YAMBIO, SOUTH SUDAN — More than 200 South Sudanese child soldiers were freed Tuesday at a ceremony in Bakiwiri, near the city of Yambio.
Forty children dressed in military or police uniforms marched in a symbolic military parade, then laid down their weapons and removed their fatigues, as instructed by a commanding officer.
They replaced their uniforms with U.N. Mission in South Sudan-issued T-shirts emblazoned with the hashtag, “Children are not Soldiers.”
In war-ravaged South Sudan, that slogan remains a goal, not a reality. The U.N. Children’s Fund estimates that some 19,000 South Sudanese children are still being held by armed groups across the country.
Some of the children released Tuesday were abducted by the rebel South Sudan Liberation Movement, or SSLM. Others were kidnapped by SPLM (Sudan People’s Liberation Movement) In Opposition rebels and were forced into military service.
A 13-year-old boy, speaking under an alias, “Michael,” told VOA’s South Sudan in Focus he was abducted more than four years ago.
“I was abducted by five men who showed up while I was out fetching water,” he said. “They told me not to run or scream. And then they took me with them. The men belonged to the SSLM.”
During his four years of captivity, Michael said he was forced to fetch and carry water long distances, collect firewood, and cook for the rebels. He trained on wooden rifles because he was too small to carry a real gun. He was released when the SSLM rebels signed a peace deal with the government. Michael said he was integrated into the South Sudan army earlier this year.
Fifteen-year-old Asunta, who is identified by her first name only to protect her identity, was also abducted by SSLM rebels. Speaking in her native Zande, Asunta said she was taken in late 2015 during an attack by rebels on her community.
“I was going to the farm with my father when the rebels attacked. My father ran and I was captured and taken by the rebels of the SSLM,” said Asunta.
Asunta said she and other kidnapped girls were raped repeatedly by rebel commanders for months.
“In the first week I and three other girls were forced to fetch water and cook for the rebels. Then after that we were forced to be the wives of a rebel commander there,” she said.
Matthew DeCristifano, a child protection officer with UNICEF, said the U.N. children’s agency will re-screen and assess some of the children who are being released “to determine if they have any immediate and urgent needs such as requiring care arrangements or interim care.
“All the children who are screened will be assigned social workers who are going to follow up and monitor those children for the next six to 12 months depending on their individual needs,” said DeCristifano.
He said the children will also receive trauma counseling and psycho-social support to help them process what they have been through.
Tuesday’s event marks the second large release of child soldiers by the warring parties. The first took place in Yambio in early February, when more than 300 children were either returned to their families or released to UNICEF-supported care centers.