Tucked away in a walled patch of dirt on the outskirts of Laiza -- a small town in northern Burma under the control of rebel fighters from the Kachin ethnic group -- eight children sit in olive fatigues and football shirts, chain-smoking cigarettes. Their hacking coughs, slow movements, and blank stares camouflage their real ages.
The group of boys, all between 13 and 16 years old, come from the most recent wave of child soldiers to defect from the Burmese army, fleeing from their own outposts and emerging from the land-mined jungle to surrender to rebel fighters from the Kachin Independence Army (KIA). The war has continued despite a series of government peace overtures to other rebel groups.
Despite assurances this year from the ruling junta that it is cleaning up its act in a bid to see Western sanctions lifted, recruitment of child soldiers remains rampant. This month, the British newspaper The Independent revealed that in the first three months of 2012 alone, the U.N. verified 24 instances of children being coerced to enlist -- the equivalent of two a week.
In return for cigarettes, the boys in Laiza share stories of how they were duped by army recruiters into signing up for service. Along the way they were forced to forge their own birth certificates, thereby erasing their identities and falsifying their ages to buffer the numbers in Burma's struggling military.
"We were on our way back from the cinema when soldiers saw us and followed," said Nay Myo Oo, a 14-year-old who was living in the south of the country. "They asked us why we weren't at school. Later, they came with trucks and picked us up. They said we would be paid, took us to a building, and forced us to sign a statement saying we were older than 18."
Overnight, Nay Myo Oo went from schoolboy to soldier, finding himself caught in a dusty, hot camp where boys suffered routine beatings and fought each other for food. Of the thirty boys he trained with, some, he says, were just eleven years old.
"They had mostly been abandoned by their parents," he said, "but others were just picked up from the streets. Talking at the camp was forbidden. If we made a mistake while cleaning our guns or during physical training, they would beat us with a bamboo stick or slap our faces."