JUBA, South Sudan — After decades of unrest and civil war, South Sudan gained its independence from the North in July of 2011. This was heralded as a resolution that would hopefully put an end to the ethnic fighting that has claimed the lives of hundreds of thousands. Unfortunately, the hopeful optimism was short lived, as the South Sudanese government has once again found itself in a state of turmoil. This newest onset of fighting erupted in December of 2013, when President Salva Kiir accused former Vice-President Riek Machar of attempting a coup. This has resulted in many rival militias and factions vying for control.
UNICEF estimates that there are approximately 750,000 children who have been displaced, separated or orphaned by the conflict. As over 60 percent of the country is under the age of 18, there has been an increase of recruitment for child soldiers. Despite both Kiir and Machar jointly signed a law prohibiting the use of child soldiers in 2008, all sides have been accused of abusing this rule. Based on UNICEF estimates, there are over 12,000 children fighting for government forces and various other rebel groups. Seeking belonging and protection, these children are often the most susceptible and are in the most danger. Militant groups target children and manipulate them to work in a variety of capacities such as soldiers, messengers and spies.
Much of UNICEF’s current efforts in South Sudan are focused on negotiating with the various factions toward the release of child soldiers. Since January, the Cobra Faction, a rebel militia, has agreed to free almost 2,000 children. It is estimated, however, that this group still holds around 3,000 child soldiers. However, the Cobra Faction is one of many of a multitude of groups, and while this is an instance of success, their reintegration into civilian life presents an entirely new challenge altogether.
The physical destruction and loss of life in South Sudan is substantial. However, a perhaps more discrete damage can also be inflicted, and is especially prevalent among children.
“When one thinks of health needs in a conflict situation – and this applies to children and adults – there is a tendency to think of war injuries… But it’s important to recognize the threat posed by psychosocial trauma,” says Dr Robin Nandy, a Senior Health Advisor for UNICEF.
UNICEF, in collaboration with other nongovernmental organizations, is working to develop reintegration programs. For example, World Vision is working in South Sudan to identify the needs of these children and determine how best to serve them. World Vision finds that there are five crucial aspects of reintegration: safety, skills training, education, basic needs such as shelter, food, and water, and healthcare. An additional component of reintegration is an emotional outlet where children can be heard and tell their story.
In 2014, World Vision conducted 11 discussion groups with 160 children in three different age groups. The age groups were 5-8, 9-13, and 14-18. While the sample size was small, common themes quickly emerged among the interviews. The responses consistently mentioned a return to school, to their families and to a state of normalcy, absent of fear or violence. After committing terrible atrocities, acceptance back into their families and society can be an obstacle.
“When talking about a whole person, you need to address everything a person needs. They need food, counseling, to be accepted back into their community, economic development…” insists World Vision’s Jackson Omona.
Omona is a peace building and protection expert stationed in South Sudan. Between 2003 to 2005, he oversaw the rehabilitation of 1,500 Ugandan children formerly involved with Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army. In over two decades, Omona and his team have worked to rehabilitate over 15,000 African children. The combined efforts of UNICEF, World Vision and many other like-minded organizations can hopefully continue to make a similar impact in the volatile new country.