Christmas Appeal: Sudan's child army returns to classroom

After Africa's longest civil war, schools need help to train more teachers
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Now, after a peace agreement brought the fighting between the Sudanese government and the rebel Sudanese People's Liberation Army (SPLA) to a jittery end this summer, Ephphatha echoes to new sounds - gaggles of children in matching green uniforms reading from blackboards in classes of 120 or more.

The thirst for knowledge is no more clear than on 10 faces that stick out from the crowd at Ephphatha, a ramshackle temple of learning consisting of three windowless mud brick classrooms circled around a baobab tree. Since the arrival of peace, the school has received an influx of new pupils, each roughly twice the size and twice the age of the rest - so large that they barely squeeze on to the rickety child-sized benches. They are child soldiers, forced recruits of the SPLA and government militias.

Among them is Yeobo. In his class of 10-year-olds, he stands out like a sore thumb. It is not just his height (6ft 2in) and age (19) that sets him apart His sombre countenance and silence during lessons is in stark contrast to the smiley faces and infectious giggles erupting around him. Yeobo has little to smile about: six years ago, aged 13, he was kidnapped from his village by the SPLA, trained to use a Kalashnikov and sent into the bush to kill forces sent by the mainly Arab and Islamic government of the north.

Speaking in a low voice, the child fighter, who was orphaned at the age of eight, said: "We were taught just to think of them as the enemy. They were out to kill us so we had to kill them first. That is what we were told. One day I was in a fight with the government army in the bush. I killed one soldier. After the fighting finished I went to look at the man I had killed but I saw he was a boy. He was younger than me. I shot him in the head. He reminded me of my brother. I started to cry. My officer told me to stop or he would shoot me."

Two million people lost their lives in the civil war between African Christians and animists in the south and Muslim Arabs in the north. The death toll includes an estimated 50,000 child soldiers, press-ganged like Yeobo to serve in roles from cook to front-line soldier in what one rebel leader described as an "unfortunate necessity of war". The UN estimates that at the time of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement, which granted autonomy to a new government of southern Sudan ahead of a referendum on independence in 2011, there were still 7,000 youth combatants on both sides.

Yeobo said: "I was sick of it all. I ran away from my unit even though I knew if they caught me the punishment would be death. I came back to Juba because I wanted to learn. I lost so much time. That is why I must learn with children much younger than me."

Some of the teenage combatants have been taken into UN-funded programmes. But places are limited and the remainder take their seats in schools like Ephphatha, a self-funded community school where parents pay an annual fee equivalent to £15. The school is supported by Education Action International - one of the three charities being supported by this year's Independent Christmas appeal - which helps to train teachers and set up community schools where none are being provided.

Silaya Erasto, the headteacher of Ephphatha school, said: "Our philosophy is to try to heal the scars in our society. The 'man-children' like Yeobo have seen things that no adult should and yet within they are still children. We are reintegrating them, so it is right that they should sit together with the younger children and learn together."

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