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In Southern Sudan, 250 demobilized child soldiers trade weapons for textbooks

© UNICEF Sudan/2006/Bowers
A group of boys who were among about 250 child soldiers demobilized in the village of Khorfulus, Jonglei State, Southern Sudan.
By Debra Bowers

KHORFULUS, Jonglei State, Sudan, 25 April 2006 – "We are determined to demobilize all child soldiers this year," announced Executive Director Benjamin Gimba of the Southern Sudan Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration  Commission at a gathering here today.

About 250 children associated with a local armed group had been demobilized just before the announcement. The landmark event was the biggest of its kind since the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement, which commits the Sudan People's Liberation Movement/Army and the Government of Sudan to child demobilization throughout the country.

Local officials, military officers, parents, religious leaders and UN representatives attended the two-hour ceremony. After a final parade, the children handed over their weapons and uniforms and received a set of second-hand clothes along with textbooks from the local school.
Sarah, 13, was among the more than 40 girls and 200 boys who were demobilized from the military. "From today, I will be a student,” she said. “I will leave behind being a soldier.”

© UNICEF Sudan/2006/Bowers
Three boys stand in line during demobilization ceremony on the bank of the Sobat River in Southern Sudan.
Guns discarded

Sarah’s mother, Nyakuach Mayang, is a soldier herself. “I love this day because it is a symbol of peace,” she said. “My daughter Sarah will have a different life than me, a better chance. Maybe now there will not be so much death."
When Sarah was six years old, her father died fighting in Sudan’s 21-year civil war, which claimed an estimated 2 million lives and displaced more than 4 million people. After his death, Sarah's mother joined the army, and at age nine, Sarah began her military training – learning to march and handle an automatic rifle.

For the past few years she has been deployed on missions, leaving home for five or six days at a time to carry supplies, cook and clean for her fellow soldiers. But today, a pile of guns lies at the foot of the flagpole at Khorfulus. And all Sarah is carrying is a Primary 1 (first grade) English textbook and a big grin.
"This demobilization event is very significant, not only for each child," explained UNICEF Child Protection Officer Dombek Deng, "because we were able to release them from the military before they were moved further away to join other units and became difficult to trace."

© UNICEF Sudan/2006/Parker
UNICEF Sudan staff member Kim Jial assists in registration of demobilized child soldiers.
‘Help them go to school’

So far this year, more than 400 children have been removed from the Sudan People’s Liberation Army and other armed forces and groups in Southern Sudan. There are at least 2,000 more children to be identified, registered and released to their families to begin the process of reintegration. Since 2001, some 20,000 children have been demobilized in Southern Sudan.
Meanwhile, teachers in Khorfulus are preparing for the start of the new school year, armed with enough textbooks for all the primary school children – including those who will be joining school from the military. Over the coming days, UNICEF will complete distribution of additional school supplies like pencils, chalk and exercise books all over the region with the logistics assistance of other UN agencies and peacekeepers.
"I was very happy from the first moment I heard that my sons had been registered to be demobilized," said Joseph Bayak, putting his hands proudly on the shoulders of his sons Simon, 12, and Musa, 11. "So you can imagine how happy I am now that it has actually happened today. I have been a soldier and I am still a soldier. But now that our children have been removed from the army, I only ask that you help them go to school and change their minds from the military way of thinking."

But some habits die hard. As Sarah and Musa waved goodbye from the boat on the riverbank, they proudly saluted.

Sabine Dolan contributed to this story from New York.



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