Vocational training restores hope for former child soldiers in Western Equatoria
From former child soldiers to useful members of the community, their new skills provide food and other livelihood needs.
Yambio, South Sudan - While South Sudan's civil war ended in 2018, conflict and violence affecting and involving children remains common. For former child soldiers who still suffer from the trauma of war, a training programme allows them to recoup some of their lost childhood dreams.
Emmanuel, Susan and Tito* were abducted by rebel forces near Maridi town when they were teenagers and forced to grow up on the frontlines of South Sudan's brutal civil war.
As former child soldiers, they have experienced more death and suffering than any person should witness and are slowly getting used to their new lives.
They were abducted in 2016 while going to school. They walked with their captors for three days to reach the rebel-controlled area. While in the bush, the rebels beat them and warned them not to try to escape. "Life was terrible, but we could do nothing until the day we got released," Tito said.
These former child soldiers gained freedom following their release from the armed group, which was supported by UNICEF, the UN Mission to South Sudan (UNMISS) and the National Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration Commission into Maridi town, 100 kilometres from Yambio town, where they now live.
"I always felt bad when (we were) attacked because I had seen people just being killed like they were not humans; women and girls used to be killed and raped just in front of me, and I watched helplessly. Moreover, I missed home and my colleagues at school," said Emmanuel.
Cases of rape and forced labour were widespread, and many young girls were trapped in captivity and vulnerable to acts of sexual violence by the armed groups.
Once captured, boys the age of Tito, Susan and Emmanuel were trained to shoot, loot homes, burn houses, and commit other horrendous atrocities against the civil population.
Susan had a bad experience at the hand of her captors; she was used as a wife, trained to loot properties and spy on other people. "I was not happy in the bush because I was used as a wife every night, and sometimes they sent us out for looting,” she said.
"Being released from the rebels saved me from the burden of serving more than one man as a wife every night. I stopped worrying about what will happen to me after being assigned to loot properties from people."
The former child soldiers crave love and attention and the basic rights all children require. Now they enjoy hugs and smiles. Sometimes they say they feel weak and sick, but these are often just pleas for attention.
As a result of their traumatic past, it is hard to imagine that they will ever know peace. But they had not given up on their future and dreamed of becoming productive members of society.
"I witnessed horrible things when I was still in the bush. Women and girls were raped before me". "Being released was the best thing that happened to me in my entire life. No more seeing blood, and I felt relieved", Tito said.
In early 2022, advocacy by UNICEF and UNMISS led to the release of 18 children (17 boys and 1 girl) from an armed group in Maridi, Western Equatoria.
The children were moved to Yambio and provided interim care services at a centre managed by the Ministry of Gender, Child and Social Welfare, Catholic Medical Mission Board (CMMB), and funded by UNICEF.
The vocational training through CMMB has supported 50 children -- 18 Children Associated with Armed Groups and Forces (CAAFAG) and 32 other vulnerable children who receive vocational training in Yambio.
Today, as Emmanuel and Tito, learn new skills in the training workshop, it is difficult to equate the the young men, now in their early 20s, as former child soldiers exposed to such trauma and atrocities. As they work and learn to become tailers, masons, carpenters and other trades, in the Tiindoka Vocational Training Centre supported by CMMB, with other young men and women they are reshaping their dreams of the future as well.
Their acquired skills usher in new life for them, which is an essential step for a positive change and healing of the trauma of war. In the process, they are creating new friends and integrating into their community.
Susan said the training had made her self-reliant. She can put food on the table with the money she gets from her tailoring work and pays her siblings' school fees. "Today, because of the training, I can say I am empowered because I have my own money to spend."
Susan intends to teach women willing to learn tailoring within her community. "I want to coach other women tailoring to be able to help their families" Susan said she can at least get SSP 4,000 per day and the money she earns is helping her support her family.
The training has provided a sense of healing to the former child soldiers and enabled them to start a new life.
"The training that was given to us healed us and gave us a reason to start a new life, and now I can support my family,” said Tito who also is helping some boys in his area. Tito and his colleagues earn SSP 10,000 to SSP 100,000 per week depending on the type and volume of work they do. "I use the money to pay the school fees of my brothers and sisters,” he said.
Emmanuel said he will use the skills he acquired from the training to train other interested boys within his community. He also added that he wants to open a workshop himself in the future.
"I use the money for feeding my family, buying some family items, paying the school fee of my younger brothers and sisters."
The vocational training programme in Yambio was possible thanks to the support from KFW and the Spanish National Committee for UNICEF.
The KFW component provides psychosocial support in schools, while the UNICEF Spanish National Committee component provides vocational training for children formerly associated with armed forces/groups in Western Equatoria.
The recruitment and military deployment of children is a grave human rights violation. However, former child soldiers are often ostracized for their associations with the groups that exploited them. And while Susan, Tito and Emmanuel, and thousands of children like them receive assistance from UNICEF and partners and a glimmer of hope in their lives, many children remain traumatized by the experiences and involvement in war and conflict.
*Names changed to protect the identities of the children in this story.