From child soldier to just a child-in one day.

The release of ten children from armed forces in South Sudan

Helene Sandbu Ryeng
Children seated on the ground
UNICEFSouthSudan/Ryeng
02 June 2020

 

Some whispering from one of the senior commanders to a more junior man in uniform, and minutes later the children are marching with movements perfectly in sync towards us. With the sound of feet stamping at the exact same time, the small group of children sound larger. The children are asked to be at ease and sit down.

We are at one of the cantonment sites and training facilities for the unified forces in South Sudan. During a visit a few weeks back, 12 soldiers undergoing training were identified as underage. 

 

A boy holding up his hand
UNICEFSouthSudan/Ryeng

 

UNICEF together with the national disarmament and demobilization commission (NDDRC), the UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) are here to advocate for their release. Before that can take place, the children's identities including age must be verified. The children are first called by their name. 

 

Two adults are talking to a child
UNICEFSouthSudan/Ryeng

 

Every child is then interviewed by UNMISS, NDDRC and UNICEF. This is done away from the commanders in order for the children to speak freely. To the right is UNICEF's Child Protection Officer Richard Silas. To the left is Oluku Andrew, National Coordinator for the NDDRC.

 

Men in uniform sitting
UNICEFSouthSudan/Ryeng

 

The release was supported by General Nando from the South Sudan People's Defence Forces (SSPDF). They are one of the signatories to the action plan against six grave violations against children in armed conflict. 

"We don't want to be in a position where we have to release children all the time, all children are to be released immediately," said Nando in the meeting with the commanders at the training facility.

 

Children's feet and luggage
UNICEFSouthSudan/Ryeng

 

After the verification process, a total of ten soldiers were identified as children. Nine boys and one girl were between 15 and 17 years old. The armed forces granted their release and the children were asked to go to the barracks to pack their things as they would be leaving immediately. With the graduation ceremony from the training centre being imminent, UNICEF, UNMISS and the NDDRC thought it was important to remove the children sooner rather than later. The children returned with what they had- which was not much.

 

 

People busy with their phones
UNICEFSouthSudan/Ryeng

 

The children were notified a few days earlier that an immediate departure after the verification could take place. Therefore, friends were ready to say their goodbyes and to ensure phone numbers were saved before they would be separated.

 

Children entering a car
UNICEFSouthSudan/Ryeng

 

The children would be taken to interim care centres where they are taken care of while family tracing is ongoing. The children will also receive a package covering their basic needs such as new clothes, shoes, soap and other essentials. They will also be given psychosocial support.  

 

A boy looking out the window in a car
UNICEFSouthSudan/Ryeng

 

UNICEF's programmes for children associated with armed forces and armed groups are generously supported by ECHO and USAID.

UNICEF South Sudan is also grateful for the many contributions from National Committees for UNICEF,

including Canada, Denmark, France, Germany, Norway, Spain, the Netherlands and the US