“They told me to stop crying or they would kill me”
For many teenage girls in South Sudan, escaping from armed groups isn’t the end of their ordeal.
YAMBIO, South Sudan – When three armed men forced Mary* and her sister off a narrow road in South Sudan, the terrified 12 year-old started sobbing. The men told her to stop crying – or they would kill her.
That was the beginning of an ordeal that would see Mary recruited to a rebel camp, where she was forced to help out for three years before she eventually managed to escape.
Ask most people what they think of when they hear about children being recruited to armed groups, and the first image that comes to mind is probably a child carrying a gun. But not all children actually take part in fighting. Mary, for example, says she was forced to fetch firewood and water for the rebels. And while she was also trained how to use a gun, only the older girls were given their own weapons.
Mary, now 16, attends primary school just like many of the other children UNICEF is supporting through its reintegration programme. The programme focuses on vocational training, as well as teaching children how to generate income.
But Mary is still haunted by the memories of what she experienced in the camp.
“I still get flashbacks, and I get scared when I see a soldier with a gun,” she says, explaining that one of the toughest things since escaping has been how she remembers all the shooting. “Whenever I think about it, I cry.”
She adds that the punishment meted out to the children that were being being held was severe.
“They would beat us and then make us crawl on our elbows and knees. The skin would get scraped off our elbows,” Mary says.
Mary’s experience is not unusual in the world’s newest 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 manage to escape their captors or are released, they still have to contend with finding food and shelter – and 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.
More complicated than the myth
Another common myth is that all children in armed forces and armed groups are kidnapped or forced to join. But for Esther, like many others, the reality is sometimes more complicated.
Sitting with her newborn baby wrapped in a pink blanket on her lap, Esther says she volunteered to join an armed group four years ago, when she was 14. She says she left school and felt she had no other options.
Like Mary, she remembers the terrifying gun battles and people killed around her. Yet despite such memories – and the regular beatings she was subjected to – Esther says she still had reasons for wanting to be a part of an armed group.
“I liked having a gun and being a soldier,” she says. “I felt I had a purpose and something to do every day. I wanted to be one of those soldiers who had power and a job”.
Justin Augustino Kirima says he has seen firsthand how difficult it is for children to readjust once they leave armed groups. He runs a vocational training centre in Yambio, where former child soldiers are taught skills such as tailoring, carpentry or construction.
“At first, 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,” Justin says, adding that counselling often helps in the recovery process.
It takes time to heal – inside and out
Rose, 17, is coming to terms with the three months she spent with an armed group after she was abducted.
“They treated us badly. They tied our hands very tightly with rope and then gave us things to carry,” she says at a child transit centre where she is staying temporarily. “Sometimes, we had to run, and if we slowed down, they would hit us with sticks. I fell once, and they caned me many, many times. I nearly died”.
At one point, Rose, whose arms are speckled with scars from her time in the camp, fell sick. But she was still made 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 says she still struggles with the memories of the rape, and is worried how her husband will respond when he finds out what happened.
“I can’t get what happened out of my mind,” she says.
*Pseudonyms have been used for all the children to protect their identities.