Former child soldier’s plea: “Armed groups should not use us children”

According to the recent 2019 Humanitarian Needs Overview, there are an estimated 19,000 children associated with armed forces/armed groups in South Sudan.

Since February 2018, over a thousand children in South Sudan who were abducted and used as child soldiers were released from captivity through the National Demobilization, Disarmament & Reintegration Committee. Of this number, 752 are being supported by World Vision with comprehensive psycho-social care and support in partnership with UNICEF; the remaining cases have been taken up by other partner-NGOs.

“World Vision supports these young boys and girls reclaim their childhood, heal together with their families and demonstrate to their communities how valuable they are and how much they have to offer. We are helping take care of their minds, ensuring that they receive the appropriate mental health and psychosocial support they need”, says Vanessa Saraiva, World Vision’s Senior Advisor for Protection & Gender.

On Red Hand Day/International Day against the Use of Child Soldiers, February 12 each year, World Vision joins partners around the world to advocate for an end to the use and abuse of children in conflict. World Vision’s Country Programme Director in South Sudan, Mesfin Loha, calls for an end to the abductions and for the immediate release of all children who are still in captivity.

“World Vision’s new report, No Choice; It takes a world to end the use of child soldiersfinds many children are driven by desperation to join armed groups. This is a very sad reality that needs to end”, he says.

“We need to protect the future generation if we want lasting peace and stability in the country. We can only demonstrate this with the immediate action of freeing the children who are still being held captive by the armed groups. I call with urgency for us to give these children the chance to live in peace and learn skills to become productive citizens who will build a stronger South Sudan”, Loha appeals.

Cech*, now 20 years old, spent six months in the bush after being held captive by the armed groups. He said he is haunted by the children who were not able to escape and are still being made to do criminal acts against their will. His most horrible experiences included being made to kill and loot from villages on command.

When asked about his message to the world on behalf of child soldiers, he said, “I appeal for their release and for all children not to be used by the armed groups. We are the future of the country, we should be valued in our communities”, he says. While in the bush, Cech constantly feared if he will survive.

“We were severely beaten if we did not follow what we were ordered to do”, he shares. He was also worried that even if he managed to escape, his community might not accept him, knowing the crimes he and others were forced to do.

When he was released and provided with support, Cech’s hope was restored. He has a lot of reflection from his experience in the bush. “Many people in the communities do not value children. I feel that we are always treated as second class citizens. This needs to change and we need to be supported because we are the future of South Sudan”, he says. Cech has joined World Vision’s vocational training class on brick making and is excited to build his own house.

“We are helping them get back into school or teach them practical vocational skills. I spoke to one girl who said ‘Can I tell you my story now?’ which to me demonstrates her resilience and power in ensuring her voice is heard. These young girls and boys spoke of their desire to escape and come home to ‘wash away the bad knowledge they had in their minds’”, adds Saraiva.

World Vision’s Child Soldier Reintegration Programme, in collaboration with UNICEF in South Sudan, is focused on care and support for children associated with armed forces/armed groups (CAAFAG). This programme includes comprehensive case management, the running of two interim care centres for unaccompanied and separated children (UASC) as family tracing takes place, and vocational skills training.

*Not his real name; chose Cech as a pseudonym from his favorite football goalkeeper