Called into action

An ex-combatant is now able to help his community fight COVID-19

James Aboo & Anne Kennedy
A man hanging masks to dry
12 July 2020

Mahmud [NAME CHANGED] is producing up to 40 reusable face masks a day, which are then distributed for free in his village Tindoka, near Yambio Town in the south-west of South Sudan. His effort is part of UNICEF’s integrated response to COVID-19.

“It is a great achievement ... making face mask for free distribution. When you put on these masks, I feel satisfied that I am preventing the spread of coronavirus in the community.”

Now 17 years old, Mahmud was just 15 when he was one of 200 children released from armed forces and armed groups. Yambio is one of the regions where UNICEF concentrates its efforts to help ex-combatants. For children exploited in war, ward do not end with cease fires. Beyond the conflict, their war rages on the inside, turning the theft of their childhood into the theft of their youth.

Memories of a shortened childhood turned into months, or years, of beatings, fear, sexual assault, thirst, death and terror now mingling with a young adult's remorse for inflicting the same on others. And beyond their personal loss, their country loses its hope, ideas, energy and laughter.

An experience that should then end becomes a pivot around which their life revolves. Their community can fear them. Old experiences can trigger extreme reactions. Both mental and physical scars can prevent them from getting work or holding onto it when it is available.

a boy sewing face masks
Mahmud is sewing face masks using a sewing machine.

UNICEF and its partners run a complex program to remove this pivot. Through social workers, vocational training, community interaction and the gifting of simple household items, professionals seek to break the circle, to set children back on the path they were so violently taken from.

Part of Mahmud’s reintegration was a UNICEF sponsored course in tailoring, which included a startup kit and a sewing machine on top of psychosocial support, education, and health care, on a three-year course that assisted him transition to a civilian life.

The sewing machine makes him part of vital efforts to fight COVID-19 by producing urgently needed face masks. The results make him very proud.

“When I am passing around town and I find people wearing face masks produced by us, I feel so excited and encouraged to continue making as many as possible to meet the growing demand for reusable face masks, especially among traders and other people working in public places.”

Following the recommendations of the World Health Organization to wear face masks, and aware that many South Sudanese may not have access to them, UNICEF and UNDP decided to join forces to make sure masks are available. They aim to distribute over a quarter of a million free face masks throughout the country. Masks are known to prevent the spread of COVID-19. This distribution is not just in Yambio but across South Sudan.

No-one can replace a childhood, but UNICEF’s in-depth process means that, at least, the youth of these former child soldiers will not be taken. Funding is always a problem. Costing USD 2000 per child for a process that lasts on average three years, the therapy, family reunification and community training do not just return a child to their family, it returns a country to its path to peace. 

The current programme for children formerly associated with armed forces and armed groups is funded by USAID, USSESSS, EU, ECHO, Norway, PBF and CERF. The World Bank has partnered with UNICEF for the COVID-19 response in South Sudan. UNICEF South Sudan has also received financial support from DFID, USAID and Japan for the COVID response