope to study abroad, especially in Kenya, then later come back home to become a teacher. If I don’t become a teacher, I would like to become a big general in the army.
“Returning to school has helped me quit drinking and sniffing glue. I am still trying to stop smoking cigarettes though.”
*not his real name