South Sudan: The Future Of Child Soldiers

As South Sudan’s civil war rages on, thousands of innocent children are being unwillingly converted into soldiers. This year alone, almost 1300 Sudanese children have been recruited to join the fight, UNICEF reports. However, since the conflict erupted in late 2013, an estimated 17,000 children have been abducted and conscripted to fight in one of Sudan’s bloodiest conflicts.

In the three years since the beginning of the civil war between supporters of President Salava Kirr and those of former Vice President Riek Machar, tens of thousands of civilians have been killed and a further 3 million displaced. As the conflict continues to unfold, it seems that a ceasefire is unlikely. 

“As the fighting intensifies – and despite repeated pledges by all to end child recruitment – children are once again being targeted,” reports UNICEF’s regional director for eastern and southern Africa, Leila Gharagozloo-Pakkala.

Despite a peace deal in August 2015, in which the UN Security Council imposed sanctions on commanders recruiting children, there has been little success in decreasing the number of child soldiers. Instead, both the army and the rebels have allegedly continued to recruit children as young as seven to take up arms. “Commanders have deliberately and brutally recruited and used children to fight, in total disregard for their safety and South Sudan’s law,” said Daniele Bekele, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “South Sudan authorities should call a halt to the massive recruitment and use of children in this conflict, which deepens the decades-old patterns of abuse.”

In addition to forced conscription, children are also at risk of being sexually abused or even killed. Since 2013, UNICEF has reported 1,130 cases of children being sexually assaulted, 2,342 incidents of children being killed or maimed, and 303 military attacks on schools or hospitals.

The Human Rights Watch has pleaded with the rebels and army alike to stop recruiting child soldiers. “While nothing can erase the damage done to these boys’ lives, South Sudanese authorities have a responsibility to end child soldiering and military use of schools,” Bekele said. “This means taking action, starting with punishing those who have committed violations.”

The issue of child soldiers is not isolated to South Sudan, however. It is estimated that, amongst the 87 war-torn countries for which data has been recorded, up to 500,000 children are currently conscripted as child soldiers. These children commit heinous acts at the hands of their oppressors. Children are forced to kill their own families, torch their own neighbourhoods and even work as sex slaves. More often than not, commanders drug the children to remove them of their moral conscience until it no longer remains.

The question is this: once the conflict ceases, the killing ends, and the peace treaties are signed, what is to become of these child soldiers? The end of a war can neither miraculously end their sorrow nor relieve them of their memories on the battlefield. These children often remain plagued by the atrocities of war and develop serious mental health issues, many of which cannot be remedied.

In a study published in the journal Child Development, a group of 330 former child soldiers from Uganda were analysed in attempts to understand the effects of war on children soldiers. The children exhibited exceedingly high rates of post-traumatic stress and depression, with over two thirds of the sample demonstrating emotional and/or behavioural problems. The studies also showed that the remaining third of participants without lasting mental health disorders tended to be younger and often returned to low-violence communities with adequate emotional support and acceptance.

This study is perhaps a recovery guide for child soldiers. Rather than assume that the end of war will create peace of mind, child soldiers must be treated and supported along the road to emotional and physical recovery.

Theresa Betancourt, assistant professor in the Department of Global Health and Population at Harvard, says “We need to devise lasting systems of care, instead of leaving behind a dust cloud that disappears when the humanitarian actors leave.”

UNICEF is one of the principal actors providing the necessary care and support that these former child soldiers require. For many children, their first experience of normality after the war is at a UNICEF transitory center. Here, children stay for 3 months as they receive individual counseling and learn how to reintegrate into the community and establish their own sense of autonomy.

So what happens when a child’s three month stay comes to an end? Often, UNICEF will attempt to reunify children with their families. Once reunified, the children “will receive assistance to go back to school, undertake vocational training, or start small income-generating activities,” UNICEF said. 

While three months seems like an awfully short time to receive effective counseling and begin the healing process, UNICEF and other similar organisations simply don’t have the funds to provide long-lasting support and treatment. “Effective rehabilitation is extremely expensive and takes a long time,” explains Dr Alexander Butchart, in the Department of Violence and Injury Prevention and Disability at the World Health Organization.

Despite the short stay, the progress that many of these children make throughout this time is immensely positive. Whilst it may take several years for these children to come to terms with their wartime experiences, programs like UNICEF’s transitory centers are assisting children on their road to recovery and providing a future of nonviolence, peace and, most importantly, hope.