EMMANUEL KELE/DENG MOU
Last week, nearly two dozen children were officially released by armed groups in South Sudan’s Northern Bahr-el-Ghazal region and handed over to the National Disarmament, Demobilization, and Reintegration Commission (NDDRC).
“My heart is full of joy and my face is shining brighter than the moon,” said 17-year-old Ring Ring, one of the boys set for a return to civilian life.
The children had been captured during recent clashes between government and opposition forces in the region. They were imprisoned at military headquarters for five weeks without adequate healthcare and food.
“I was forcefully recruited in Abyei, near the South Sudanese border with Sudan,” said Ring, who was wearing a new t-shirt reading “children not soldiers” given to him by peacekeepers from the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS), who helped facilitate the hand-over in collaboration with the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and other partners. “I was trained and later deployed to the front line, where I was captured.”
After undergoing registration and verification with the demobilization commission, the children were transferred to a rehabilitation centre for trauma counseling, medical treatment, and food.
“Once they have gained some strength, the children will be held at the transit centre until their parents can tracked down,” said Oluku Andrew, child protection coordinator for the NDDRC.
According to South Sudanese law, children below the age of 18 are not authorized to enroll in military ranks and files, but this law has been blatantly ignored with impunity.
“These children were recruited against their will by opposition forces,” said Butros Bol Bol, commander of South Sudan’s People’s Defense Forces (SSPDF) in the area. “Instead of recruiting children, we should all be doing as much as we can to move the peace process along.”
Earlier this year, parties to the conflict, with the support of the peacekeeping mission, agreed on a comprehensive action plan to prevent the recruitment and use of children for fighting and to safeguard them from conflict-related violence.
“Today you have demonstrated your commitment to protecting the youth in this country,” said Irene Kumwenda, an UNMISS Child Protection Officer in Aweil. “With the signing of the revitalized peace agreement, warring factions will be able to come together to eliminate these crimes.”
The day’s atmosphere was happy and optimistic, and the children were not shy about sharing their newfound joy.
“I am ready to go back to school,” said 16-year old Peter Lual with a smile on his face.
“I appreciate what the UN and other humanitarian organizations have done for me,” said 14-year old Mustagbal Abdullahi, who will soon be rejoining his parents at the protection of civilians site in Wau.