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The mission to reclaim Sudan's lost child soldiers

By Pernille Ironside
Special For CNN
Young boys play a local boardgame in Malualkon, southern Sudan.
Young boys play a local boardgame in Malualkon, southern Sudan.
  • UNICEF child protection specialist looks at reintegration of Sudanese child soldiers
  • Lack of support services can see some children return to standing army the SLPA
  • Peace deal between SPLA, Sudanese forces called for release of all child soldiers
  • Issues include older children who do not necessarily wish to return to school
  • Sudan
  • United Nations
  • Darfur
  • Save the Children

Editor's note: Pernille Ironside is a child protection specialist for UNICEF, serving as the organization's global focal point on the use and recruitment of children by armed forces and groups. Currently based at UNICEF HQ in New York, she recently returned from a mission to Sudan to examine the agency's work at reintegrating child soldiers. Note: The names of vulnerable children have been changed in this article to protect their identities.

June 3

We arrive in the steamy small town of Awiel, with the various U.N. aircraft bringing us to this remote spot becoming progressively smaller with each segment of the trip. Now we will embark upon a multi-day road trip that will take us through three states in southern Sudan and close to the troubled areas of South Darfur in the north of Sudan.

My mission is to examine how UNICEF and its partners are supporting the release and reintegration of children associated with the Sudanese People's Liberation Army (SPLA) in southern Sudan. A former rebel group and now the standing army in southern Sudan, the SPLA fought for over 21 years with the Sudanese armed forces until a Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) was finally signed in 2005. The agreement called for the release of all "child soldiers" within the SPLA inside six months.

With 1,500 children released in the first two years, limited follow-up and services to support their transition back to civilian status meant that many children returned to the SPLA, convinced that they had no alternative. We are determined to address this challenge for these children and for the estimated 1,000 still believed in the SPLA ranks.

June 4

We set out early to Wunyik, the headquarters of SPLA Division 3. Seventy-three boys have been identified here but efforts by the Southern Sudan Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration Commission (SSDDRC) to officially register them have been difficult. The commander, a Major-General, and his Chief of Military and Political Orientation, a Brigadier-General, who we meet, claim there are no "child soldiers" here and that all were released in 2005 following orders. "Only the children of soldiers currently on the frontlines or whose fathers have died in battle are here now," we are told.

They show us a school within the sprawling military camp with over 1,300 students following primary classes under trees. The students are "SPLA children" and children from the neighboring village. After further discussion, the commanders recognize that at least 50 boys who were demobilized earlier had returned to them, but as they are now studying in the SPLA school, the commanders feel they should not be of concern to us. As we move from class to class, we can confirm that in fact a number of the children do not have parents in the army camp or in the neighboring village.

We advocate that the commanders ensure the 73 children are properly registered and remind them that it is not only child combatants who must be released from the SPLA, but also all boys and girls below the age of 18 who perform any kind of support service, such as guards, porters, cooks, and under-age girls used as "wives." We will have to follow this up closely.

Later in the day we plan to meet another brigade commander, but for some reason we arrive at an SPLA outpost in Majok, not our intended destination. The heavily-armed soldiers we encounter, having no information of our arrival, become highly agitated when we step out of our vehicles, a stark reminder of our sometimes perilous reliance on local knowledge and on the protection afforded by working under the United Nations blue flag. We quickly scan if there are any children who appear to be part of these forces as we leave; none are in sight this time.

Our nerves are on edge as we back-track on the same bumpy road. It is now three o'clock in the afternoon and we are about two hours from our base, which we have to reach before dark. We decide to persevere. Finally, we locate the commander, who welcomes us with genuine hospitality and cool drinks despite not having been informed of our visit. His attitude is refreshing and forthright, acknowledging that he transferred at least 10 children, maybe more, to the Division 3 headquarters in April. In his view there are no children remaining within his brigade and we are free to check this at any time. We will take him up on that offer.

The warm night is spent in a very simple Save The Children camp, an island in the vast desert scrub that is Malualkon. The bucket of water that is my shower feels incredibly indulgent in this dry land. A swing hangs in one of the few trees in the compound. I can't help but give it a try, wondering whether Sudanese children even know what a swing is, something that ought to be familiar child's play.

June 5

We spend the day visiting two projects that support vulnerable children, including former child soldiers, with life skills, vocational skills and schooling. The point is to see what reintegration services are already being provided in the area, and their potential for expansion.

The first is a new residential vocational training center operated by Save The Children Sweden in Malualkon. One-hundred-and-twenty-one students are learning carpentry, masonry, agriculture, tailoring and embroidery and stay here for up to nine months or so. It is a promising initiative, but I am not sure if such a residential approach could cope with the larger caseload of children that we are looking to support, or how much that would cost. The objective of these reintegration programs is to assist children within their families and communities if possible, but most rural communities in southern Sudan lack this type of opportunity.

We check out a former center nearby, which might be repaired to provide transitory care for children released from the SPLA prior to being reunited with their families. At present it is taking too long between identification of children in the armed forces and their return home; often many months pass and children just drift away. One of my recommendations will be the establishment of interim care projects such as foster families; while challenging and not cheap to provide, they can provide an essential period in the child's transition from military barracks to home life during which time we can provide critical psychosocial support, medical screening, and lifeskills training.

I use the opportunity of two hours of bumpy road to talk with our local UNICEF child protection officer about his own experiences. I had learned that he too had once been a child in the SPLA; his position now with UNICEF underlines children's resilience and potential, even following exposure to extreme violence and conflict. What better role model for advocacy with the SPLA and with children than this colleague -- his insights are invaluable and fascinating.

In Wau I visit another project managed by Save the Children UK with UNICEF support, providing classes to more than 50 children who have missed years of primary schooling, and need to get back into the regular academic program. There is also a youth club where street children and others in the community have access to counselors, recreational and lifeskills activities.

Good work is being done here, and these projects provide a solid basis upon which we can expand the program. But limitations exist in the current approach, particularly for older children who do not necessarily wish to return to school, who do not live close to a school or vocational center, or who have been supporting their families with their military salary -- providing these young people with a viable alternative to military life is a challenge.

We will have to consider small income generating activities as part of the program -- but these types of activities themselves require significant training and follow-up with implementing organizations and the government. Is southern Sudan ready for this?

June 6

Today finds us in Mapel, and the headquarters of SPLA Division 5. Here, we meet with the commander and his chief of military and political orientation. They openly confirm that there are upwards of 50 children that need to be demobilized, and want us to take them and provide them with opportunities back in their home communities. The process of registering all these children has yet to be completed, but the commander gathers as many of them as possible for us to meet, and soon about 20 children are before us in civilian clothing.

They range in age from what looks to be about 12 to 17. Speaking with them for over an hour in a small thatched shelter, they appear filled with anxiety, skepticism and questions about what will be in store for them on leaving the army. A number have been previously demobilized and, finding no support back home, returned to the SPLA. A few are orphaned, having lost either one or both parents. One boy, Martin, is particularly clever and vocal. He claims to be 20 but looks no older than 16. He doesn't believe any reintegration support will be forthcoming if he leaves the SPLA.

Yet nearly all of the children indicate they would like to go back to school if they could, preferably remaining together as a group. Their bonds run deep, no doubt forged through having lived through many difficult experiences together. One of the SPLA officers emphasizes that there is no place for children now in the new SPLA, that they will no longer receive a military salary soon and that they must return home where UNICEF and the government will support them. It is clear that for this program to succeed, it is vital to communicate regularly with these children to earn their trust and address their questions; it also means that we cannot fail them.

An hour away, in Tonj, and we meet two children formerly associated with the SPLA and now being supported to go back to school. Thirteen-year old Johnny has recently started catch-up classes and is keen to join the regular school program. He is living with a foster family and is happy. Fifteen-year old Abraham is attending primary school and lives with his uncle and extended family. He is very bright and motivated to continue his studies and has no desire to return to the military. I look at his notebook and it is impeccable; next to his neat handwriting, my own is a messy scrawl.

Still, life is not easy for Abraham. He has no money to pay the school registration fee or to buy a uniform; the family's income is very limited and I count at least 12 mouths to feed in this family. Supplementing the school fees with a small income generating activity could really go a long way toward ensuring that Abraham is not forced to drop-out of school to contribute more financially to the family.

Spending the day with children at both ends of the spectrum of this long and challenging process known as release and reintegration has provided exactly the first hand perspective I was hoping for. Together with our discussions with numerous SPLA commanders and visits to existing and potential projects for reintegration, I now have a sense of the activities and results already being delivered -- and how we can strengthen our support, particularly at the community level.

There is no simple panacea to the issue of former child soldiers - the particularities of southern Sudan must be reflected in our response, if we are to succeed in our goal of making up for so many lost childhood years, and helping these young people contribute positively to a peaceful future for southern Sudan.