“If they send us to one of the bad schools we have here in Pibor I may decide to go back to the bush,” says 14-year-old Nyichuoc.
On Thursday 17 May, Nyichuoc was one of 210 child soldiers who were released in Pibor in the Greater Jonglei area. In a single sentence she has pinpointed one the greatest challenges involved in the upcoming process of reintegrating the former child soldiers:
How can South Sudan, and humanitarian actors, make civilian life a better and more interesting alternative for former child soldiers than a precarious and vulnerable but autonomous and armed existence in the company of the armed groups they used to belong to?
“We had better food, wildlife, in the bush, and I knew that schools here are no good so I didn’t really miss that [education], either,” Nyichuoc says.
Leaving Pibor and her mother behind to join her siblings and father in Juba, where educational opportunities are better and more plentiful, is not a viable option, according to the tall and muscular teenager.
“I’m already a rebel [in the eyes of the government] so I can’t go there. I would not be safe.”
What, then, would she like to do? Having spent five years as a child soldier, Nyichuoc is determined to aim high in the next chapter of her new life.
“I want to study at one of the best schools in Kampala, because after that I want to become the governor in my state,” she explains.
She was only 9 years old when she ended up as a child soldier.
For five years she performed duties such as those of a messenger, cook, porter and, when called upon, a fighter.
“Our village was attacked, and some of us ran away. We formed a group that was loyal to the current governor. When we were in the bush, the government convinced us to come back to town. There was an agreement that they would leave us in peace, but despite that soldiers attacked us again, so we returned to the bush,” she explains.
Unlike Nyichuoc, 16-year-old Ngarchuk, also released during the event, has no parents to come back to. Both were killed during an attack on Pibor in 2014, a traumatic event that resulted in Ngarchuk “opting” for life as a child soldier.
“I had no food, no clothes and no school, so I joined the army to have something to eat. We used to attack and rob civilians to survive,” he says matter-of-factly, adding:
“The hunger disturbed us. We would go four days without food or water. Some in the group drank their own pee.”
With a lot of effort and some luck, Ngarchuk may very well end up analyzing rather than drinking urine. His dream is to become a doctor.
While their successful reintegration and futures may be uncertain, their release from armed groups (the overwhelming majority from the Sudan People’s Liberation Army In Opposition and a few from the National Salvation Front) is now a fact. Three of the new, young civilians are girls.
Negotiating the release of child soldiers is, in itself, no mean feat. A convoy of mostly Juba-based dignitaries slithering its way through the impossibly thick mud to the venue, a few kilometres from Pibor town, was testimony to the importance attributed to the festive occasion.
In a symbolic act, the now former child soldiers symbolically laid down their weapons and removed their uniforms and other military attire. What they gave up was nimbly replaced with a robust “welcome-back-to-civilian-life” kit, consisting of bags stuffed with essentials such as clothes, mosquito nets, bed linen, sleeping mats, soap, books and pens.
“Now they can be children again. They can go back to school and normal lives,” said Andrea Suley, deputy representative of the United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef).
William Deng Deng, chairperson of the National Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration Committee heading the endeavour of releasing South Sudan’s child soldiers, tempered his celebratory mood with an earnest request.
“This is the beginning of a long process. I appeal for the continuous support from our partners and donors to be able to complete this huge and crucial task,” Mr. Deng said.
A timely appeal, given the large number of ambassadors, other diplomats and donors in attendance, but it was Ms. Suley who gave voice to future commitment to the cause.
“Unicef and child protection partners on the ground will continue to invest in the children” the deputy representative promised.
General Chaplin Khamis, responsible for the child protection unit of the national Ministry of Defence, is optimistic about the quick release of all child soldiers.
“At the end of this year we want to be able to declare SPLA a child-free army. We need to put an end to this cycle of releases of child soldiers every now and then,” General Khamis said.
The different armed forces of South Sudan still have some way to go. So far in 2018, 728 child soldiers, 185 of whom were girls, have been released. That number is, however, dwarfed by Unicef estimates that an approximate 19,000 children are still serving one armed group or another.
Representing the international donor community, Alan Hamson, the Canadian ambassador to South Sudan, delivered a blunt conclusion:
“The definite demobilization of all children will only be possible when real peace has been achieved and prevails in South Sudan."
Alfred Orono Orono, head of the UN Mission’s Child Protection Unit and a former child soldier himself, emphasized the collective responsibility of giving released children a chance to fulfill their potential.
“Everyone says that the children are our future, yet the fighting continues. What we should give them to become a good future is education. I want to see this generation grow up, prosper and lead this country in the right direction.”
She may have her doubts about what South Sudan has to offer her in terms of education, but Nyichuoc still believes that other child soldiers should follow her example.
“They should quit and go to school. At least that way they will be less exposed to malaria and other diseases common in the bush.”