I felt a shiver run down my spine as I watched around 200 children lay down their weapons in a ceremony to mark their release from armed groups. The children, some as young as 10 years old, have been fighting with two different armed groups in South Sudan. Among those released were 112 boys and 95 girls.
While they are no longer soldiers, they are not yet children. For many, the experience of taking up weapons or being coerced into sex with commanders, has taken away their childhood.
Our team spoke with one young girl, Marie*, who told us that she had been abducted by armed men on her way to collect water, and was forced to serve in the group for around three years. They trained her on how to fire a gun, and made her go on missions to ambush people, steal goods, and even to kill people. One of the memories that haunts her the most is when the armed group captured a family; they forced the mother to kill her own children, then the father to kill the mother. Finally, they made Marie shoot the father. She cried as she recalled this story.
Different children have different experiences. They do not always carry weapons, some are used as informants, or forced to do chores like cooking, cleaning and fetching water. No matter what their role, no child should be exposed to such horrors, or forced to be a part of any type of conflict or violence. Yet today, around 19,000 children across South Sudan are serving in the ranks of armed groups.
Marie* was among 207 children who were released at a ceremony in Yambio this week. This is the second in a series of releases, supported by UNICEF, that will see around 1,000 children released in early 2018.
Children symbolically lay down their weapons and handed their uniforms in to their commanders. They receive a range of “reintegration” support, including medical screening, psychosocial support, and schooling. Children whose families are being located are cared for at an Interim Care Centre until they can be reunited. Once children return to their families and communities they continue to receive support, including food assistance and vocational training, aimed at improving household income and food security.
The release of these children marks a turning point in their lives, and restores hope for a brighter future throughout the country. For 207 children, it the start of a new life. While there are some scars that will never heal, the process of settling back in to the community can begin. When we spoke to Marie* about what she wants to do now she has been released, she said she wants to go to school, so one day she can become president and make a law so no child is ever forced to fight.
* Names have been changed to protect the identities of children
Mahimbo Mdoe is the Representative at UNICEF South Sudan.