Over two hundred child soldiers have been freed in South Sudan last week. At the “laying down of the guns” release ceremony, 112 boys and 95 girls were returned to their communities. This was the first community release of child soldiers where children could directly return to their families, instead of going first to institutions. The release was supported by the United Nations International Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and marks the second phase of the overall program, which will see more than 1,000 children return back to their families in the coming months. According to the United Nations (UN), 19,000 children continue to be used by armed groups in South Sudan alone. This release comes weeks before a third round of peace talks, which will take place at the end of the month in Ethiopia.
Mahimbo Mdoe, UNICEF Representative in South Sudan, welcomed the release and said that “UNICEF, United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) and government partners have negotiated tirelessly with parties to the conflict so as to enable this release of children…for every child released, today marks the start of a new life. We are proud to support these children as they return to their families and start to build a brighter future.” David Shearer, the Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General for South Sudan, said, “children should not be carrying guns and killing each other. They should be playing, learning, having fun with friends, protected and cherished by the adults around them.” Even though the release of the children last week represents a relatively major success, 19,000 South Sudanese children remain enlisted in military conflicts, an astounding and disgraceful number.
For more than five years, South Sudan has been in a constant state of conflict and civil war. South Sudan is the world’s youngest nation and has the greatest number of child soldiers of any country. Over the last few years, soldiers in favour of President Salva Kiir clashed with opposing forces, favouring his expelled vice president Riek Machar. The conflict between the two ethnic groups led to the killing of thousands of civilians and millions of people being displaced. Since the civil war in 2013, thousands of children have been forced to join armed groups by both sides in the South Sudan National Liberation Movement (SSNLP), and the Sudan People’s Liberation Army-In Opposition (SLPA).
Recent research from Child Soldiers International illustrated the horrific situations a child soldier is likely to encounter, including forced murder, rape, cannibalism, and spying on neighbours and family. The released children of last week will be provided food for three months, vocational training, and psychosocial support to help reintegrate them into their communities; however, the goal of rehabilitation remains elusive. For some aid groups, this short-term “emergency intervention” is not enough to keep children from going back to the armed groups. Samantha Nutt, founder of War Child U.S.A. rightly points out that “demobilization and disarmament rarely stick while war is still going on.” She stresses that there needs to be long-term help from the international community, otherwise many children will be “back in the bush fighting again a year from now.”
The multitude of attempts at disarmament have continuously proven unsuccessful, and the prospects of ending the civil war any time soon remains bleak. A ceasefire was signed last December however, it was broken within hours and a second round of peace talks proved inconclusive. At the end of this month, there will be further peace talks in Ethiopia between several opposition groups and the government. According to Anne Hadjixros, a child protection officer with UNICEF, “If peace isn’t sustained and people are forced to the bush, we’ll lose these children,” a view that should be the focus of future peace talks.
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