Napoleon Adok had no ordinary childhood. Forced out of his family home by war in the Sudan aged 10, he quickly became a sergeant major in a rebel army with a band of 200 children under his command as he fought alongside grown men on the front line. And although Adok, now aged 29, laid down his weapons long ago, he is still fighting, but this time he is defending the legal rights of children across the world to have a peaceful, normal childhood.
Looking at Adok now, it is hard to imagine what he has been through. Yet it is clear from what he says that, as painful as his past may be, he wants us to understand what happened to him so that this form of child abuse does not continue to affect children in the future.
“The more I talk about it, the freer I feel. It's like a release,” says Adok. “[Perhaps] I can give people the knowledge that will help them to decide to make changes.”
Adok arrived in the UK in 2000 from Sudan to study computer science at De Montfort University in Leicester. He is now developing a website and information network to keep Sudanese people across the world updated on the struggle to bring peace to their homeland. Perhaps more significantly, Adok is heavily involved in attempts by international organisations such as Unicef to persuade armies not to recruit soldiers under the age of 18, because it is “illegal and morally reprehensible”, according to Unicef head Carol Bellamy. In the last year alone, Adok has helped to demobilise 3,000 children from the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA), the rebel group he was once forced to join.
But part of the problem with the child soldier issue is that not all of them have been frogmarched into service. More than two million people have been killed by the war in Sudan, leaving an awful lot of orphans behind, and many of them join the army because they have nowhere else to go.
'There are children who've seen their parents killed in front of them, so they join the SPLA to get revenge on the government' – Napoleon Adok
“There are also children who've seen their parents attacked or killed in front of them and they are angry and horrified,” he adds. “So they join the SPLA to get revenge on the government that killed their parents.”
When he was 10, Adok became part of a group of children who left their homes when war broke out, with the aim of going in search of shelter and education at refugee camps.
“Because it wasn't the first war in Sudan, people didn't know when it would stop, or what to think about the future. My parents didn't want me to go,” he recalls. “And I regretted it when I got there. I wished I'd stayed at home.”
Along with a neighbour, Adok started off on a two-month trek to find the refugee camp and had to watch helplessly as people died of thirst or starvation on the way.
“Others were robbed by bandits and then the government tried to stop us from moving by bombing us. So it wasn't long before I wanted to turn back,” recalls Adok. “But we'd gone so far and I didn't know which direction to take. So I decided to stick with the people I'd come so far with and we all went through the suffering together.”
When Adok finally reached the camp, he was horrified to realise that it was a military camp run by the SPLA. “It was the biggest shock of my life,” he says. “A military camp was not my choice or interest. But we had no choice. We were trapped.”
While families with tiny children were kept together, adult men and young boys were separated and were trained as soldiers. “It was like a well-organised boarding school,” Adok recalls grimly. “The main difference was that we had to carry guns.”
'The SPLA was always very suspicious of the NGOs, but I managed to break the barrier because they knew me' – Napoleon Adok
Daily lessons included marching, jogging and learning to shoot; and because they were training to be soldiers – highly prized commodities in a country that has been at war for more than 20 years – Adok and his companions received better treatment, nicer food and were even allowed to go to school.
“But of course you had to pay for it [by going to war],” he adds, matter-of-factly. “And you did it because everyone else was doing it and looked quite happy with the idea.”
Despite their better treatment, life in the camp was still horrific. “People would be executed every morning,” he says. “Shot in front of their whole family.”
Because Adok was able to write his name and had a basic grasp of simple maths, he was quickly promoted to sergeant major and had a regiment of 200 children under his command.
“I was the youngest sergeant major but I was not the only child [in that position],” he emphasises. “I was young, but at least [the children] listened to what I said because I was the same age as them.”
After 90 days of intensive army training, the adult men were sent straight to the front line, while the children were sent off for more specialised training. Adok's particular field was explosives and communications, where he learned to plan landmine campaigns. Yet the children's expert status also helped to protect them as they were kept away from open combat and were only used as a “buffer force” in urgent situations.
Adok recalls that many of his colleagues regarded war as a game. “The prevalent attitude was that, if you hadn't gone to the front line, then you were useless. You were treated even better when you came back from the front line and some people were even sent off to Europe or China for an advanced education. So everyone was desperate to go and fight.”
Child soldiers in the UK?
Unicef UK is lobbying the UK Government to ratify an optional protocol to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which would oblige it to take “feasible measures” to end the deployment of under-18s as soldiers.
Although Prime Minister Tony Blair signed the optional protocol in September 2000, the Government submitted a declaration that reserved its right to deploy under-18s “in certain conditions”.
Unicef figures reveal that 9,000 under-18s were recruited into the UK armed forces between 1998-99, and the UK is the only country in Europe that still routinely sends under-18s into conflict zones.
Together with other members of the UK Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers, Unicef wants the UK Government to ratify the optional protocol without any reservations and ultimately to stop recruiting and using under-18s in the armed forces.
However, the Ministry of Defence has recently announced a set of proposals that would prevent under-18s from being deployed in conflict situations, although Unicef is still concerned about UK child soldiers who are not in active conflict.
But as more and more children returned from the front line either injured, disabled or dead, it began to dawn on Adok's youthful regiment that war was no game. “People under my command shot themselves in the hand or the foot so that they wouldn't have to go to war,” he recalls.
At one stage in the fighting, more soldiers were required and the entire group was shifted to the front line, where boys and men were expected to fight alongside one another as equals.
Children were also given high-profile positions of command within the SPLA simply because they had received more military training than many of the adult soldiers.
But at the start of the 1990s, the now 17-year-old Adok was devastated by the news that his brother had been killed in action. “I became very depressed and started to think about my family again,” he says sadly. “I was 17 and hadn't seen them since I was 10.”
As it was virtually impossible to leave the SPLA without being branded a deserter and shot, Adok arranged to be transferred to the Sudan Relief and Rehabilitation Association, the SPLA's medical corps, where he was employed as a bodyguard to a hospital-based commander who was rarely called to the front line.
“The doctor I worked for also inspired me to believe that there was a better life than being in the army,” says Adok proudly. “He treated me like a friend and told me not to carry my gun when I was with him because no one would shoot him anyway.”
Through other connections in the army hospitals, Adok got to hear about the humanitarian work of aid organisations such as World Vision and Unicef, and was also reunited with his parents for the first time in almost 10 years.
Using his SPLA connections to his advantage, Adok started to help raise awareness within the rebel army about their human rights profile and also helped to encourage the army to accept the UN's recommendations to demobilise the child soldiers in service.
As he recalls, one of the biggest hurdles was to convince the SPLA that releasing the under-18s was a positive step, rather than a way of decimating its forces.
“The SPLA was always very suspicious of the NGOs (non-governmental organisations), but I managed to break the barrier because they knew me,” he says. “The people I worked with when I was a child were now officers, so it was easier for me to convince them that I wasn't about to betray them.”
So far, demobilisation has only taken place in areas where the rebels are in control, and Adok admits that what has happened in southern Sudan has only scratched the surface of the problem.
“I've never been able to ask the Sudanese government [about the demobilisation of child soldiers], because to them I'm still an enemy. They may still be taking more and more children.”
But rehabilitating 3,000 freed child soldiers is not easy, as Adok readily admits. “Demobilisation is only the first step and there are only a limited amount of things we can do after it has taken place,” he explains. “We can ensure that they're not taken back into service and aren't exposed to direct danger, but we can't do anything about child care or education.”
While Adok must look back on his days in the SPLA with feelings of pain and sorrow, he attributes his interest in electronics and computers to his army days. “I'd never have thought that my landmine skills would come in useful,” he jokes.