The first day of the future

Reintegration of children released from armed forces and armed groups

Federica Pantaleoni

31 July 2019

MirMir- South Sudan: I was trying to envisage uniforms on their slender bodies and wondering how the skinny arms could carry the heavy weapons. They all seemed so young on fragile.

I arrived in Mirmir Monday 22 July 2019 to prepare for the release of 32 boys who have been used by armed forces and armed groups in former Unity state in South Sudan. Several of them have been used since fighting again erupted in the young nation in 2016, and most of them haven’t seen their families since their lives changed forever.

On the ground in Mirmir, my job was to prepare the site where the release would take place. The day of the release is mostly a day of joy, but it is also a day of uncertainty and concerns. The children are often scared of not being accepted by the communities. Many of them have been forced to do horrible things, even to their former neighbors, family members and friends. Can they forgive me? What comes next? What can I do with my life?

On the other end, mother and fathers are uneasy about what will come. They have been separated from their children, often for years. Is the child returning the same who was taken from us years back? Probably not. Being used by armed groups will change you forever, yet, parents are there with arms wide open and thrilled to have their children back home. It is touching to hear the wailing and see the tears as the return of lost sons are celebrated.

UNICEF staff member Federica Pantaleoni gives a speech on behalf of UNICEF on the day of the release
UNICEF staff member Federica Pantaleoni gives a speech on behalf of UNICEF on the day of the release

Can they forgive me? What comes next? What can I do with my life?

Children formerly associated with armed groups at the release ceremony in Mirmir

As I was doing my preparations I kept watching the boys. They were playing around the white tents we had set up for the release, just like other boys in South Sudan. Some were playing with dominos, others shared a puzzle. They were all laughing. It made me smile. I have read all the reports about what these children have been going through and I must admit I have been thinking how; how is it possible to laugh after all this? Seeing them happy and content make me confident that they will make it at the end and UNICEF will be there throughout.

UNICEF South Sudan/2019/Pantaleoni
The children are receiving reintegration kits at the end of the ceremony.

The release is the just the first step on the long road back to a childhood and a future. It is the entry point of a three-year-long UNICEF supported reintegration programme which looks after their physical and mental health, enroll them in education programmes and assist with setting a new course for their future. Everyone has a dedicated social worker who is there to be the steady hand they can hold throughout the programme, a shoulder to cry on when life gets tough and their most important cheerleader.

I whispered so only I could hear: Good luck, you can do it!

On the release day; generals and commanders officially announced that the children were released from their ranks, the children changed to civilian clothes, they were given what we call a reintegration package containing basic things they will need in the coming months such as soap, clothes and buckets for water.

Even though this is all part of my job and I must stay professional throughout, I can still tear up when taking part in these life-changing moments, and I wouldn’t want it any other way. We are here as humanitarians but also as humans.

The ceremony is over. While I’m starting to take down the tents I can see the children leaving with their families. I whispered so only I could hear: Good luck, you can do it.

UNICEF programmes for children associated with armed forces and armed groups are generously supported by the European Commission