“You had to do whatever they asked you to. Cook, shoot, sing, dance, anything. If you didn’t, you were thrashed.” Did he also fight? “I hated shooting. It was hard and painful. I would cry and beg them not to send me fighting. They’d beat me until I did.”
At 14, Emmanuel carried guns too large for him and cooked for soldiers in the Cobra Faction, one of multiple armed groups in South Sudan. Two years on, he has swapped his uniform for blue overalls, a helmet, and thick yellow gloves. Following his release, he is training to be a car mechanic and learning new skills, such as solar and electrical installation, welding, and metal fabrication.
The demobilisation of child soldiers — or more accurately, of children associated with armed groups, as they would often carry out menial tasks for fighters — is a constant effort wrought with complexities. As one of the EU’s major humanitarian partners, UNICEF plays a vital role in negotiating the release of children with armed groups.
In 2018, more than 900 children — almost one-third of them girls — were demobilised in South Sudan. One of them was Rima*. She was barely a teen and a student at the primary school in Yambio when armed men entered the town and began seizing children. Today, at the age of 17, she studies tailoring at a vocational training centre.
“I can say that I’m at my happiest now,” said Rima. “When I was in the bush there was nothing to look forward to. I hope that I will be able to support my family by making clothes.” Her time with the armed group was one of terrible suffering, having endured assaults that left her caring for two children.
The majority of civilian victims of conflict in the world are children. Consequently, the majority of EU humanitarian aid beneficiaries are minors and almost €100 million of the 2017 humanitarian aid budget was devoted to child protection. In times of conflict, children are easy prey. The EU and its humanitarian partners try to prevent child recruitment through a wide range of activities including education, awareness-raising within communities, and advocating with parties to the conflict.
Nonetheless, an estimated 19,000 South Sudanese children continue to serve in the ranks of armed groups. A recent peace agreement set to end the five-year civil war in the country is yet to deliver on a mass demobilisation. However, the story does not end there. After the challenge of releasing the children comes the even bigger test of reintegration.
Finn Church Aid (FCA), another EU partner, has teamed up with the South Sudanese organisation GREDO (Grassroots Empowerment & Development Organisation) to offer former child soldiers a better future. They teach them carpentry and how to make leather accessories.
One of the trainees, Iħilħoch, carried ammunition to the front line for the older boys. “I don’t remember how old I was, but my family and community were threatened by war,” he said. “I saw a lot of killing.”
The aim of the project is to provide these youngsters with a livelihood while helping them to process the past.
“My parents cried when I came back. They were so afraid for me. Now my thoughts of peace are stronger than the images of the past. I would rather become a doctor and help people.”
Successful reintegration depends on many factors. It begins with family reunification and access to healthcare, and includes psychosocial support and care for victims of sexual violence.
Nur, another trainee, was 11 when he was taken away from his village. “There was no escaping. I saw a lot of death and when you’ve been through that, you sometimes feel numb,” he said.
“When we were freed, our parents supported us, but everyone else was a bit afraid and distant. For me, education is the most important thing. My future depends on it.”
Schools provide a protective environment and can restore a sense of normality to children scarred by war. Tailored programmes can help young people catch up on education or learn a trade. “We must think about the impact of humanitarian crises on children, on the next generation. This is why a record 10 percent of the 2019 EU humanitarian aid budget, 10 times more than in 2015, is dedicated to education in emergencies, so we can first give children protection against violence and forced recruitment and secondly the tools to build a better future,” said Christos Stylianides, Commissioner for Humanitarian Aid and Crisis Management.
The number of refugees coming from South Sudan is such that the country ranks third, behind Syria and Afghanistan in terms of people fleeing for safety. Refugee camps in neighbouring Kenya, Uganda, and Sudan are full of children who fled the threat of violence, abuse, and forced recruitment.
The increased share of the EU budget earmarked for education in emergencies will step up programmes in refugee-hosting countries. In Uganda, INCLUDE, the brainchild of four NGOs under the leadership of Save the Children, already helps teachers like David acquire methods to teach children who have missed parts of their formal education.
David teaches social studies and English at the Rhino camp where he himself was a refugee child 23 years ago. He returned as an adult, bringing his family and children to safety. Around 5 percent of refugee children in Uganda are unaccompanied. “They are alone and it’s hard for them to stay in school,” said David. “Some are traumatised after losing their parents or other bad things had happened to them. School is important to help them forget the bad things.”
By Anouk Delafortrie, European Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations (ECHO) with contributions and excerpts from UNICEF (Tim Irwin, Pavithra Rangan), Finn Church Aid, and Save The Children (Alun McDonald).