September 30, 2019 (WAU) – The United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) conducted a joint verification mission to the Ngo-Halima base of South Sudan’s main opposition army (SPLA-IO) last week to identify and remove soldiers from within their ranks.
- Children in South Sudan. (Photo UNMISS/Ilya Medvedev)
“I was only 11 years old when I joined,” said 15-year-old Rodolf Joseph told UNMISS.
“My duties in the army ranged from domestic chores like fetching water to collecting firewood and cooking and cleaning for senior military officers, as well as taking part in combat,” he added.
Strife between various ethnic groups in the greater Wau area led to violent conflict in 2016, forcing Joseph to flee his native village of Gedi and go into hiding.
Fortunately, Joseph won’t need to hide anymore. He will soon be returning home to enjoy the life a child his age should be doing, thanks to verification and reintegration programme spearheaded by the peacekeeping mission’s Child Protection Unit and dedicated to finding and releasing children associated with armed groups.
“I have heard that the security situation in my village has improved, and I am excited to go back to be with family and continue my education,” he said.
Like Joseph, 17-year-old Andrea Musa was identified as a child within the opposition ranks, and will shortly be making his homecoming as well.
“In 2017, I was forced to leave my village of Agoke because of fighting between cattle herders and farmers,” Musa said. “I left in tears. But today, I felt very happy to learn that I will have the opportunity to reunite with my friends,” he explained.
The efforts to reintegrate children into the home communities were welcomed by senior military officials, who also underscored the importance of access to psychological counselling, vocational training, formal education and other forms of social assistance to make the transition successful.
“Everything must be done to ensure that returning to the bush is no longer an option for these children,” stressed Gen. Arkangelo Njofo.
In September 2018, government and opposition forces signed a peace agreement prohibiting “recruitment and/or use of child soldiers by armed forces or militia in contravention of international conventions.”
The two sides have also signed several other related documents and agreed on a national action plan to buttress that commitment.
However, through its release and reintegration programme, UNMISS and partners have reportedly facilitated the process of singling out and extracting illegally recruited children throughout the country and finding them the support they need to restart their lives.
“It is crucial that humanitarian actors and peace partners regularly follow up to see that these children are getting what they need to lead a good life and become responsible citizens and professionals,” said Erasmus Ndemole Migyikra, an UNMISS child protection officer.
“The younger generation will be key to rebuilding the social fabric of this country and saving it from collapsing,” he added.
According to the UN Children Fund (UNICEF) at least 3,143 children have been released from armed forces and armed groups in South Sudan since the country’s civil war started in December 2013.
But while exact data on the number of children used and recruited into armed conflict are difficult to confirm because of the unlawful nature of child recruitment, UNICEF estimates tens of thousands of boys and girls under 18 are used in conflicts worldwide.