Every big journey starts with a small step. The first such steps, crucial ones at that, towards a happy family reunion have been taken by three young boys. Abducted in 2017, they have been released, and on Friday 14 December they arrived, from Bor, in Juba on board a helicopter belonging to the United Nations Mission in South Sudan.
One stepped out on the tarmac clad in an Arsenal outfit. A second demonstrated his preference for London football rivals Chelsea. The youngest one is probably yet to have developed a team alliance, but given that the little man is already a winner Liverpool would be the logical choice.
“What happens now is that the government and Unicef (the UN Children’s Fund) will make every possible effort to trace their parents or other suitable relatives to make a family reunification possible,” explains Alfred Orono Orono, head of the peacekeeping mission’s Child Protection Unit.
Upon stepping out into the Juba afternoon sun, the rescued boys were all not only smiling and wide-eyed, but also accompanied by David Yau Yau, the governor of Boma. He is the man responsible for the significant feat of recovering them from their abductors.
Earlier in the week, Mr. Yau Yau transported the children, together with approximately 40 heads of cattle, also released from their captors, to Bor, where the cows were handed over to the governor in town, to be returned to their rightful owner as soon as possible.
In the meantime, the UNMISS Field Office in Bor took the necessary steps to provide the released children with the logistical support needed to reach Juba.
“To us, this is a great example of the collaboration and support that the UN can offer the state in its exercise of protecting children in South Sudan. Child protection is the primary responsibility of the government, but UNMISS and Unicef have the role of supporting the authorities in doing this if and when we are called upon,” Mr. Orono Orono said.
Two of the boys are believed, by David Yau Yau, to have been abducted in the Lafon area of the Eastern Equatoria region in 2017. Two of the boys speak the language of the area and have been able to provide some information leading Unicef and the government to believe that Lafon is the place to trace their parents. These two children will therefore be handed over to the authorities in Lafon.
The youngest of the boys, possibly three years old at the time of the abduction, has so far been unable to recall any information about locations or events. He is, however, believed to belong to the greater Equatoria region as well, and will therefore enjoy the joint caretaking of the governors of Jubek, Kapoeta and Torit.
In the meantime, local authorities and Unicef will initiate the long, multiple-step task of finding the parents or other relatives of the three boys.
It is a time-consuming process which involves interviewing both the children and families claiming to be theirs, and verifying whether the accounts given by both parties match or not. If the initial signs are positive, the family/families are shown photos of a large number of children, and asked to correctly identify which of them are theirs.
According to Unicef, close to 6,000 disappeared children have, in this way, been reunited with their families since the outbreak of armed conflict in South Sudan in December 2013. Another approximately 7,000 children are currently staying with foster care families while efforts to trace their true families are ongoing.
“Bringing abducted children back to their families is the responsibility of the government, and it will bring peace and harmony to our communities. Let us now forget the past and start afresh. Let us love each other and live together in peace,” said David Yau Yau.
When it comes to protecting the rights of South Sudanese children, national and local authorities can count on the continuous support of Unicef and the UN peacekeeping mission, says Alfred Orono Orono.
“We remain committed to work with the government and people of South Sudan to ensure that violations of the rights of children are halted and prevented.”