Playing With Toy Soldiers: Lessons From South Sudan


Running through the fertile grasslands of Pibor in eastern South Sudan, children play football, or soccer, with one another. Almost a year ago, those same children had traded their sports jerseys for weapons and ammunition, and were forced to work as soldiers for the militant Cobra Faction. The Faction, an eastern opposition militia, had actively adopted poor, young children into its ranks in order to effectively combat government troops encroaching on local communities.

South Sudan is one of the youngest countries in the world, having claimed its independence from Sudan in 2011. Yet its path to successful statehood has been far from perfect. As the Brookings Institute suggested in 2014, though South Sudan boasts massive oil deposits and extractable precious metals, the country has suffered from major instability and civil conflict since its inception. Corrupt government administrations have exploited these natural resources, pillaging and destroying local communities that demand territorial sovereignty over the oil fields. In response to this state-sanctioned violence, militia groups like the Cobra Faction are borrowing young children from neighboring schools in order to fight back. And despite the child soldiers’ initial willingness to actively oppose government abuses, their commitment to the militant cause quickly waned – but this didn’t matter. According to reports from the United Nations, almost 18,000 child combatants have been forcibly recruited in South Sudan over the past four years.

International organizations, namely the United Nations, have spearheaded efforts to end the recruitment of child soldiers for oppositionist military campaigns. After civil war first broke out in South Sudan, UN development programs created initiatives to incentivise child soldiers to relinquish their weapons and rejoin civilian life. Though these efforts were initially successful, many children reverted back to militant life, citing the failure of development programs to provide economic and resource security to families in local communities. Though the UN remains steadfast in its commitment to reduce the number of children on battlefields, its execution of development programs does little to promote peace and long-term stability in South Sudan.

The actions taken by the UN reflect a willingness of the international community to protect children from war atrocities, but the solvency of these development programs hangs in the balance. However, the UN isn’t the only international agency that can help alleviate the suffering of the South Sudanese people. International non-governmental organizations like Grassroots Empowerment and Development Organization (GREDO) that are sponsored by the UN have been able to make marginal improvements to infrastructure and water sanitation facilities in Pibor villages. Strategies to cut off recruitment into the Cobra Faction are an effective way to stop the mass murder of child soldiers, but brokering peace agreements between the government and opposition groups requires international cooperation. Powerful countries like the United States, have the necessary diplomatic and financial capital to mediate – or at the very least mitigate -the conflict. Therefore, it is imperative that countries like such be the effectual actor they have the capability to be in tackling the root of the issue.

Ultimately, however, until robust solutions emerge in the international sphere, South Sudanese child soldiers will continue to bear arms and will likely also bear the scars of what they’ve seen – and of what they’ve done.

Tanya Mahadwar