by Andreea Campeanu

In South Sudan there are still 19,000 children in armed forces, with boys trained to fight and girls taken as “wives”.

Yambio, South Sudan – On the red dusty ground in Yambio, under a large mango tree, a group of thirty girls and boys, some wearing military cloths and some with guns next to them, sit in the shade eating biscuits while waiting for the start of the ceremony to release them from the army.

The US ambassador and other guests are coming from the capital Juba to attend the event.

They are part of the 900 children who were released from the armed forces in South Sudan in 2018, the country with one of the largest number of child soldiers in the world. The ceremony consists of them symbolically taking off the military clothes, and receiving blue UNICEF labeled notebooks and schoolbags.

According to the UN, there are still 19,000 children in armed forces in South Sudan, a number contested by the army. “We have concerns about the figures published by UNICEF. We don’t know how they came up with those numbers. Now it’s true that some other groups that were integrated in the SPLA had child soldiers among them. But our policy is clear: we don’t want child soldiers,” said Lul Ruai Koang, the spokesperson for the South Sudan’s People Defence Force (former SPLA). “We gave their names to UNICEF. In Pibor or Yambio, they have been demobilised. We facilitate the process. After, it’s their responsibility to help them.”

Many of the children in the ceremony have already returned to their communities before the official release. They received medical screenings, counseling and psychosocial support as part of their rehabilitation, and some were assisted to return to school, while others received vocational training. Their families were also provided with food assistance.

But across South Sudan and in refugee camps outside the country, there are children and youth who left or escaped from the armed forces but received no assistance and have not been through a rehabilitation program. Depending on age, boys are either used as porters, cleaners, or are trained to fight. Girls are often taken as “wives”, and often return in their communities with children.

“We see depression, anxiety. They have intrusive thoughts that come back. That can be triggered by something happening, but of which they have no control. That can affect their functionality,” says Rayan Fattouch, mental health specialist working in Yambio with Doctors Without Borders (MSF).

MSF is medicaly screening the children who were associated with armed groups. Part of it is the mental health aspect. They are dealing with children and young adults who are facing “moderate to severe trauma”.

“The child needs to feel embraced by his community. And that can change from one community to another, depending of the experiences they have been through. They have their own trauma,” said Fattouch.

 Reporting for this story was supported by a grant from the Pulitzer Center.

According to the UN, there are still around 19,000 children serving in armed forces across South Sudan. [Andreea Campeanu/Al Jazeera]

According to the UN, there are still around 19,000 children serving in armed forces across South Sudan. Andreea Campeanu/Al Jazeera
A 18-year-old boy from Yei. He said he was abducted and held by a militia aligned to the SPLA since the conflict started in 2013. 'They would raid villages', he said. 'We were given weed to smoke and alcohol (to drink), so that we don’t think about what they made us do.' He said he was treated rather fairly by the commanders and was given food to eat, but life in the bush wasn't easy. He managed to escape when the militia he was held by moved to Equatoria with SPLA troops. He took advantage of being near the border to escape to Uganda. [Andreea Campeanu/Al Jazeera]

A 18-year-old boy from Yei. He said he was abducted and held by a militia aligned to the SPLA since the conflict started in 2013. ‘They would raid villages’, he said. ‘We were given weed to smoke and alcohol (to drink), so that we don’t think about what they made us do.’ He said he was treated rather fairly by the commanders and was given food to eat, but life in the bush wasn’t easy. He managed to escape when the militia he was held by moved to Equatoria with SPLA troops. He took advantage of being near the border to escape to Uganda. Andreea Campeanu/Al Jazeera
A 15-year-old girl who was held by armed forces for a week. Originally from Mayendit, she was collecting firewood outside the Protection of Civilians (POC) site near Bentiu, in December 2017. 'Soldiers came to us, they had guns and uniforms. We all tried to run away, but they caught me.' They took her to Bentiu town, and kept her for a week. She was repeatedly raped. 'One soldier took me as a wife. But when he was away, the other soldiers would come to the house and do what they wanted with me. That man didn't care, he was mean to me, he would beat me and say I was useless. I was thinking to kill myself'. She now lives in the POC near Bentiu with her family, who is supportive but very poor. She's going to school and hopes to be able to complete her studies and forget about the past. [Andreea Campeanu/Al Jazeera]

A 15-year-old girl who was held by armed forces for a week. Originally from Mayendit, she was collecting firewood outside the Protection of Civilians (POC) site near Bentiu, in December 2017. ‘Soldiers came to us, they had guns and uniforms. We all tried to run away, but they caught me.’ They took her to Bentiu town, and kept her for a week. She was repeatedly raped. ‘One soldier took me as a wife. But when he was away, the other soldiers would come to the house and do what they wanted with me. That man didn’t care, he was mean to me, he would beat me and say I was useless. I was thinking to kill myself’. She now lives in the POC near Bentiu with her family, who is supportive but very poor. She’s going to school and hopes to be able to complete her studies and forget about the past. Andreea Campeanu/Al Jazeera
Augustino Ting Mayai was part of the Red Army in the Second Civil war that started in 1983 and lasted till 2005. In the early 1980s, the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) recruited and trained boys as young as 12. The child soldiers were called the Red Army. In 2013, the Red Army Foundation (RAF) was formed, an organisation dedicated to addressing social problems, especially among its own former members and South Sudan's youth. Mayai, a member of the Red Army Foundation, now holds a PhD in Sociology and is a Director of Research at the Sudd Institute and an Assistant Professor at the University of Juba’s School of Public Service. [Andreea Campeanu/Al Jazeera]

Augustino Ting Mayai was part of the Red Army in the Second Civil war that started in 1983 and lasted till 2005. In the early 1980s, the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) recruited and trained boys as young as 12. The child soldiers were called the Red Army. In 2013, the Red Army Foundation (RAF) was formed, an organisation dedicated to addressing social problems, especially among its own former members and South Sudan’s youth. Mayai, a member of the Red Army Foundation, now holds a PhD in Sociology and is a Director of Research at the Sudd Institute and an Assistant Professor at the University of Juba’s School of Public Service. Andreea Campeanu/Al Jazeera
Children walk outside the POC in Juba, South Sudan, home to more than 40,000 people. [Andreea Campeanu/Al Jazeera]

Children walk outside the POC in Juba, South Sudan, home to more than 40,000 people. Andreea Campeanu/Al Jazeera
A 16-year-old boy who was a bodyguard in the opposition group South Sudan National Liberation Movement (SSNLM) plays football outside the transit center ran by World Vision and UNI. [Andreea Campeanu/Al Jazeera]

A 16-year-old boy who was a bodyguard in the opposition group South Sudan National Liberation Movement (SSNLM) plays football outside the transit center ran by World Vision and UNI. Andreea Campeanu/Al Jazeera
A boy who was in an armed group learning carpentry at a vocational training center ran by UNICEF outside the city of Yambio. [Andreea Campeanu/Al Jazeera]

A boy who was in an armed group learning carpentry at a vocational training center ran by UNICEF outside the city of Yambio. Andreea Campeanu/Al Jazeera

Originally from Bentiu, this young man fled in December 2013 when the conflict broke out in his town. He went to a smaller town called Mayom, where the war had not reached yet. There he wanted to keep on going to school. But in April 2014, when he was 14, government soldiers came to the town and took him away. 'I was forced to be a soldier. Many people were taken that day. I knew that they were there looking for new recruits'. He was taken for training with other young men, to a military camp. 'They would beat up those who resisted'. After he managed to escape, he made his way to Juba, where he now lives. He last heard from his parents and brothers three years ago. 'War creates a lot of destruction, war kills people, he says. You are going backwards. But I hope that with studying, I can make progress.' [Andreea Campeanu/Al Jazeera]

Originally from Bentiu, this young man fled in December 2013 when the conflict broke out in his town. He went to a smaller town called Mayom, where the war had not reached yet. There he wanted to keep on going to school. But in April 2014, when he was 14, government soldiers came to the town and took him away. ‘I was forced to be a soldier. Many people were taken that day. I knew that they were there looking for new recruits’. He was taken for training with other young men, to a military camp. ‘They would beat up those who resisted’. After he managed to escape, he made his way to Juba, where he now lives. He last heard from his parents and brothers three years ago. ‘War creates a lot of destruction, war kills people, he says. You are going backwards. But I hope that with studying, I can make progress.’ Andreea Campeanu/Al Jazeera
The one-month-old baby girl of a mother, 16, who was held by rebel soldiers, is sleeping on a mat in their compound, outside Yambio. The mother was made a second wife for one of the soldiers, but other men were sleeping with her, too. She doesn’t know who the father is, but she loves the child. “My grand-mother welcomed me when I came back, and the child when she was born. But some neighbors were scared. They said I had the mindset of the people in the bush. I was made to kill and maybe I would do it again”. She’s learning tailoring but after, would like to go back to primary school. She says till today, she doesn’t dare to go back to the fields because she’s scared of being abducted again. [Andreea Campeanu/Al Jazeera]

The one-month-old baby girl of a mother, 16, who was held by rebel soldiers, is sleeping on a mat in their compound, outside Yambio. The mother was made a second wife for one of the soldiers, but other men were sleeping with her, too. She doesn’t know who the father is, but she loves the child. “My grand-mother welcomed me when I came back, and the child when she was born. But some neighbors were scared. They said I had the mindset of the people in the bush. I was made to kill and maybe I would do it again”. She’s learning tailoring but after, would like to go back to primary school. She says till today, she doesn’t dare to go back to the fields because she’s scared of being abducted again. Andreea Campeanu/Al Jazeera
An older woman with a family member at her home in Yambio. She welcomed into her home three of her grand-daughters who were kidnapped and held by a rebel group. [Andreea Campeanu/Al Jazeera]

An older woman with a family member at her home in Yambio. She welcomed into her home three of her grand-daughters who were kidnapped and held by a rebel group. Andreea Campeanu/Al Jazeera

Y, 18, in his home in the POC in Juba, where he has been living since January 2018. He was going to school in Malakal when the war started. He fled to a village in Fangak where his family is originally from. 'When the enemy attacked us, I decided to join because I was angry. They killed old people, children, disabled people who could not escape. One of my cousins was killed. I knew that if they reach our village, they would kill my family, destroy our properties. I thought, it's better if I die fighting them then let them kill my parents.' At the beginning of this year, he asked to go to Juba. 'I didn't want to be there anymore. The soldiers on both sides, it's not them, they could shake hands. But the big people make them fight.' [Andreea Campeanu/Al Jazeera]

Y, 18, in his home in the POC in Juba, where he has been living since January 2018. He was going to school in Malakal when the war started. He fled to a village in Fangak where his family is originally from. ‘When the enemy attacked us, I decided to join because I was angry. They killed old people, children, disabled people who could not escape. One of my cousins was killed. I knew that if they reach our village, they would kill my family, destroy our properties. I thought, it’s better if I die fighting them then let them kill my parents.’ At the beginning of this year, he asked to go to Juba. ‘I didn’t want to be there anymore. The soldiers on both sides, it’s not them, they could shake hands. But the big people make them fight.’ Andreea Campeanu/Al Jazeera
O, 16, from Leer, is reading in a makeshift home belonging to a family member in the Protection of Civilians site (POC) in Bentiu, where he''s been living for the last two years. He was outside the POC to buy charcoal, when he was abducted by soldiers and taken away in a pick-up car. 'There were only women and older men with me then, so they only took me. They tied me up and told me I was going to fight for them'. Next to Bentiu town, he stayed with about 40 other young men. 'We were told we were going to fight the rebels. They said we'd have the guns, so that the people would give us money and that the cattle we could take would be ours'. After about 10 days, he escaped and made his way back to the POC. He says he doesn't dare to go out of the perimeter since he was abducted. [Andreea Campeanu/Al Jazeera]

O, 16, from Leer, is reading in a makeshift home belonging to a family member in the Protection of Civilians site (POC) in Bentiu, where he”s been living for the last two years. He was outside  POC to buy charcoal, when he was abducted by soldiers and taken away in a pick-up car. ‘There were only women and older men with me then, so they only took me. They tied me up and told me I was going to fight for them’. Next to Bentiu town, he stayed with about 40 other young men. ‘We were told we were going to fight the rebels. They said we’d have the guns, so that the people would give us money and that the cattle we could take would be ours’. After about 10 days, he escaped and made his way back to the POC. He says he doesn’t dare to go out of the perimeter since he was abducted. Andreea Campeanu/Al Jazeera
'We see depression, anxiety. They have intrusive thoughts that come back. That can be triggered by something happening, but of which they have no control. That can affect their functionality,' says Rayan Fattouch, mental health specialist working in Yambio with Doctors Without Borders (MSF). [Andreea Campeanu/Al Jazeera]

‘We see depression, anxiety. They have intrusive thoughts that come back. That can be triggered by something happening, but of which they have no control. That can affect their functionality,’ says Rayan Fattouch, mental health specialist working in Yambio with Doctors Without Borders (MSF). Andreea Campeanu/Al Jazeera
Former rebel commander Abel Matthew Mbarza, now part of the govenrment forces, at his compound in Yambio. According to the UN, there are still 19,000 children in armed forces in South Sudan, a number contested by the army. [Andreea Campeanu/Al Jazeera]

Former rebel commander Abel Matthew Mbarza, now part of the govenrment forces, at his compound in Yambio. According to the UN, there are still 19,000 children in armed forces in South Sudan, a number contested by the army. Andreea Campeanu/Al Jazeera

Source – Al Jazeera

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