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Former child soldiers trade guns for textbooks in rural Southern Sudan

© UNICEF video
Former child soldier Mayom Mabuong is now a community leader and a teacher at Deng Nhial School in Southern Sudan.

A decade after the United Nations issued a landmark report on children affected by armed conflict, the context of conflict has changed dramatically. A strategic review of the Graça Machel report is now under way to address this issue for the next 10 years. Here is one of a series of stories testifying to the importance of that review, ‘Machel Plus 10’.

RUMBEK, Southern Sudan, 15 October 2007 – At 15, he was a soldier. At 18, he traded his gun for a textbook and went back to school. Today, at 24, Mayom Mabuong is a community leader and a teacher at Deng Nhial School, one of the only institutions in Southern Sudan created specifically to address the needs of former child soldiers.

Mayom had just completed primary school when he joined the armed forces in 1998. After three years of fighting in Sudan’s protracted civil war, which endured for two decades and cost hundreds of thousands of lives, Mayom was one of many child soldiers demobilized by UNICEF in 2001.

The transition from fighter to student was not easy.

“When you are a soldier, you are a free man,” says Mayom. “You can do whatever with your gun. But when you’re reunited with your family, they will tell you to do this and do this. You feel like the only people who understand are the ones who were fighting with you.”

© UNICEF Sudan/2007
UNICEF and its partners have made it possible to build permanent school structures at Deng Nhial; four new classrooms, constructed from concrete and steel, were completed during the first half of 2007.

Expanding educational needs

As growing numbers of former child soldiers like Mayom arrived in Rumbek, the facility at Deng Nhial expanded alongside them. A clinic was founded on the site to provide basic health services. UNICEF provided textbooks, and students and teachers together built rough structures to house classrooms.

Yet without resources to construct permanent buildings, the community was unable to develop a school that could withstand rain and provide a safe learning environment for children. Durable building materials are rare in Southern Sudan, where roads are almost non-existent and nearly every house is made of mud and thatch.

The school at Deng Nhial was no exception. Students packed mud blocks together to create walls and used grass to thatch the tops of the classrooms. In the rainy season, the walls leaked – and the roof occasionally blew off completely.

‘Go to School’ initiative

In 2006, a contribution from the German National Committee for UNICEF made it possible to build permanent structures at Deng Nhial for the first time. Four new classrooms, constructed from concrete and steel, were completed during the first half of 2007.

© UNICEF video
Mayom Mabuong, using a bicycle for transport, now mentors children in the local community as well as former child soldiers in Rumbek, Southern Sudan.

The construction project is part of the ‘Go to School’ initiative, the Government of Southern Sudan’s campaign to rebuild the education system and return 1.6 million children to the classroom by the end of this year. Across Southern Sudan, new schools are being built and existing classrooms refurbished.

At Deng Nhial, which now serves the local community in addition to former child soldiers, the expanded facility has helped to relieve severe overcrowding. Like schools across Southern Sudan, where demand for education escalated dramatically following the 2005 peace agreement, Deng Nhial has many more students enrolled than it can accommodate. Over 1,000 children have signed up for the current academic year.

“This year I hope we are going to have beautiful classrooms,” says the school’s headmaster, Zakaria Bol Gallab. “But still, there are too many children for the classrooms.”

Not just a school, but a safe haven

For Mayom, the new school represents more than a physical structure. A full-time teacher at Deng Nhial since 2004, the former child soldier has experienced the school as a safe haven, a place to learn and now, a place to mentor other young people.

In addition to his teaching responsibilities, Mayom has become a leader in the Girls’ Education Movement, facilitating a peer support network that reaches out to vulnerable children and encourages them to come to school.

“I want all the children to have an education, because when you are in school, it means you are building your future,” says Mayom.

“For us, the ones who came to Deng Nhial from fighting, every now and then it comes to your memory  what happened in the war,” he adds. “It can make you feel very uncomfortable. But then I join my colleagues in conversation. And I know that together, in the school, we are safe.”




UNICEF correspondent Natacha Ikoli reports on former child soldiers who return to school in Southern Sudan.
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