Armed groups in South Sudan freed more than 300 child soldiers Wednesday as part of a U.N.-backed program to release a total of 700 children, including some 220 girls, over the next few weeks. It is the second-largest release since civil war engulfed the young nation four years ago.
“This is the first time so many young women have been involved in a release like this in South Sudan,” said David Shearer, head of the U.N. mission in the country. “Children should not be carrying guns and killing each other. They should be playing, learning, having fun with friends, protected and cherished by the adults around them.”
More than 19,000 children have been lured into combat since the war erupted in late 2013, according to UNICEF. Armed groups, including those loyal to the government, continue to recruit child soldiers in high numbers, despite numerous ceasefires and promises from South Sudanese leaders to stop arming kids.
In a report released this week, Human Rights Watch said this ongoing defiance of international agreements underscores a pattern of impunity in the country.
“By repeatedly failing to stop these abuses against children, South Sudan’s leaders have irrevocably damaged yet another generation and need to be held accountable,” said Mausi Segun, Africa director at HRW.
HRW interviewed dozens of current and former child soldiers in late 2017. Many described being abducted at gunpoint, detained in crowded containers for weeks at a time, beaten, underfed and forced to fight. Militants coerced some boys into killing their family members, and raping women.
“The order was to kill anything we found,” one boy, who was recruited by state forces at age 17, told the organization. “Some of us went to loot. Others gang-raped a woman. There were also those who took the children ― some of them infants ― by their ankles to crush their heads against the trees or any hard thing. And then civilians were taken into a house and the soldiers set it on fire. I saw it.”
Some South Sudanese youth join the armed forces due to societal pressure, feelings of vulnerability without protection by militants, and a perceived lack of clear alternatives to survive the war, according to HRW. Others are enticed by the allure of defending their communities from enemy groups. Very few attend or return to school, and many endure sexual abuse.
“[My captors] told me to go near the road and if I heard the sound of a car coming, I went and reported it. Then they would come and take the car, they’d shoot at it, they’d burn it,” said 15-year-old Victor, one of the boys freed Wednesday. “The people inside ― sometimes they would run, other times they would die,” he told World Vision, which is helping to coordinate the releases.
Humanitarian groups including UNICEF and World Vision will help the newly liberated children rejoin their communities and families, and will provide counseling and psychosocial support to those grappling with trauma.
“Children will take part in vocational training, return to school or be linked to local trades people for apprenticeship and mentoring,” said Mesfin Loha, interim national director at World Vision South Sudan. “These initiatives will help children have the opportunity to earn income in the future and help them navigate away from returning to the conflict.”
The unrest in South Sudan has amplified the recruitment of child soldiers in the country, which had declined prior to the conflict. Rebels recruited thousands of kids to fight in the Sudanese Civil War between the central Sudanese government and the Sudan People’s Liberation Army, which lasted from 1983 to 2005. Gradual peace negotiations freed some 4,000 child soldiers by 2012.
Two years after South Sudan gained independence from Sudan in 2011, President Salva Kiir accused his former vice president of plotting a coup against his regime, triggering political violence that swiftly consumed the infant nation. Exacerbated by high-level corruption, clashes between warring rebel and government forces have expanded into a feud between ethnic groups.
In 2015, South Sudan signed the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which requires all parties to take action to “prevent the abduction of, the sale of or traffic in children.” Warring parties also signed a peace agreement that year, vowing to demobilize all child recruits into UNICEF’s custody by the end of last month. But neither side fulfilled that promise.
HRW and other humanitarian organizations have urged international organizations like the U.N. and the African Union to impose an arms embargo on South Sudan, and to sanction individuals who are complicit in the recruitment of child soldiers.
Wednesday’s release “is a crucial step in achieving our ultimate goal of having all of the thousands of children still in the ranks of armed groups reunited with their families,” said Mahimbo Mdoe, UNICEF’s representative in South Sudan. “Our priority for this group ― and for children across South Sudan ― is to provide the support they need so they are able to see a more promising future.”