SOUTH SUDAN: Child soldiers released following deal with state and rebels

[27 January 2015] - Three thousand South Sudanese children recruited as soldiers during the violence that has beset the young country in recent years are to hand over their guns and return home as part of one of the largest ever demobilisations of children.

Some of the children, who are aged between eleven and seventeen, have been fighting for four years and many have never been to school. 

In the past year, 12,000 children - most of them boys - have been used as soldiers by armed groups as South Sudan collapsed further into ethnic violence and civil war.

On Tuesday, 280 boys were released from the ranks of the South Sudan Democratic Army (SSDA) Cobra Faction and handed over to the UN children’s agency, UNICEF, in the village of Gumuruk in Jonglei State, eastern South Sudan.

The rebel faction, which is led by David Yau Yau and based on the Murle ethnic group, has been in revolt against the government of president Salva Kiir since 2010.

In a ceremony overseen by the South Sudan national disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration commission and the SSDA and supported by UNICEF, the boys gave up their weapons and uniforms. The rest of the children will be released in batches over the next few weeks.

The organisation said it believed no girls have been gun-carrying soldiers but the agency is yet to determine whether they have been used in other roles.

The boys told UNICEF they are looking forward to laying down their weapons and getting an education.

“I know what it is like to be a soldier and it is so dirty,” said one. “I just want to go to school.”

Another child said he felt too small to be a soldier. “See my size and the size of the gun. It is not good.”

Another told UNICEF: “Please hurry up with the schools or our minds will go back to Cobra.”

According to UNICEF, the children were not recruited at gunpoint or forced to commit serious human rights violations. Most seem to have been recruited to protect their communities and families, with many saying they had joined the faction to defend the Murles from discrimination by central government. 

Jonathan Veitch, UNICEF's South Sudan representative, said the children had been forced to see and do things no child should ever have to experience, adding: “The release of thousands of children requires a massive response to provide the support and protection these children need to begin rebuilding their lives.”

UNICEF said the release heralded the start of “one of the largest ever demobilisations of children”. It is providing those released with food, water, clothes and medical help, and establishing psychological support programmes to prepare them for the return to their families. Moves to trace their relatives are under way and the agency hopes to get them home within three months.

As well as providing access to education and skills training programmes, Unicef is working with a further 3,000 boys and girls in the communities into which the child soldiers will be released to reduce discrimination and prevent future recruitment.

“The successful reintegration of these children back into their communities depends on a timely, coordinated response to meet their immediate and long-term needs,” said Veitch.

Such programmes, he added, required “significant resources”; Unicef puts the costs for the release and reintegration of each child at around $2,330 for two years.

It has so far received $1.8m from the Ikea Foundation and is appealing for an additional $10m in support. Other donors include the EU, and the UK and German national committees for UNICEF.

South Sudan, which won independence from its northern neighbour in 2011, has been in a state of civil war since December 2013, when Kiir accused his vice-president, Riek Machar, of plotting to overthrow him.

The violence has once again pitted South Sudan’s two largest ethnic groups against each other, with many Nuers taking up arms in support of Machar and many Dinkas backing Kiir. A Human Rights Watch report published last August said both sides had committed “extraordinary acts of cruelty” that amounted to war crimes.

Tens of thousands are thought to have died in the fighting, which has displaced 1.5 million people internally and forced another 480,000 to flee to neighbouring countries. Although a much-feared famine was averted last year, the UN estimates 3.9 million people will face food insecurity in South Sudan in 2015, with 2.5 million becoming “severely” food insecure.


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