James Korok is just nineteen-years-old but has already experienced a lifetime of pain, fighting as a child soldier in the war in South Sudan.
Despite that, he is one of the lucky ones. Released by the armed forces in remote Pibor, James is back in school and earning US$60 a week after learning new tailoring skills.
“Before I joined the war, I had no ability to support my family but now I am working, I can make some clothes, like school uniforms, to help my family,” he says.
Members of the Security Council Working Group on Children and Armed Conflict are visiting South Sudan to hear from young people, like James, who have suffered immensely during the war. The Group is advocating for stronger protections and an end to gross violations, including maiming and killing, rape and sexual violence and the forcible recruitment of children into armed forces. Its work is supported by the diplomatic community in Juba through the establishment of the Group of Friends of Children and Armed Conflict.
“The war is taking a very, very big toll on the children of this country and the scar remains deep so it is very important now to turn a corner, to work very actively with the children,” says the Working Group Chair and Swedish Permanent Representative to the UN, Ambassador Olof Skoog.
Children in South Sudan are, not only, suffering from war, but also rampant intercommunal violence, including brutal incidents of cattle raiding, where many young people are killed or abducted.
“So, someone can go and get maybe a child and sell it to someone else who does not have children,” says Boma Governor, David Yau-Yau. “It has become a main business. If it gets to that situation, it is very difficult to put an end to it in one day. It requires a lot of muscle to put an end to this.”
The Governor argues that there is an urgent need for greater investment in schools and training opportunities to ensure that former soldiers can support themselves rather than turning to criminality or fighting to survive. He says it is too easy for children to be simply given school bags and books – a gift that is wasted if they have nowhere to go to learn.
“After we demobilize these children, we need to take time to change their mindset from the military set-up,” he says. “Some of them have been with the military quite a long time. If we just demobilize them in a short period and leave them as if they are already going back to their normal life within the community circle, who knows, maybe they will just go back again to the military? It becomes a vicious cycle.”
The Working Group supports the call for greater investment in reintegration programmes.
“I think you realize, when you meet these kids and you see the work that is needed to fully reintegrate them, that there are a lot of resources needed, a lot of time and patience and some of those resources, I think, are still lacking,” says Ambassador Olof Skoog. “There are still vulnerable communities there, schools are not really up and running the way they should be. So, unless you get all of that in place, some of this work will not be totally satisfactory.”
Seventeen-year-old Jimmy was forced to go into the army after his father died so he could support his family. He is shy and reluctant to say too much about his time fighting in the bush.
“Killing and so on. I have seen that if you kill someone it is not good. It is the reason I got out of the army.”
Jimmy says he’s happier now he is learning carpentry and selling chairs, tables and drums to make a living. When prodded on this because of his sad face as he speaks, he says: “I’m happy. If you just see me, I’m not smiling, but I’m smiling in my heart.”