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South Sudan’s former child soldiers struggle to move on

by Ace Damon
South Sudan's former child soldiers struggle to move on

YAMBIO, South Sudan (AP) – When he escaped from the armed group that had kidnapped him at 15, the child soldier swore he would never return. But the teenager from South Sudan is still considering returning to the bush six months after the United Nations secured his release.

"Being asked to kill someone is the hardest thing," he told the Associated Press, speaking on condition of anonymity for his safety.

And yet the army offered him a kind of stability he still needs to find outside of him. "I had everything, bedding and clothes, just stealing what I needed … here, I didn't get what I expected," he said.

He lives with his family, adrift, waiting to participate in a UN-sponsored work skills program, struggling to forget his past.

There are an estimated 19,000 child soldiers in South Sudan, one of the highest rates in the world, according to the UN. When the country emerges from a five-year civil war that killed nearly 400,000 people and displaced millions, some fear the fighting may return. -It means if former child soldiers are not properly reintegrated into society.

"Without further support, the consequence is that the children will go to the barracks, where there is social connection, food and something to do," said William Deng Deng, chairman of South Sudan's National Demobilization and Reintegration Commission. "They will plunder and invade and this will start to create insecurity. "

Since the conflict began in 2013, the UN children's agency has facilitated the release of more than 3,200 child soldiers from government and opposition forces.

However, even after a peace agreement was signed a year ago, the forced recruitment rate of child soldiers on both sides of the conflict is rising, the UN Human Rights Commission in South Sudan said in a statement earlier Of this month.

"Ironically, the prospect of a peace deal has accelerated the forced recruitment of children, with several groups now seeking to increase their numbers before relocating to the cantonment sites," commission chairwoman Yasmin Sooka said. Under the peace agreement, the government and opposition were to have 41,500 soldiers trained and unified into a national army.

Children who leave armed groups often struggle to adapt.

The PA followed several child soldiers out of 121 released in February. Many have said they are still haunted by the past, unable to talk about their experiences for fear of being stigmatized and often unable to control their anger.

"Whenever I think of the bush, even playing soccer, I want to stop and grab something and hit my friends," said a 13-year-old boy. The PA is not using the names of former child soldiers to protect their identities.

Kidnapped by gunmen at age 11, he worked as a spy for an opposition group and was sometimes forced to witness and participate in horrible acts. He watched a soldier kill a child for refusing to do his homework, and was forced to burn down a house, burning everyone alive inside.

"I hear those people screaming in my dreams," he said.

Once released, the former child soldiers receive a three-month reintegration package, including food and the opportunity for educational and psychosocial support. However, the system is overloaded and underfunded.

"It's a lot of work. Sometimes I can only spend 15-20 minutes with each child," said Joseph Ndepi, World Vision social worker who supports 46 children.

Many families do not know how to cope with their children's behavioral change upon return.

"When he left, he was so hard he beat the children, and when our mother tried to intervene, he attacked her," said a 16-year-old child about his older brother. The two children were kidnapped and released from armed groups at the same time.

While the girl wanted to forget the past, her brother tried to relive it.

At night he sneaked out and ambushed to see how close he was to stealing people's property without being caught, the 17-year-old said. From the beginning of therapy, he interrupted his evening excursions and controlled his temper.

Part of the children's behavior is related to their power in the army, said Kutiote Justin, a social worker with the Catholic Medical Mission Board, an international aid group. A former child soldier he works with insists on calling himself "the commander."

Lack of resources for reintegration can hamper long-term care.

About 420 children attended vocational courses to learn professions such as welding, carpentry and tailoring, but it is not clear whether there will be enough funding to continue last December.

Almost $ 5 million is needed over the next two years, but currently only $ 500,000 is available, according to UNICEF.

"Donors are not funding the way they used to and now there is potentially an even greater need," said spokesman Yves Willemot. And more child soldiers are expected to be released in the near future, he said.

The government of South Sudan is not investing in the reintegration of child soldiers, according to the National Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration Commission. The hope is that once a unity government is formed in mid-November, an essential part of the peace agreement, the international community will be more inclined to contribute.

But the peace agreement is full of delays and questionable political will. The government has not committed the $ 100 million it has pledged to the peace process, and key elements such as unified army training have not yet been realized.

Meanwhile, families whose children have returned from fighting are doing their best to prevent them from leaving again.

In August, the 17-year-old felt lonely, so he packed his bags and went into the woods. He reached the main road before his family's words echoed in his head.

"Stay with your people, don't go there," he said, remembering their advice. "Just stay here in peace."

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