300 Child Soldiers Released In South Sudan

300 Child Soldiers Released In South Sudan.

More than 300 child soldiers, including 87 girls, have been freed by armed groups in South Sudan, according to the UN. At a ceremony in Yambio, in the south-western state of Gbudue, the children were formally disarmed and provided with civilian clothes. A total of 311 child soldiers were released, the largest number freed in the country for three years. The move was hailed as an important first move towards the release of tens of thousands of child soldiers believed to be fighting in the country’s civil war. It is expected that about 700 children will be liberated in the weeks ahead, as part of a process that stalled when fighting intensified in 2016. “This is a crucial step in achieving our ultimate goal of having all of the thousands of children still in the ranks of armed groups reunited with their families,” said Mahimbo Mdoe, South Sudan representative for Unicef, the UN children’s agency. “It is the largest release of children in nearly three years, and it is vital that negotiations continue, so there are many more days like this.” The South Sudan National Liberation Movement released 215 children, with the remaining 96 freed by the Sudan People’s Liberation Army.

The children will be given medical screenings, as well as counselling and psychosocial support, as part of a reintegration programme implemented by Unicef and other aid groups. Those with relatives in the area will be reunited with their families, who will receive three months of food assistance to support their reintegration; others will be placed in interim care centres until their families can be traced. The children will also receive vocational training. “Not all children are forcibly recruited. Many joined armed groups because they feel they had no other option,” said Mdoe. “Our priority for this group – and for children across South Sudan – is to provide the support they need so they can see a more promising future.” Special attention will be given to the young women and girls, who are likely to have suffered sexual abuse so that they can rejoin their communities without the stigma associated with such abuse. “We are particularly concerned about a number of the girls being released who have experienced sexual or gender-based violence,” said Mesfin Loha, national director of World Vision South Sudan. “We will get them the support they require so that they have a sense of hope again.”

Negotiations to release the children have been carried out by Unicef, state and local authorities, and local groups. The UN Mission in South Sudan said it had provided peacekeeping troops to escort religious leaders into remote bush areas to make contact and negotiate with armed groups. This week, Human Rights Watch accused parties to the South Sudan conflict of failing to honour promises to demobilise and release to Unicef all recruited or enlisted children by the end of January 2018. The organisation found commanders from government forces and warring parties have been abducting, detaining and forcing children as young as 13 into their ranks since the signing of a peace agreement in August 2015. Unicef estimates that an estimated 19,000 children continue to serve as child soldiers, more than four years after the civil war broke out in December 2013.

Victor, 15, who was among the children released on Wednesday, told how he was abducted and forced to be an informant for an armed group for more than a year. “They told me to go near the road, and if I heard the sound of a car coming, I went and reported it. Then they would come and take the car. They would shoot at it [and] they would burn it. The people inside the cars would sometimes escape and run. Other times they would be killed,” he said. UN said it was involved in projects to release child soldiers in Morobo, Bentiu and Pibor – where 315 have been verified and registered so far – in the coming months.

Credit: Karen McVeigh for The Guardian, 8 February 2018.