By Deng Machol
Juba – Over 200 child soldiers were released by armed groups in war – torn South Sudan on Tuesday at Bakiwiri, about an hour’s drive from Yambio city, in Western Equatoria State, says UNICEF press release.
This was the second release of children in a series, supported by UNICEF that will see almost 1,000 children released from the ranks of armed groups in the coming months.
At the event, the child soldiers dressed in military or police uniforms marched in a symbolic military parade, then laid down their weapons and removed their fatigues, as instructed by a commanding officer. They replaced their uniforms with U.N. Mission in South Sudan-issued T-shirts emblazoned with the hashtag, “Children are not soldiers.”
The first release of children took place in Yambio Town in early February, where more than 300 children were released to return to their families, or to UNICEF-supported care centers.
This latest release of a further 207 children (112 boys, 95 girls) as continues effort to free a child soldiers from armed groups across the country. That mean more than 500 children were released since started of 2018.
Some of the children released were abducted by the rebel South Sudan Liberation Movement, or SSLM. Others were kidnapped by SPLM (Sudan People’s Liberation Movement) In Opposition rebels and were forced into military service.
“No child should ever have to pick up a weapon and fight” said Mahimbo Mdoe, UNICEF’s Representative in South Sudan in the press statement. “For every child released, today marks the start of a new life. UNICEF is proud to support these children as they return to their families and start to build a brighter future.”
During the ceremony, the children were formally disarmed and provided with civilian clothes. Medical screenings will now be carried out, and children will receive counselling and psychosocial support as part of the reintegration programme, which is implemented by UNICEF and partners.
UNICEF says “when the children return to their homes, their families will be provided with three months’ worth of food assistance to support their initial reintegration. The children will also be provided with vocational training aimed at improving household income and food security. Being unable to support themselves economically can be a key factor in children becoming associated with armed groups.”
In addition to services related to livelihoods, UNICEF and partners will ensure the released children have access to age-specific education services in schools and accelerated learning centres.
“UNICEF, UNMISS and government partners have negotiated tirelessly with parties to the conflict so as to enable this release of children” said Mr. Mdoe. “But the work does not stop here. The reintegration process is a delicate one and we must now ensure the children have all the support they need to make a success of their lives.”
An upsurge of fighting in July 2016 stalled the original plans to release children, but momentum is now building for further releases in the future.
Despite this progress, the U.N. Children’s Fund estimates that some 19,000 South Sudanese children are still being serving in the ranks of armed forces and groups across the country. So long as the recruitment and use of children by armed groups continues, these groups fail on their commitment to uphold the rights of children under international law.
As peace talks resume and the future of the transitional government is debated, UNICEF urges all parties to the conflict to end the recruitment of children and to release all children in their ranks.
South Sudan descended into violence in December 2013, after political dispute between President Salva Kiir and his former deputy Riek Machar led to fighting mostly between Dinka ethnic soldiers loyal to Kiir against Machar’s Nuer ethnic group.
The 2015 peace agreement to end the violence was again violated in July 2016 when the rival factions resumed fighting in the capital, Juba, forcing Machar to flee.
The conflict has killed tens of thousands of people and displaced millions that have sought refuge in neighboring countries.
UNICEF South Sudan requires US$45 million to support release, demobilization and reintegration of 19,000 children over the next three years.