The cost of rescuing children from armed groups in South Sudan
Children associated with armed forces or groups are paying the price for the lack of funding that UNICEF is facing
In the shade of an oversized tree, Margret [NAME CHANGED] sits in a wooden chair. Her sharp features and triangular jaw are often directed downwards as she thinks, with cornrows now starting to fray. She comforts herself by increasing the speed of which her index circles a hole torn in her long kitenge skirt, as the more difficult memories come back. Under her orange cotton t-shirt, stained with dirt and sweat, is a small frame. The body of a child.
In the past three years, her whole world was ripped apart. Today, she is still trying to piece it back together. From child, to child soldier, today she is lost somewhere in-between her years and her responsibilities – namely her one-year-old son Moses*, conceived from fighters in the bush.
It was down a dirt road leading out of her village nearby that she was taken by a group of men, while on her way to the market where she sold cassava leaves. “They grabbed me. They beat and slapped me as I tried to resist. They told me I had to go with them,” Margret recalled. “They forced me.”
“I knew I would never come back. I would be recruited by an armed group, and I was going to die.”
The next day, barely a teenager, Margret was raped for the first time in what would be a continuous cycle for the three years to come.
It did not take long for this young girl to transform. After years of being bullied in her village, she formed a tight comradery with the others her age that she now found herself with in the bush. “I looted, killed and fought without any fear,” she admitted. “When I put on the uniform, I felt nothing could happen to me. I felt powerful.”
UNICEF estimates that thousands of children are still being used by armed groups in South Sudan.
A few months before Margret went into labor, access to her camp was granted to UNICEF, after being negotiated by the National Relief and Rehabilitation team, with UNICEF, the National Disarmament Demobilization and Reintegration (NDDR), and government agencies that included the Ministry of Education.
The atmosphere in the remote jungle camp changed immediately. “The commanders were not happy – they considered us soldiers and wanted us to stay soldiers,” said Margret.
Margret’s eyes are more serious than most adults. Like many in South Sudan, she doesn’t know exactly how old she is. “Sixteen,” is her answer when asked, but she admits she relies on the New Year to mark another year, though sometimes forgets.
“The issue of women and girls is extremely complicated,” explains Jean Lieby, UNICEF Chief of Child Protection in South Sudan. “When facing a commander, after years in that environment, it may be difficult for them to say they want to go. Even more difficult if they are pregnant or have children from the abductors and exploiters.”
Many soldiers will prevent pregnant girls from leaving, as it would be a loss of face and shame in the highly patriarchal society. Margret was an exception. While many girls like her exist in the army, most will hide it or not turn up to release at all for fear of stigma.
“Everything is disqualifying her from reintegrating,” emphasizes Lieby. In a country with no safehouse and social norms that believe a girl needs to be married to be protected, aftercare for pregnant girls is a challenge.
On a stormy day as heavy rain fell, Margret and a dozen other children were told to ‘go home.’ Each carried a polythene bag, inside of which was their military uniform and meager life possessions. In bare feet they walked through dense jungle for days, encountering snakes, lions and even leopards.
Excitement turned to daunting unknowns, confusion, and worry of how and where to start life again.
“I knew my parents wouldn’t be waiting for me,” said Margret, whose parents were both killed by armed groups.
Months later, under her uncle’s thatched roof a baby was born.
Margret couldn’t remember the last time she had felt love, as a pure and whole emotion, until she held the newborn in her arms. “I didn’t see it as one of the perpetrators. It was a new start. Now I would no longer be fighting, I would be looking after a child.”
To her captors, she would say, “Look at me now, I am living fine. I have returned and started a new life. I am trying to catch up.”
Thousands of children are still waiting for their freedom, for their chance to resume a lost childhood.
“UNICEF needs approximately US $4.2 million to ensure the reintegration of an estimated 2100 child soldiers in 2020 . We are lacking most of it,” admits Lieby.
“These children are not only waiting for release, but also to get family tracing and reunification. They are waiting for a reintegration package, for vocational training, for education. But we have no money.”
The reintegration of a child once released, costs approximately US $2,000 for three years, to purchase food, support family tracing and reunification, conduct healthcare and sexually transmitted disease testing, as well as assist with education, vocational support or starting a small business. Furthermore, a plan for each child is developed which will include either formal education or vocation training. The success of the programme truly lies with the social workers. Each child has a dedicated social worker for the full period.
Because of a lack of funding, Margret has been on the waiting list for a nearby vocational course for almost two years, in a country where more than two million school aged children are not attending school and feels herself slipping into depression.
“We have a lost generation somewhere,” said Lieby. “For children that are released, like other children in this country, there are not enough services available. If a service never existed, we do what we can with what is available. But this complicates the reintegration issue.”
Since 2013 UNICEF has secured the release and the reintegration of more than 3600 children like Margret through a dedicated child protection team and with partners working to establish educational and vocational opportunities as well as psychosocial support.
It is with funding from the Office of the U.S. Special Envoy for Sudan and South Sudan that work continues, and both hope and futures are being restored.