Feature: Recruiting children by armed groups threatens the country’s future
Children were part of groups which roamed the country dangling Kalashnikovs over their shoulders as crisis raged in South Sudan. Now as the nation plans a peace pact which includes retraining and reforming the armed forces, key to the process is preventing further recruitment of children.
Youths under the age of 18 have been used in armed groups since the country’s civil war broke out in 2013.
Anyieth Makuei Anyieth, a former child soldier knows all about being on the battlefield at a tender age.
The 33-year-old from Bor in Jonglei State joined the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) in 1996 at the age of 11 fought for nine years and is now rebuilding his life, pursuing a degree in Business Administration at the Dr. John Garang University of Science and Technology in Bor.
He joined rebellion when his father was cut down on the battle field. While he does not regret being part of the liberation struggle for South Sudan, Anyieth is against the use of child soldiers in South Sudan.
“When you recruit young people to the army, they will not have a bright future,” Anyieth told The Dawn in an interview in Bor.
“They will only be thinking of fighting, they will be taking drugs and when children get spoiled, the country will not have progress,” he said.
While Anyieth’s experience stems from the period of the 22-year war which led to the country’s independence from Sudan, what he experienced has also been faced by children during the five-year crisis which engulfed South Sudan after independence.
Tens of thousands of people including women and children have been killed and according to UNICEF estimates, 19,000 children have been used by armed forces and armed groups in the country.
The African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child, which South Sudan is a signatory to, prohibits the use of children in battle. According to Article 22 of the Charter, children should not be recruited as soldiers, nor should they take a direct part in fighting wars.
At 15 years of age, Kuol Ajak Kuol Nyuon, was already on the battlefield and he knows too well the underlying issues on why the problem still persist in South Sudan.
He joined the fighting ranks in 2015 having run out of options during the height of the crisis.
“For me, the reason why I joined the army is because people used to be displaced from their houses,” Nyuon told The Dawn in an interview in Bor.
Nyuon was only rescued from the army by his uncle who enrolled him back in school.
While considering himself very lucky, Nyuon said many others like him are still in the fighting ranks, deprived of education and exposed to horrific experiences.
Pressure is piling on the government of South Sudan as well as the opposition groups to free up children in their ranks and rather foster their development.
According to activist David Garang Goch, socio-economic issues are pushing children into the armed groups.
“Many children joined the fighting forces because of lack of opportunities,” Goch said in Bor.
“They are deprived of education and are mostly left to support themselves.”
Engagement by civil society groups with army commanders and government representatives are helping to reduce recruitment of children.
Goch said the government must strengthen the Disarmament, Demobilization, and Reintegration (DDR) Commission in working towards ensuring children are removed from the army and as well set up vocational training centers for former child soldiers to gain livelihood skills.
Jonglei State’s Minister for Gender, Child and Social Welfare Rachel Amuor Pach said it’s in her government plans to invest in child education programs and also ensure that children in the state are better protected from recruitment.
“This [use of] child soldiers was a practice before, but now I don’t think it’s the intention for our government or even opposition forces,” Pach told The Dawn.
“I don’t think this is what we want to invest on, we want to invest in them getting education,” she said, adding “the future does not lie on guns, it lies in education: educating them to be better people, having rehabilitation programs to change their mindsets.”
Serving as a foster parent for many child soldiers during the liberation struggle, Mary Dok believes the practice traumatizes children.
“We didn’t feel happy as mothers when our children were taken away to join the army because we don’t know what will happen to them,” Dok said.
“During those days, I have seen our children eating unhealthy food which caused [them to get sick].”
Dok said the practice of recruiting children to fight in South Sudan’s internal conflicts is appalling, noting that it has a terrible impact on them, and can cause them to lose hope in life.
Chief Agot Kou Agot in Bor agreed with Mama Dok’s view, saying the recruitment of children into the army is something that prolongs violence in South Sudan.
“It’s bad to let the children join the army because the will grow up in a bad life that will make them become criminals, thieves and later they might commit other crimes that might come back to community,” Agot told The Dawn.
To help address the problem, Chief Agot said he often negotiates with fighters to rescue some of the child soldiers.
South Sudan has an entire law dedicated to the protection of children: The South Sudan Child Rights Act, 2008.
According to Article 31, “The Government shall ensure that no child shall be used or recruited to engage in any military or paramilitary activities, whether armed or un-armed, including, but not limited to work as sentries, informants, agents or spies, cooks, in transport, as labourers, for sexual purposes, or any other forms of work that do not serve the interests of the child.”
Article 32 further states: “Penalties for Recruitment of a Child into an Armed Force. Any person involved in the recruitment of a child into an armed force or use of a child in any activity set forth above, commits an offence and shall upon conviction, be sentenced to imprisonment for a term not exceeding ten years or with a fine or with both.”
However, until these laws are implemented, the future of many other children who have been recruited into armed forces hangs in the balance.