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Pernille Ironside’s firsthand account of the mission to reclaim Sudan's lost child soldiers

© Pernille Ironside/UNICEF
UNICEF Child Protection Specialist in Emergencies Pernille Ironside during her mission to Southern Sudan.
UNICEF Child Protection Specialist Pernille Ironside recently returned from a mission to Sudan to examine the agency's work at reintegrating child soldiers. This is her account of the visit.

By Pernille Ironside

AWIEL, Sudan, 12 August 2009 – We arrive in the steamy small town of Awiel, with the various UN aircraft bringing us to this remote spot becoming progressively smaller with each segment of the trip. Now we will embark upon a multi-day road trip that will take us through three states in southern Sudan and close to the troubled areas of South Darfur in the north of Sudan.

My mission is to examine how UNICEF and its partners are supporting the release and reintegration of children associated with the Sudanese People's Liberation Army (SPLA) in southern Sudan. A Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) between the SPLA and the Sudanese Armed Forces was signed in 2005. The agreement called for the release of all child soldiers within the SPLA inside six months.

With 1,500 children released in the first two years, limited follow-up and services to support their transition back to civilian status meant that many children returned to the SPLA, convinced that they had no alternative.

We are determined to address this challenge for these children and for the estimated 1,000 still believed in the SPLA ranks.

June 4

We set out early to Wunyik, the headquarters of SPLA Division 3. 73 boys have been identified here but efforts by the Southern Sudan Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration Commission (SSDDRC) to officially register them have been difficult. The commander, a Major-General, and his Chief of Military and Political Orientation, a Brigadier-General, who we meet, claim there are no child soldiers here and that all were released in 2005 following orders.

© Pernille Ironside/UNICEF
An informal school operated by the SPLA in Southern Sudan.

"Only the children of soldiers currently on the frontlines or whose fathers have died in battle are here now," we are told.

They show us a school within the sprawling military camp with over 1,300 students following primary classes under trees. The students are ‘SPLA children’ and children from the neighbouring village. After further discussion, the commanders recognize that at least 50 boys who were demobilized earlier had returned to them, but as they are now studying in the SPLA school, the commanders feel they should not be of concern to us.

Later in the day, we meet another brigade commander who welcomes us with genuine hospitality and cool drinks. In his view, there are no children remaining within his brigade and we are free to check this at any time. We will take him up on that offer.

June 5

We spend the day visiting two projects that support vulnerable children, including former child soldiers, with life skills, vocational skills and schooling.

The first is a new residential vocational training centre operated by Save The Children Sweden in Malualkon. 121 students are learning carpentry, masonry, agriculture, tailoring and embroidery and stay here for up to nine months or so.

We check out a former centre nearby, which might be repaired to provide transitory care for children released from the SPLA prior to being reunited with their families. At present, it is taking too long between identification of children in the armed forces and their return home.

One of my recommendations will be the establishment of interim care projects such as foster families which can provide support in the child's transition from military barracks to home life.

© Pernille Ironside/UNICEF
Young boys play a local boardgame in Malualkon, southern Sudan.

In Wau, I visit a youth club where street children and others in the community have access to counsellors, recreational and life skills activities, but providing these young people with a viable alternative to military life is a challenge.

June 6

Today finds us in Mapel, and the headquarters of SPLA Division 5. Here, we meet with the commander and his chief of military and political orientation. They openly confirm that there are upwards of 50 children that need to be demobilized, and want us to take them and provide them with opportunities back in their home communities.

Speaking with the children for over an hour in a small thatched shelter, they appear filled with anxiety, scepticism and questions about what will be in store for them on leaving the army. A number have been previously demobilized and, finding no support back home, returned to the SPLA.

Yet nearly all of the children indicate they would like to go back to school if they could, preferably remaining together as a group. Their bonds run deep, no doubt forged through having lived through many difficult experiences together.

It is clear that for this program to succeed, it is vital to communicate regularly with these children to earn their trust and address their questions; it also means that we cannot fail them.

Johnny and Abraham

An hour away, in Tonj, we meet two children formerly associated with the SPLA who are now being supported to go back to school.

13-year-old Johnny has recently started catch-up classes and is keen to join the regular school program. He is living with a foster family and is happy. 15-year-old Abraham is attending primary school and lives with his uncle and extended family.

Still, life is not easy for Abraham. He has no money to pay the school registration fee or to buy a uniform and I count at least 12 mouths to feed in this family.

Supplementing the school fees with a small income generating activity could really go a long way toward ensuring that Abraham is not forced to drop-out of school to contribute more financially to the family.

First-hand perspective

Spending the day with children at both ends of the spectrum of the  long and challenging process of release and reintegration has provided exactly the first hand perspective I was hoping for.

There is no simple panacea to the issue of former child soldiers – the culture of southern Sudan must be reflected in our response, if we are to succeed in our goal of making up for so many lost childhood years, and helping these young people contribute positively to a peaceful future for southern Sudan.

The names of children have been changed to protect their identities.



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