No peace, no plumbing

A child formerly associated with an armed group is counting on peace to move on

Helene Sandbu Ryeng
A boy gazing through a pipe
UNICEFSouthSudan/Ryeng
03 February 2020

Yambio January 2020 - “The way I suffered, I can never go back,” Christian says with determination. His eyes are flicking, the breathing is faster and the voice firmer when he talks about the time in the bush. Christian was kidnapped in his early teens by an armed group when he was on his way to the family garden, a patch of land where they grow maze and cassava, 20 kilometres from the house. “They were many, there was nowhere to run, and they took me with them. My brother was also taken, they later killed him.” This was the beginning of two years of suffering, which we will get back to shortly.

Christian is not the boy’s real name. To protect his identity, we have to use a fictive name and we asked which name he would want. “Christiano Ronaldo,” he bursts. We later agree on Christian, as his suggestion was a bit too specific. Christian loves Manchester United and goes as often as he can to a social centre down town to watch games on TV. “But myself, I play volleyball,” he adds.

“The way I suffered, I can never go back.”

A boy looking at brickwork
UNICEFSouthSudan/Ryeng
Christian is watching his fellow students do brickwork

Christian has a somewhat chiselled face with strong features, but with soft finishes giving him a mild and friendly face. He is gentle and polite. There is nothing with his appearance or behaviour that would give away his story, but it hasn’t always been like this.
 

Plumbing needs peace

At Tindoka vocational centre, Christian is training to become a plumber. The classes are part of UNICEF’s three-year-long reintegration programme for children associated with armed forces or armed groups. 

“If I am to succeed as a plumber, I will need peace. You see, when there is peace, people build permanent buildings, buildings made out of bricks and they need plumbing. When there is war, they make only huts and there will never be pipes in them and I won’t have work to do.”

Christian knows better than most people what war looks like. In the bush he was provided with a gun, forced to fight and forced to loot. “We had no food. Our commanders ordered us to go and steal from others. We would go to the market and shoot in the air, everyone would run away, and we would take the food and run.”

“What happened if you said no?”

“If you don’t do what they say they kill you”

Sometimes they took more than just food and valuables. “When we were fighting we would take prisoners and the women we took to our commanders. They became their wives.” The living conditions were hard. “Sometimes there was no food and we would be hungry for days. We slept under the trees. When the rain came, it was unbearable.”

The real battle

When Christian registered to be released, he had no idea what kind of fight he had ahead of him. His life under command was over, but he was not the same person anymore. “He was aggressive, often ending up in fist fights and not easy to deal with,” social worker Josephine Bakhita recalls. Christian’s father refused to take his son back home, only an uncle on the mother’s side dared. “They were all scared of him,” the uncle says.

With only two people in this world believing in him, his uncle and his social worker, Christian started Primary school and later vocational training and was also provided with extensive psychosocial support. “I call her [Josephine] my mother, she has talked to me, counselled me and been like a mother to me,” Christian says. 

A lady sitting on a chair under a mango tree
UNICEFSouthSudan/Ryeng
Josephine Bakhita, the social worker, but most of her 'children' calls her 'mother'

He doesn't know Josephine made a similar comment a few hours earlier, referring to him as her child. “He is totally transformed, he is no longer abusing people, he is polite and kind,” Josephine says with stars in her eyes, proud of her boy.
 

Children in the bush

Christian is hopeful for his own future, he might need to move to the capital to find enough brick houses in need of plumbing but is optimistic. He is more worried about all the other children that are still in the ranks. “My friends from the time are still suffering, I don’t know how to help them. If I could I would say to them, come out and come to Tindoka.”

Some 900 children are already registered and ready to be released. With prolonged peace, more children will be released from armed groups and armed forces. However, UNICEF South Sudan’s reintegration programme has been underfunded for a longer period of time and unless new funding is identified the programme might close. “You need to find a way to help them, just like you helped me,” Christian finishes.

Since the conflict started in 2013, UNICEF has released 3677 children from armed forces and armed groups. The UNICEF reintegration programme is three years long, providing children with basic items needed to start over, health care, psychosocial support, education and a social worker which follows them through the entire programme. Most children completing the programme has not returned to the armed groups.

A boy riding a bike
UNICEFSouthSudan/Ryeng
Christian on his way home from Tindoka vocational centre with a bicycle provided by UNICEF to ease transport to school. From home to school is approximately a 20 minute ride.

UNICEF’s reintegration programme is generously supported by Canada, the European Commission, ECHO and USAID. UNICEF South Sudan would also like to thank the Belgian, Canadian, Danish, French, German, Norwegian, Polish, UK and US National Committees for UNICEF for their contributions to this programme.