Murdered innocence: easing the anguish of South Sudan’s child soldiers
19,000 kids are used as tools of war there. MSF has a programme to help them with their mental issues
“The order was to kill anything we found,” said John, a 17-year-old who was recruited by South Sudan’s government in 2016. “Some of us went to loot. Others gang-raped a woman.”
The horrors, as told to Human Rights Watch and published in February this year, didn’t end there. What the children – most of them teens, and some as young as 10 or 12 – were made to do and witness in the world’s newest country was nothing short of horrific.
“There were also those who took the children – some of them infants – by their ankles to crush their heads against the trees or any hard thing. And then civilians were taken into a house and the soldiers set it on fire. I saw it,” John told Human Rights Watch.
As a result, many children are left with post-traumatic stress disorder and deep psychological scars, and it is this situation that a Médecins Sans Frontiéres (MSF) project in South Sudan is desperately trying to deal with.
A brutal conflict has engulfed the country since December 2013, just two-and-a-half years after it became independent in July 2011. More than 300,000 people are estimated to have died in the war between government and opposition forces.
According to the United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef), there are as many as 19,000 children being used by the various forces, many of them as soldiers and tools of war. In a statement dated August 7, Unicef reported that 128 children were released from the field, taking the number released this year to more than 900.
MSF, or Doctors Without Borders, runs a mental health support programme to help these children come to terms with their experiences as they try to integrate back into their communities.
On the eve of World Mental Health Day on Wednesday, MSF spoke to Times Select about its work and the challenges these children faced.
The children, it said, are often left traumatised by their role in the conflict – separated from their families and forced into a brutal life of violence and forced labour. When they get back – if they get back – they often find their families are missing or have been killed.
“In some cases the children were beaten and sexually abused. The horrors many saw are seemingly impossible for them to forget. Many are fearful of an uncertain future. They are afraid of how they will be accepted by their communities and what will become of their lives.
“Some child soldiers do not receive a welcome return. Their former communities are often afraid to accept former child soldiers back,” MSF said.
This is what makes the mental health programme – which runs alongside other medical help offered to them and their communities – so important.
“Some of the children carry the burden of guilt,” says Carol Mwakio Wawud, an MSF psychologist operating in South Sudan. “This is not just about something they might have done while in uniform. Some still feel guilty about being captured and being taken from their families. In their minds it’s their fault.”
Making the children realise that their actions were not entirely their fault was crucial.
“We remind them that their commanders were the ones who were in charge and forced them to commit atrocities. This was a period of their life where they had no control, but now the future offers lots of possibilities.”
The programme, based in Yambio, about 350km west of the capital Juba, places a premium on making sure the children don’t feel let down, alienated and disillusioned, because this could result in them heading back to the trenches and their brutal previous lives.
“Nearly all the children want to return to a normal life and a future,” says Paul Maina, the MSF programme coordinator. “When you talk to them they all want to go to school like other kids their age. They know that it is only through education that they will be able to secure a new life.”
This year alone, 632 children have been enrolled in the programme.