Reintegration programme offers hope for children associated with armed forces and armed groups

Crippling poverty and insecurity compel children as young as 14 to join armed forces in South Sudan

By Robin Giri
13 December 2021

Rumbek, Lakes State, South Sudan – “When we came upon my father’s body, we found out that he had been shot and killed – not very far from our house. I was scared that they would kill me next,” says Joseph* as he stares vacantly at the big white tent that will be his home for the next few days at a UNICEF-supported transit centre in Rumbek.

In many parts of South Sudan, ongoing communal violence and the continued civil strife continue to exact a heavy toll on its civilian population, especially women and children. Recurrent droughts and floods compound the poverty that many families already live with, often making it hard for them to secure even one meal a day.

“My mother worked hard to grow groundnuts, sesame and soybeans and I helped her every day but we never had enough to eat,” he says.

One day, instead of going to school, Joseph walked all the way to the army barracks in Rumbek town and told them that he wanted to enlist. He was only 14 years old.

“They said I was too young to fight but they let me live with them and I felt secure because they all had guns, and I felt proud and safe to be associated with them,” says Joseph.

Another boy named Tony*, who is also 17 has a similar story. He too came to the same barracks more than three years ago, seeking food and security.

Life in the barracks was not easy. The boys were put to work every day. They were made to do odd jobs. They were often contracted out to farmers and had to work for more than 10 hours daily, doing hard manual labour. And they never received any wages; the contracting officers took whatever wages were paid, but they got something to eat instead.

Over a year ago, Joseph was finally handed a gun. He was told that now he could become a soldier.

A man and Joseph stand in front of a group
UNICEF South Sudan/2021/Giri
Joseph (name changed) at the ceremony in the army barracks where he was formally discharged.

In South Sudan, UNICEF works with the UN Mission to South Sudan, the Ministry of Gender Child and Social Welfare, the National Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration Commission (NDDRC), and other partners to identity and release children associated with armed forces and armed groups.

The National Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration Commission (NDDRC) leads the release and reintegration programme in South Sudan, and UNICEF with generous support of its donors, provides support to maintain the transit centres for these released children, provides life-skills training to help them reintegrate into civilian life, and to reunite them with their families.

Joseph passes clothing to men in army attire
UNICEF South Sudan/2021/Giri
In a symbolic gesture, Joseph (name changed) hands over his uniform to army officers.

On 18th November 2021, seven boys, including Joseph and Tony were formally released from the army barracks in Rumbek. At the ceremony, Joseph returned his army uniform to the authorities, and he and the other boys were provided with reintegration kits, which included clothes, shoes and some personal effects and toiletries.

A woman writes notes as a child looks away from camera
UNICEF South Sudan/2021/Giri
At the temporary transit centre (supported by UNICEF) a young boy is interviewed by case workers to identify and reunite him with his family.

The seven boys were formally handed into the care of the Ministry of Gender, Child and Social Welfare at Lakes State. They were taken to the temporary transit centre, where case workers interviewed them to identify and reunite them with their families within the next few days.

Two boys look away from camera with a football at their feet
UNICEF South Sudan/2021/Giri
Two boys who were recently released play football at the temporary transit centre, supported by UNICEF.

“Children have no place in armed forces or armed groups. Children should be in school, learning and playing and developing their life-skills. The release of these children by the armed forces demonstrates their commitment to respect the rights of children in South Sudan.”

– Hamida Lasseko, UNICEF Representative

The release of the children took place a few months after the Government extended the implementation period for the Comprehensive Action Plan to end all six grave violations against children up to 7 August 2022.

At the transit centre, Joseph inspects the new clothes and items that he has received in the backpack and smiles.

“I want to go home to my mother and to my younger brother,” he says. “A soldier’s life is not for me – I want to study and if I can, I will become a doctor someday!”

UNICEF is grateful to our generous donors who support the child protection programme in South Sudan which allows us to support children released from armed forces and armed groups. UNICEF thanks the Governments of Germany (through KFW Development Bank); the Spanish and German National Committees for UNICEF; the European Union for Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid; the United States Special Envoy to Sudan and South Sudan (USSESSD); and the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (SIDA).

* Names changed to protect identities.