NAIROBI, Dec 8 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Former child soldiers in South Sudan said they took up arms to defend themselves after being beaten and almost drowned by government soldiers, and they might return to the battlefield if their lives do not improve, a UNICEF ambassador said.
Ishmael Beah, who was forced to fight in Sierra Leone's civil war when he was 13 and later became a United Nations Children's Fund goodwill ambassador, recently met hundreds of children who left South Sudan's rebel Cobra Faction in restive Jonglei State earlier this year.
The children said that "SPLA soldiers would beat them up severely," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation, referring to government forces.
"They would even take them to the river and put their heads in the river and try to drown them and kind of waterboard them in the river and ask them: 'Are you part of this fighting group? Where is your weapon?'"
"Some of them went to join (the Cobra Faction) because they were tired of being beaten all the time," he cited the children as telling him.
Waterboarding, or simulated drowning, was controversially used by United States military interrogators under President George W. Bush to extract information from suspected militants.
SPLA spokesman Philip Aguer denied the allegations and said the army respected children's rights.
"It was David Yau Yau who recruited them," he said, referring to the leader of the Cobra Faction, one of several militias that have taken up arms against South Sudan's government, which gained independence from Khartoum in 2011.
"They were recruited in the village where there is no government, there is no SPLA."
Since signing a peace deal in 2014, the Cobra Faction has handed over 1,755 child soldiers, the largest ever release of child fighters in the world's youngest nation.
UNICEF says some 16,000 children have been recruited by armed groups since civil war erupted in 2013, following fighting in the capital, Juba, between soldiers allied to President Salva Kiir and those loyal to his former deputy, Riek Machar.
A peace deal was signed in August but the two sides have repeatedly accused each other of violations.
Many of the children Beah met in Pibor, capital of Jonglei State, told him they chose to join the rebels.
"Their community was being harassed and people beaten, shot, killed, all kinds of violence," Beah said. "Being part of an army was a way to actually survive."
When Yau Yau rebelled in 2010, many young men rallied behind his call for an end to the marginalisation of their Murle ethnic group by the more numerous Dinka and Nuer.
UNICEF is trying to reunite the children with their families and provide education, medical and psychological support, but their future is bleak.
Children of various ages crowded five to a desk in the newly built schools, Beah said. Many were orphans.
"If they are left just to their own devices... the only choice that will be left, probably, is to join again," he said.
He also met children carrying weapons who chose to remain within the Cobra Faction, now part of the SPLA.
"They told me they didn't want to come out yet because they didn't see anything for them in terms of opportunities out of the army - even to be able to eat," Beah said.
"They don't want to fight. But their government is not providing any alternative that's really strong enough."
One in five of South Sudan's 11 million people have fled their homes as a result of the civil war, often hiding in the bush without bednets, food, water or medical care.
(Reporting by Katy Migiro, editing by Tim Pearce. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, corruption and climate change. Visit www.trust.org)
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