South Sudan: children giving up their guns to go to school

The release of an estimated 2000-3000 children from an armed faction in South Sudan began today in Greater Pibor, in the eastern part of the country. Saudamini Siegrist, Senior Adviser for Child Protection in Emergencies at UNICEF, recently travelled to the country to assist with the preparations for the release. She sat down with UNICEF Connect to share some of her experiences.

Q) What is the background to this moment?
The release of children from the South Sudan Democratic Army – Cobra Faction (SSDA-CF) is happening against the backdrop of an armed conflict. Since the conflict broke out in December 2013, thousands of children have been recruited to take part in the fighting. Currently an estimated 12,000 children are associated with armed forces and armed groups throughout the country.

The release of children is part of a peace agreement between the Cobra Faction and the SPLA Government forces, signed in May 2014. The agreement commits to the integration of the Cobra Faction with the Government forces and is conditional on the release of all children – anyone below the age of 18. The Government and the armed group are now living up to that agreement.

Q) What is UNICEF’s role?
UNICEF’s role – together with our partners – is to support the release and reunification of children with their families and the longer term reintegration of children into their communities. This work is part of the campaign ‘Children Not Soldiers’, launched in March 2014 by the Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict, Leila Zerrougui, and UNICEF.

Its objective is to end and prevent all recruitment and use of children, in particular by government armed forces, as well as armed groups. South Sudan is part of that campaign and the SPLA Government forces have signed and entered into an action plan with the UN. This work forms part of that action plan.

Q) What does the release process look like?
The release will take place in 5 locations in the Greater Pibor Administrative Area. At the point of release, children will be handed over to the National Disarmament, Demobilisation and Reintegration Commission and UNICEF, and each child will be registered, including their identifying information, such as name, age and home village. That documentation will be used for family tracing. The children will be given clothing and food and provided with medical care, as needed, as well as psychosocial support.

While the family tracing is underway the children will stay in a compound with an interim care centre, until they are reunified with family members. In this case, the group is part of the community so most of the children know where their families are living. In some cases it will take more time to locate family members or extended family and to arrange for the reunification.

Q) What are some of the challenges that we expect on the way?
Most of the children have been with the group now for two to four years and many were recruited when they were only 10 or 11 years old. So it will take time for them to adjust. To assist with the first phase of this process UNICEF and partners will provide a range of services, as mentioned, medical care, psychosocial support, life-skills training, peer-to-peer support and recreational activities.

At the heart of their reintegration is the return to school. When we spoke with the children we found that very few had ever been to school as the Pibor area has had very little access to services such as education or health care. Pibor is difficult to reach, and roads are impassable during the rainy season.

In the Cobra faction the children who have been recruited – as far as we’ve been able to determine – are boys. Girls have not been recruited as combatants and do not seem to have been used for support services, which is something we have seen in other situations where children have been recruited.

However, girls will be involved through the community reintegration programme. Enrolment in school and participation in vocational training will be set up to provide for the children who were recruited as well as other vulnerable children in the community. One of the challenges that the children who were recruited will face in going back is their relationship with the community. Since the Cobra Faction is a community group they were not used to commit violations against their families and communities. However they will need to adjust to civilian life and to very different challenges.

The programme reaches out to the community as a whole and the school becomes a school for all the children, acting as a unifying force. The vocational programme will also include children from the community who will benefit from the same opportunities. In this way the children are able to build bonds and friendships, helping them adjust.

Q) Tell us more about this excitement around going to school?
The idea of going to school for the first time is something that’s very exciting for the children. But it will also be challenging to make that shift from their life in the armed group to a schoolroom. When I met them they had a lot of questions about that and you could see that they were anxious, and a little nervous. But mostly there’s a lot of excitement. The desire that they have to go to school is very intense and they have expectations. It’s important that the children are informed and consulted throughout the process so that their expectations are realistic and become a source of strength as they move forward with their lives.

One of the young boys I spoke with was especially motivated for his return to school. He was so anxious to begin his studies and repeatedly asked that we hurry and open the school. The programme will have a livelihoods component that will be providing livestock – for example, goats or chickens – for the children to take care of and to contribute to their family’s welfare. But this young boy didn’t want anything to do with that. He only wanted to study. After school he said he would study, and on his vacation he would study. He said that he wants to become a doctor.

It’s important to emphasize that working to help create a future for these children doesn’t happen all at once, it will take years. UNICEF is in it for the long run. The programme runs for a minimum of 18 months to 2 years. It takes that long to not only initiate but to integrate. And it’s absolutely necessary to prevent the risk and vulnerability of re-recruitment.

Q: How do you go about providing an education when there are so few foundations?
Getting the schools ready will take some time. Currently there are no schools operating in the communities of Pibor so they will be established, together with life-skills training and vocational training opportunities. Preparing the classrooms and the schools themselves, finding the teachers, providing teacher training – all of that will happen in the coming months.

One of the important preparations for the programme and the return to school is making sure that the children have the physical provisions that they need – like food. In addition to the local partners who will take ownership of the programme within the communities, we’re also in partnership with a number of other agencies. One of them is the World Food Programme (WFP) and they’ll be providing the food in the interim care centres; home rations for the children; and food in the schools and vocational training programmes. We’ll also be working on the vocational training component which, as I mentioned, is being planned in consultation with the children.

Q) How do you determine what the children are interested in?
One of the things we did in Pibor was to speak with the children about what they want to do and their concerns. That helps us to tailor our response and to manage their expectations, and to address their concerns and needs. A lot of them were thinking about what they want to do and how they want to help their communities. I mentioned we’ll be providing the children with small livestock – goats or chickens – to help them contribute to their families and to give them a sense of responsibility.

Other potential vocational opportunities that are being identified include things like carpentry, mechanics, agriculture, fishing, tailoring and start-up businesses for both boys and girls, and the possibility to work in small IT projects, for example maintenance for mobile phones or even, at a later date, an internet cafe.

The children I spoke with, expressed strongly the desire to leave behind the soldier’s life. One the boys – who said he was 16 years old but looked much younger – said to me “see my size and the size of my gun? It’s no good.” They’re especially impatient to go to school – to give up their guns in order to go to school. That message came through loud and clear.

This blog was originally published by UNICEF