Leila Zerrougui, the UN Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict, travelled to South Sudan at the end of June to assess the impact of the conflict on children and follow-up on the implementation of the action plan signed by the Government of South Sudan to end and prevent the recruitment of children in the country’s armed forces.
In Juba, the Special Representative joined UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova to advocate for the protection of schools and the right to education, even in times of conflict.
The mission also marked the beginning of the collaborat
ion between her office and UNESCO Special Envoy, Forest Whitaker.
“I am grateful that Mr. Whitaker agreed to lend his voice to the campaign ‘Children, not Soldiers’,” said Leila Zerrougui. “This is the beginning of what promises to be a fruitful collaboration.”
The campaign, launched in March 2014 by the Special Representative and UNICEF, aims to end and prevent the recruitment and use of children by Government forces in conflict by 2016. South Sudan is one of eight countries involved in ‘Children, not Soldiers’.
Forest Whitaker discovered the plight of child soldiers while filming ‘The Last King of Scotland’ in Uganda. He decided to join forces with Ms. Zerrougui following years of commitment to the rehabilitation of child soldiers.
“Because of the work I have done in Uganda, I know that child soldiers spend years, if not their entire lives, recovering from the trauma they have experienced,” Whitaker said. “I support the campaign ‘Children, Not Soldiers’ because children should never have to live through such abuse and we need to make it clear to everyone, everywhere that a child’s place is at school, with their families and not fighting or supporting adult wars.”
In Juba, Forest Whitaker and Leila Zerrougui met with the President of the Republic of South Sudan, Salva Kiir Mayardit. They both emphasized the president’s responsibility to protect children, even in times of conflict. At a camp in a UN compound, they talked to families and children displaced by the conflict. They also travelled to Bentiu, a strategic oil hub in the north of the country that has seen intense fighting in the past few months.
The visit to Bentiu, organized by the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) and UNICEF, allowed them to witness first-hand the devastating impact of the conflict on children.
“One of the most striking aspects of our day in Bentiu was the children wearing military uniforms and carrying AK-47 that we saw and even talked to,” said Leila Zerrougui.
They visited schools looted and now used as military barracks by the SPLA. They also went to Bentiu’s hospital, the only health facility in the area, which was functioning until it was attacked in April. Whitaker and Zerrougui heard how patients were killed in their hospital beds. With malnutrition rates soaring, the clinic set up to provide medical care to children sat empty, completely looted, just like the rest of the hospital. The population lost a crucial facility at the time it is needed the most.
Bentiu has been abandoned by most of its citizens. In a few short weeks, the population of the camp set up to protect citizens at the UN base has gone from 6,000 to over 40,000. Leila Zerrougui and Forest Whitaker were able to gauge the scale of the humanitarian crisis when they visited the overcrowded camp where families and children now live in dire conditions.
“When you talk to mothers and fathers, they tell you they want peace, when you talk to children, they say they want to go back to school,” said Whitaker.
He added that it gave him hope to see that the Government of South Sudan had formally recommitted to ending the recruitment and use of children in their national security forces.
“This is the beginning of what promises to be a long road,” he said. “But is there something more important than to help children grow up away from the torment of war?”