UNICEF airlifts over 2,500 demobilized child soldiers out of Sudan combat zone
October Meeting With Carol Bellamy Results in Mass Release by SPLA
Tuesday, 27 February 2001: In the largest effort of its kind ever undertaken in southern Sudan, the United Nations Children's Fund announced today that it had airlifted more than 2,500 child combatants out of conflict zones and into safe areas where a rehabilitation and family tracing process can begin.
In an evacuation operation that began Friday and continued through the weekend, UNICEF said it moved more than 2,500 former child soldiers from the combat zone of Bahr el Gazal using two humanitarian relief planes operated by the World Food Program. The children were taken to reception centres in the Lakes area, behind the front lines, where local and international NGOs greeted them with medical check-ups and other basic care.
A single aircraft was continuing the operation through Tuesday. Children are also being moved from some garrisons by road.
The children - ranging in age from 8 to 18 - were demobilized from military camps run by the rebel Sudan Peoples' Liberation Army under a personal commitment made by an SPLA commander to UNICEF Executive Director Carol Bellamy in October 2000. Ms. Bellamy was in southern Sudan at that time to observe polio immunization activities.
"We knew the critical moment had arrived," said Dr. Sharad Sapra, the head of UNICEF's operations in southern Sudan. "This is the dry season, and that's when fighting usually erupts," he said. "The SPLA should be given credit for following through on the pledge it gave to Carol Bellamy."
UNICEF said the children will live in transit centres for the next four to nine months while a family tracing process takes place. The centres are being run by local and international NGOs with experience in child protection. During this time the young people will be provided with education, psychosocial counselling, and vocational training. UNICEF has arranged for water points to be built at the sites and the World Food Programme has brought in food.
UNICEF said the children evacuated in the airlift fall into two general categories: those who received military training but never saw combat, and those who lived through combat and other traumatic experiences. UNICEF said the former group could be expected to be reunified with family and communities in three to four months. The latter group will require more time, perhaps as long as nine months, and will be given more formal vocational training. UNICEF said children for whom no family members can be traced will remain under the long term care of local authorities and non-governmental organizations - supported by UNICEF - as close as possible to their communities of origin.
Dr. Sapra acknowledged that a long process was only just beginning. "Our first priority was to get these children to a place of safety, out of harm's way," he said. "Now our goal is to give them an education and some time to recover."
"Our ultimate goal, of course, is to completely and totally end the use of children as combatants in southern Sudan," Dr. Sapra added. "There are an estimated 9,000 child soldiers in various armed groups here, so we have a way to go. But this operation has shown what can be done with strong advocacy and follow-through. We are more inspired than ever to convince military leaders in this conflict that children have no place in armies."
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