In South Sudan, teenage girls struggle to break chains of conflict

Even when children escape or are released from armed groups, the ordeal is by no means over.

UNICEF South Sudan
Mary at a classroom blackboard
12 February 2019

When three armed men forced Mary* and her sister off a narrow road in South Sudan, the terrified 12-year-old started sobbing. But she had to dry her tears when the rebels threatened to kill her if she did not stop crying.

Now 16 and free, Mary remembers the day-long march that brought her to the rebels’ camp where she would spend the next three years, living in fear of brutal beatings and enemy attacks that sent bullets flying through the air.

“The most difficult thing since escaping has been remembering all the shooting. It was so indiscriminate. Whenever I think about it, I cry,” she says.

She now has a new life and attends primary school like many of the children UNICEF is supporting through its reintegration programme which also includes trainings on livelihood, income generation and vocational training. But the memories are still there.

“I still get flashbacks and when I see a soldier with a gun, I am scared.”

– Mary

Mary’s trauma is all too common in the world’s youngest country, where UNICEF estimates 19,000 children have been used by armed forces and armed groups since the conflict started in 2013.

Even when children escape or are released, the ordeal is by no means over. With millions of people on the move, seeking shelter from the sporadic fighting or relief from chronic hunger, and with basic infrastructure in ruins, many struggles to find their loved ones.

UNICEF helped secure the release of 955 children from armed groups in 2018 and several releases are planned for 2019. During the release ceremony, the children are disarmed, given civilian clothes when necessary and receive medical screenings and psychosocial support as part of a reintegration programme, implemented by UNICEF and its partners. UNICEF also helps children find their families.

The picture that immediately pops up in most people’s heads when they hear about children in the ranks of armed groups, is a child carrying a gun. The reality is that not all children take part in the fighting.

Mary was forced to fetch firewood and water for the rebels. They trained her to use a gun, but only older girls were given their own weapons. Punishments were severe.

“They would beat us thoroughly and then make us crawl on our elbows and knees and it would tear the skin from our elbows.”

After she escaped, Mary feared the fighters would capture her again but now she is living with a new family and going to school, taking notes in neat handwriting and trying to make up for the lost years.

“I have some problems reading and can’t recall how to write but it is getting better.” 

– Mary

Another usual myth is that all children in armed forces and armed groups are kidnapped or forced to join. Esther, sitting with her new-born baby wrapped snugly in a pink blanket on her lap, volunteered to join an armed group four years ago when she was 14. She had left school and felt she had no other option.

Esther, 18, holds her baby as she prepares food inside her home
Esther, 18, holds her baby as she prepares food inside her home in Yambio, South Sudan.

Like Mary, she remembers terrifying gun battles and her fear of dying as she watched others fall. She remembers running through the bush, being scratched and scraped by thorns. Despite all this and regular beatings, Esther gives voice to why some children join.

“I liked having a gun and being a soldier. It is why I joined … I felt I had a purpose and something to do every day. I had wanted to be one of those soldiers who had power and a job,” she says.

Justin Augustino Kirima sees firsthand how difficult it is for children to readjust. He runs a vocational training centre in Yambio where former child soldiers are taught skills such as tailoring, carpentry or construction.

“At the start, it was very hard. They wouldn’t listen to their instructors and they were hostile. When you told them what they were meant to do, they were not interested,” he said, adding that counselling often helped the children recover.

Rose, 17, is grappling to come to terms with the three months she spent with an armed group after they abducted her from the home she shared with her husband.

“They treated us badly. They tied our hands very tightly with rope and then gave us things to carry. We had to run sometimes – if we slowed down, they hit us with sticks. I fell once, and they caned me many, many times. I nearly died,” she says at a child transit centre where she is temporarily staying.

Rose, 17, sits on a bed half behind a mosquito net
Rose, 17, poses for photos in a Child Transit Centre in Yambio, South Sudan.

Rose, whose arms are speckled with scars from her time in the camp, fell sick but she still had to work, cutting grass with her hands and collecting poles for construction.

When she refused to be a soldier’s girlfriend, he raped her at gunpoint. Eventually, some of the rebels took pity on her and set her free. But she still struggles with her memories of the rape and she does not know what her husband will do when he finds out.

“I can’t get it out of my mind.” 

– Rose

*Pseudonyms have been used for all the children to protect their identities.